As a woman of mixed Jamaican and Caucasian heritage, I’ve experienced both pleasures and burdens of having “natural hair” for 25 years. Throughout that time I’ve hated it, I’ve hidden it, I’ve straightened it and I’ve embraced it. Embracing my natural hair required large doses of self-reflection, self-confidence and self-love.
Embracing my natural hair also gave me more confidence and pridefulness. Although, it also unearthed many of the things that I was trying to avoid. I receive judgmental stares and comments. Random people feel they have the right to touch my hair. I have to ensure my hairstyle is “professional” during the week. I even have to regulate how “extreme” my hairstyles are outside of work due to the less than diverse community that I live in. Perhaps there is a degree of irrational paranoia or insecurity, but that fear had to have come from somewhere. Therefore, I’m now left wondering: what is so radical about natural hair?
Natural hair is a term used in the African-Caribbean community, generally referring to hair that retains its afro texture or is free of any chemical alterations. Growing up during the late 90s/early 00s, I don’t recall any representation of natural hair in pop-culture. I wanted to be like Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera. None of whom possessed or rocked natural hair. Today, natural hair is much more prevalent and accepted on mainstream platforms. But, discrimination still persists. It persists in the workplace. It persists in schools. Quite, frankly, it persists walking down the street.
When going to an interview for a new job, the first thing I think about is how I should wear my hair. I won’t wear it in a “natural” afro because that would be too shocking. I won’t wear a head wrap because that would be considered too “ethnic”. Finally, I conclude that a small bun is most appropriate. Any unkempt frizz or kinks are safely tucked away. You may be thinking, “this lady is definitely paranoid”, but I’m not alone. The ‘Good Hair’ study heard similar stories and found that natural hair can be a career liability.
Schools across the world are contributing to this discrimination from a young age. Girls have been told to “fix” their natural hair at Pretoria High School in South Africa. Girls at C R Walker Senior High School in the Bahamas were told their afros were “untidy”. A 3rd grader at Faith Christian Academy in Texas was bullied for her afro hairstyle and advised to straighten or cut it by administration. These are just a few examples.
Hair issues may seem superficial but this is not just an issue about hair. We need to be conscious of the history behind the discrimination. When Africans were sold into slavery, there was a distinct difference between the appearance of blacks and europeans. The europeans had smooth, straight hair and were considered classy and more advanced. The european look was a sign of superiority and later, it became a sign of African-American identity. Therefore, a market for products that straightened and “tamed” kinky hair was born. The more european you looked, the more successful and respectful you appeared. Evidently, this mindset (and what Ibram X Kendi would term a “racist idea”) is still here today. Whether we are conscious of it or not.
When I daydream about whipping my hair like Beyonce in ‘Crazy in Love’, I like to remember what Marcus Garvey said: “do not remove the kinks from your hair- remove them from your brain”. Our self-love has to be stronger and louder than mainstream ideals that recycle racist ideas.
Now that I have two young children looking to me for guidance, it is even more important for me to continue loving myself and to continue removing the kinks from my brain. The natural hair movement is more than just hair, it’s an acceptance of self. Our children learn from the people around them. If society is not ready to fully embrace “kinkiness” in all its beautiful forms, at least we can teach the people around us the power of self-love. It’s radical.
Can you imagine a world where we are all fully embraced and celebrated for our natural selves? What will it take to get there? Or, is it too radical?
Artwork by Paola Molano