My big, curly, natural hair has become a defining quality of mine. It’s the first thing people notice when they meet me, the first compliment I receive, and the feature my friends would use to describe me. My hair has become part of my identity. It is synonymous with my name. It is important to note, however, that the journey to getting to a place in which I felt comfortable – let alone confident- to wear my natural curly hair with pride was a tiresome one.
My hair has become part of my identity.
I spent much my childhood like most people in my community – being told that my natural hair was too coarse, bushy, and big to be accepted. Due to the troubling and racialized past of South Africa during Apartheid, being accepted and successful in my society as a non-white person was strictly dependent on appearance. Or, how well you passed as white.
I began straightening my hair when I was very young, and even relaxing it on occasion. I did this until my hair became fine, bone-straight, and ‘good,’ which is the ideal in my community. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear in communities like mine that those born with naturally straight hair are somewhat superior – or at least they believe they are. This is mostly due to internalized notions that beauty and superiority are in close proximity to whiteness.
Eventually, I couldn’t take the pulling and stretching of my hair any longer. By age 16, I rebelled against the norm. I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and read articles online centered on how to take care of my curly hair until I felt sure enough. Although at that point my hair was already damaged and dry, I was proud that I had taken this step to embrace all of me.
The reactions from my community were not so sure.
Although at that point my hair was already damaged and dry, I was proud that I had taken this step to embrace all of me.
On one side, I was praised and complimented. On the other, I was accosted about my decision and instead told “your straight hair was so pretty.” This made me wonder, what is the real issue with having curly and kinky hair?
Hair and politics have always been intertwined. White slaveowners referred to enslaved people’s hair as wool, thereby associating them to animals, and shaved their heads to suppress their cultural identity. The tignon law of 1786 forced women of color in the state of Louisiana to hide their hair under headdresses because they drew the attention and attraction of white men. It was basically a law to protect the fragile white women’s social status and to return women of color to a subordinate status. However, women of color triumphantly turned the tignon into a fashion statement.
People of color who wear their natural hair, locs, or braided hairstyles are often discriminated against in the workplace. Even schools today still have dress codes which regulate natural hair, hairstyles, and textures because they are seen as ‘untidy’ and ‘unprofessional’. In some ways, the U.S. is taking strides to ban hair discrimination, but it is not nearly enough. In 2019, California signed the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act into law, which protects people from discrimination against hair both in the workplace and public schools. New York City has also banned hair discrimination in public schools by amending the Human Rights Law and Dignity for All Students Act to include that racism includes discrimination against hair, hairstyles, and texture. However, many other states in the U.S. are yet to take a stand against hair discrimination.
However, many other states in the U.S. are yet to take a stand against hair discrimination.
In South Africa, during Apartheid, the infamous pencil test was used to determine a person’s race. If your hair was able to hold a pencil in it while you shook your head, you could not be classified as white. This tore families apart since different family members could have differently textured hair. The pencil test is a troubling example of the politics of hair. Not only did it weaponize hair textures as a tool of segregation, but it also created an environment in which people of color were ashamed of the texture of their hair. Those with coarser and kinkier hair types were deemed inferior to those with straight and fine hair. Therefore, the model for acceptance and freedom in society was to be more white in every aspect, including hair texture.
For me, this brought on the realization that my community was simply indoctrinated to believe that the kinks and curls in mine and others hair made us inferior. Hair was and still is racialized. It exists in racist ideologies that determine the value of a person from their appearance.
In embracing my natural hair, I decided upon an active rejection of a culture that has been infused with white-dominance.
Hair was and still is racialized.
That said, embracing natural hair is more than just simply wearing your hair un-straightened. It is about the unlearning of generational notions which dictate the violent ideology that white features and values are somehow superior. It is about resisting the rejection and discrimination you will probably face by a Eurocentric world. It is racial. It is gendered. It is a real lived experience. And it is political.
Most importantly, how you wear your hair should be a personal decision. Whether it is straightened, in a wig or weave, or worn naturally. The freedom to choose and not be influenced by society’s standards of beauty or acceptance is radical.
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