Can I touch it? Erm… : The Hair Conversations and the Politicisation of Black Hair

“Can I touch it?”, “Oh my God, your hair is so nappy!!”, “Wow *awkwardly smiles/fascinated stare* your hair is so different – I want an afro!”…or “Does the drapes….”  (There are other questions one can be asked, but due to Islamic etiquette I refuse to divulge the entirety of those questions).

These are among the many questions received by many black women and girls (including myself) at some point in their lives by a non-black peer, colleague or person generally interested in “the unknown”. Such individuals manifest an often genuine degree of fascination and feelings of shock and awe when analysing afro-textured hair. Of course in some instances, some people (normally those who exhibit a lack of home training in having regard for one’s personal space) may demonstrate the type of courage (rather ignorance/stupidity) you can’t get from a bottle of Jack Daniels and actually go there i.e. proceeding to touch, feel and quite frankly molest the hair of the afro-textured haired person in question. In some cases, albeit not all, this can occur with or without the permission of the recipient. Although, it is understandable that Caucasian and other non-black people of colour may have a well-meaning sense of curiosity with a hair type that is radically different to their own. These instances, in addition to the unintentional/intention comments made are forms of micro-aggressions, which can serve to alienate such groups from black people. As a result, hindering the efforts made to foster understanding and cohesion.

While the latter experience of touching a person’s hair without permission may not be particularly common in the UK, nevertheless it is an issue that is part of a wider conversation pertaining to the Eurocentric notions of beauty, race and the challenges they present to minority groups.

The politics and never-ending phenomena of Black hair (and at large the image of black women) is something that is contentious and often arouses feelings ranging from anger and frustration to joy and confusion – and all shades in between. The topic has been discussed by many cultural critics, black feminists and image activists including Michaela Angela Davis (not to be confused with the Black Panther member Angela Davis) and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. The topic was even the subject of the 2009 documentary by comedian Chris Rock entitled “Good Hair”. Furthermore, black hair has gained mainstream international media attention when in 2013 South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma urged African women to embrace natural hairstyles, and back in 2009 when  US President Obama’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, incurred negative reactions because she wore her hair in natural African twists while accompanying her family on a visit to Italy.

In order to understand how and why this is an issue to be explored and discussed, one cannot talk about the politics of black hair without putting the conceptions and notions of beauty under the microscope.

Why y’all so touchy?

Caucasian and non-black people of colour often wonder as to why hair is such a contentious issue in the black community. It is fathomable when assessing the situation on a superficial level, the subject of hair is something that is ordinarily considered quite trivial in comparison to bigger problems plaguing society as a whole and their respective communities. However, in deciphering the issue, it may be sensible to start with a quote to put things into context:

 “It’s amazing that it’s considered revolutionary to wear my hair the way it grows out of my head!” Tracie Thoms (actress).

Historically speaking, black people and their hair has long been an issue dating back as far as the days of slavery in which a slave who had physical features that resembled that of their Caucasian master was in some cases favoured in terms of receiving an education and spared from doing backbreaking menial work under the sun, compared to the slave that most resembled black African ancestry. Since then, the phrase “good hair” which has its roots in being used as a survival term, is commonly used today to denote the preference, along with the constantly promulgated notion of long, straight, silky hair being made a socially acceptable norm (at the expense of kinky, afro-textured hair being socially rejected). In turn, many black women and girls opt for the use of a relaxer made of chemicals that straighten the hair to fulfil the ideal of having “good hair” with children as young as six being subjected to regular treatments. For those that choose to wear their natural hair in styles such as an afro, twists or dreadlocks, they may have to endure negative stereotypes attributed to such styles, e.g. the notion of those who wear dreadlocks being synonymous with recreational marijuana usage or the afro being tantamount to “setting off the revolution” – with reference to the civil rights activists such as Angela Davis from the Black Panthers.

