My hair is an event. When I worked at an ad agency, each change, from Fulani braids to bantu knots to weaves, would come with an onslaught of very big reactions and questions, which I usually welcomed. Outside of the workplace, my hair texture makes national news. And within the Black community, the way I style my hair and my texture du jour are sometimes used as a way to categorize me or size me up. As the co-founder of Un-ruly, a site dedicated to Black hair and women, the conversations around these various responses are frequent. In fact, I recently hosted a discussion (with the support of Smooth ‘N Shine) for Un-ruly where I asked 12 Black women — six with natural hair and six with chemically straightened hair — if Black hair could ever just be hair.
I wasn’t surprised by the answers. Some were optimistic: Yes, it could just be hair over time, but not yet. Most were pessimistic. I, meanwhile, fell among the “not yet” school of thought.
I came to this conclusion following the 2016 Superbowl, during which Beyoncé led a troop of Black women in a parade of Black American culture and resistance. The squad was dressed in black leather and black berets. Most importantly, they had kinky hair. Front and center of the troops was their leader: a Black woman with long, blond, wavy hair.
I wrote about Beyoncé’s performance and what the choice of hairstyles meant. The Civil Rights Movement made the afro a political symbol. Members of the Black Panther Party sported afros as an overt way of rejecting European standards of beauty. So in 2016, while channeling the Black Panthers, Beyoncé’s conspicuous lack of an afro made a big statement, which led me to conclude that because of the history of Black hair in America, there is no hairstyle a Black woman can wear without sending a message. And because of the ties between hair and race, we’re stuck in this limbo of being both advocates for and traitors to Black culture when it comes to our hair. It’s why, even in 2018, I sometimes feel a little guilty when I choose to wear my hair straight or conspicuous when I wear it natural.
Black hair comes in a cornucopia of textures and styles, but over time people within and outside of our community have come to associate certain values with certain styles and textures. Stereotypes associated with natural hair include being earthy and bohemian, unprofessional, woke, pro-Black and/or militant. Relaxed hair or weaves are associated with being superficial, bougie and everyone’s favorite: self-hating. For Black hair to be a non-event, we’d have to rid it of its associations — within the community and outside of it — but doing so would also mean erasing critical parts of our history.
The stereotypes around natural and relaxed hair are gross generalizations, but they are reflective of historical and present-day power structures in the U.S. as well as deviations from those structures over time. They’re also, like many stereotypes, a result of who has had the ability to tell certain stories. When it comes to power structures, natural hair’s association with unprofessionalism is rooted in a long history of Black hair being considered unacceptable in America by those who held power — from slaves having to shave, braid or cover their hair, to news anchor Melba Tolliver being told she couldn’t appear in a live broadcast while wearing her hair in an afro. Meanwhile, relaxed hair’s association with being “bougie” may come from the images and people we associate with wealth (typically white people), as well as the cost that goes into getting one’s hair straightened and maintaining it, not to mention adding extensions to it. The self-hate stereotype stems from the notion, likely popularized by Malcolm X, that Black people who straighten their hair have internalized beauty standards that are intrinsically biased towards Eurocentric physical attributes.
Then we have the deviations. As mentioned, the Civil Rights Movement (a call for equality and thus a call for a power shift) is largely responsible for “militarizing” the afro, hence today’s associations with natural hair as militant.
On top of that, there are relatively new stereotypes, like how women with natural hair are boho/earthy or “natural hair nazis” (a term often used within the online Black hair community) who use a lot of hair product. These new stereotypes likely come from the hundreds of videos on YouTube created by self-proclaimed “product junkies.” Natural haircare routines can be simple, but the extensive ones have become something we joke about within the Black hair community. (When perusing the web, more often than not you’ll find day-long washing routines or routines that require some sort of week-long maintenance.)
I say all of this not to suggest that these stereotypes and associations are grounded in truth, but to show that when we’re talking about Black hair, we’re rarely ever just talking about hair. On some level, we’re really talking about power. As long as power and the social construct of race remain tightly intertwined, what we’ve accepted to be indicators of race — e.g., skin color and hair texture — will be used to exert power or to take it back.
Even within the Black community, when we judge each other for our textures or hairstyles, it’s a way of propping ourselves up through a group we identify with (our in-group) versus one we’re not a part of (an out-group). And doing so is part of being human. A Psychology Today article about the origin of stereotypes cited in-group/out-group dynamics as one possible source of stereotypes: “[H]umans, like other species, need to feel that they are part of a group … We want to feel good about the group we belong to — and one way of doing so is to denigrate all those who aren’t in it.”
Meanwhile, America has a long history of denigrating various aspects of Blackness, our hair included. But now we’re in a moment where power is shifting, and in many ways, hair is one of the tools being used to instigate that shift — in the workplace, in schools, on the runway, in media. Even though — from what I’ve seen through writing about Black hair for half a decade now — many of today’s naturals didn’t go natural for political reasons, their choices have political impact because they’re helping to normalize natural hair in spaces in which it previously wasn’t seen.
The same goes for Black women with straight hair or blond, wavy hair (grown, dyed or bought). The context of their choice has changed. Straight hair is no longer something that’s required in order to assimilate, and with the continued growth of the natural hair movement, it’s not necessarily a choice that certain groups within our community positively sanction. The Internet (especially YouTube) is riddled with commenters who criticize Black women for straightening their hair or wearing extensions. So Black women who wear their hair straight or altered despite being judged are engaging in yet another form of resistance — one that shows that, given our history, altered Black hair is part of the fabric of Black hair, too. It’s one of the many choices we’re free to make about our hair, and like other hair choices, it sends a message.
So to answer my own question once again: No, Black hair can’t “just” be hair…yet. History, racial power dynamics and politics won’t currently allow it. And to me, that’s okay. It’s okay because I see the cultural weight Black hair carries as a feature and not a flaw, a superpower that we can unleash at will. I like that we can use our hair to instigate change and challenge previously accepted notions of beauty and race. I like that we can use it to send a message or to connect with each other through shared hair trials and tribulations. Given that it’s so easy to be “normal,” to be unremarkable and blend in, I like that when I do feel like being noticed, I can make my hair do remarkable things. Our hair defies gravity after all; why wouldn’t people be awed? Of course, there are downsides to all of this. Heavy is the head, right? But until we’re able to strip the idea of race of its power, I like being naturally equipped with a feature that lets me exert mine.
Photos courtesy of Antonia Opiah.