Of course these stereotypes are wrong and correspondingly, this has a profoundly negative effect upon black women and young girls growing up in a Western, Eurocentric society in which tells them, whether overtly or covertly, that their form of beauty is not highly valued. This culminates in many having an inferiority complex as to their race, heritage and place in the world. Many Children’s books, television shows and toys such as Barbie perpetuate the narrative of Eurocentric superiority in beauty, and even when Barbie did have a black doll called Christie – she had long straight jet black hair that resembled that of an Oriental or Indo-Pakistani woman as opposed to a sub-Saharan African girl! Where was her afro? Or twists or locks?! At least give a variation.

To add insult to injury, when I recall my days as a child I also struggled to find a doll that resembled myself – the fact that I was (and still am) overweight and black made the search all the more difficult in my quest to find that elusive “fat black doll”. However, in the end I did find my doll and to this day I still keep it as a reminder of the various types of beauty that exist – but also the refusal for the society I live in to accept natural African hairstyles and fuller figured women as also encompassing the many notions of beauty.

It is easy to look at the issue simplistically and point fingers at certain people, corporations and/or society as whole etc., but doing so would just be that: simple. The problem is much deeper, and by pointing fingers and not postulating ideas to solve the problem, one just engrossed in this sad and confidence-waning cycle.

My black is beautiful, so when did I cease to become black?

Questions relating to black hair are not helped when dividing opinions permeate within the black community, namely between two groups: those who are “pro natural” (those that advocate and opt to wear their hair in its natural state, also known as the “natural hair movement”) and those who choose not to wear their hair in the natural state (i.e. the way in which their hair grows out of their hair, for example weaves, wigs, chemically straightening). It is argued by some in the former category (and by some conservative non-black social commentators) that wearing hair in its natural state shows pride and acceptance in one’s racial and ethnic identity, with claims also asserted by some who are pro-natural that the altering of hair from its natural state may constitute the denial of one’s racial or ethnic identity. Such arguments presented can often be regarded as reductive as there are a range of reasons why an individual opts to present themselves in the way that they do, and in turn should not feel obliged to justify this to the rest of society.

The issue is not how one chooses to wear their hair (or whether one’s hair is store bought or naturally grown) but rather the idea that black racial and ethnic identities are only limited to one type of way or look. This is completely wrong as black hair is not one monolithic type; rather it represents a range of fashion styles, lengths, levels of versatility and textures – and yes, this includes extensions. One doesn’t stop being black because they have a weave or lace-front wig nor does one become “more black” because you wear sport an Afro or dreadlocks with a dashiki shirt, rather this contributes to disunity within the black community at large and does help in the quest for unity.

Where beauty and blackness are concerned, black women constantly find themselves in a position where they have to fight and defend to the rest of society why their features should be legitimised and accepted. For me as a black woman, I find it disconcerting that something as trivial as the way my hair grows out of my head is considered defiant or “revolutionary”. What makes this situation more disheartening is that anti-blackness, shadeism, colourism, sectarianism and nationalism are all forms of mental colonialism that continue to permeate within the Muslim Community.

It is until Black women and other non-black women of colour emancipate themselves from the shackles of mental colonialism by starting to accept, embrace and promote their natural beauty by abstaining from using terms that normalise inferiority and self-hatred emanating from their past, that the struggle for promotion and acknowledgement within Western society will get easier.

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For those who are unfamiliar with the terms used in this piece. Here’s a brief glossary:

Good hair = A popular term in the black community (most especially African-American community), used to describe an black person’s hair that closely resembles the hair of a typical white person (i.e. soft, manageable, long, as opposed to “nappy” or “bad” hair). The closer your hair is to a white person’s, the “better” your hair is.

Nappy = tightly coiled / curled unaltered hair. Coiled hair in its natural state

Non-black people of Colour (NBoPoC) = people who belong to racial/ethnic groups that are neither Black nor Caucasian i.e. people who are Latino, Middle Eastern/Arab, Indo-Pakistani Asian, Oriental Asian, mixed race (be this mixed black and white or otherwise) or any group in the “other” category.

People of colour (PoC) = normally and mainly used to mean black people (African or Afro-Carribean), although one could count non-black and non-Caucasian racial/ethnic groups as being also people of colour.

Relaxer/Perm = a creamy substance made from hydrochloric acid and other alkhalis. For the most part it is applied mainly on Afro-textured hair in order to chemically straighten the hair. Another name for the relaxer is called a perm. Thus permed or relaxed hair is hair that is chemically straightened.

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Who taught you to hate yourself? Ummah we need to talk, boo boo.

As most of you are aware, regardless of where you are in the world, Christmas day has now approached. No Christmas is complete without all the trimmings, which usually entails a Christmas tree, lights, turkey, writing Christmas cards…oh and the family gathered round for that all important EastEnders episode. Alas! Despite this enticing imagery there’s always that Grinch in the gathering who manages to ruin the day for everybody.

Having said this, this is usually the scene for many Western non- Muslim families, with the imagery conveyed through mass advertisement and consumerism. And the fallout come Boxing Day when you realise the dire situation of your finances, unsurprisingly you still run to the sales faster than a Kenyan runner.

Jokes aside, one of the things I find very disconcerting is how Muslims take part in a holiday that is contrary to their tenets of their faith.  I mean really though, would you think for a second that the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron or many non-Muslims Brits would go out of their way to celebrate Eid al Adha or Eid ul Fitr…Hanukkah anybody? And don’t play dumb either, you know what answer would be!

This isn’t subjected to just Christmas either, I’m referring to other nationalist and non-Islamic holidays such as Halloween, Easter, New Year’s day, April Fools, All Souls day, Thanksgiving etc…

And no, this isn’t a diatribe against any particular person, group of people or religion. Don’t worry I’m not specifically calling anybody out. This is simply me pointing out the hypocrisy and compromising positions that seem to be prevalent within certain segments of the Ummah (Muslim Community) and trying to advance ideas as to why this is an issue and what can be done to alleviate us from this problem.

 

Who did teach us to hate ourselves? Why do we find ourselves on the defensive?

The questions I ask are something for many to reflect upon, but most especially those whom insist on taking a compromising stance with regard to their faith. Perhaps the root of why many Muslims seem go in this direction is due to the need to “feel accepted” and “blend in”…in a simpler way it seems that there is a sense of inferiority complex. Yes …that’s right…I went there!  One of the things that surprises me  is how in spite of knowing truth from falsehood having an awareness of the deen and the oppressive hypocritical practices operative in our “democratic society”, members of our ummah revel in a sense of inferiority complex in order to placate western liberals and secularists. That’s like knowing you have gold or a skill/talent of some sort (or something of high value) but in spite of possessing it you choose to conceal it and settle for something less. That’s well and truly the epitome of stupidity, perhaps even more so than the ill constructed defence mechanisms advanced to try and justify wrongdoing.

Under the banner of “secularisation” we see members of this ummah engaging in acts of moral degradation such as fornication, theft, espionage etc., neglecting the fard of propagating Islam and engaging in festivities that are the very antithesis of what Islam says. This is one of the many examples of the dangers incurred when people take westernisation as the basis for freedom. It doesn’t take a person with so-called “remarkable intelligence” to conclude through past and present observations that the taking of Westernisation and Democracy as a basis for freedom has led to the devastation of many nations and the disillusionment of many a people.

This personally saddens me as I genuinely have an affinity to the ummah and have done so for the past 11 years. But boo boo this hypocrisy has to stop, seriously.

The problem of Muslim inferiority complex is something that seems over the years to becoming more and more apparent, but this didn’t seem to be prevalent during the time of Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) or in the generations after him. During that time Muslims didn’t have an inferiority complex – and neither did they have superiority complex as this wouldn’t fit with the teachings of humility and submission, which are one of the key characteristics of our faith. But rather, Muslims during this time were the people to be imitated as opposed to being the ones imitating others. Why? Because we were a people of izzah (honour), this is very much exemplified how when Islam had spread to the far lands and when there was a caliphate in place, even the non-Muslims used to emulate us in our mannerism, dress, moral and ethics and culture – for example, some used wear traditional Islamic clothing such as turbans to try and emulate us. I can even say from the perspective of an East African (Ugandan to be precise), the wearing of the Kanzu (khamis, thobe) in our culture originated from when the Arabs came and invited us to the religion of Islam.

Perhaps one of the main causes that had resulted in the current ummah being in the state that we’re in is not believing or actualising out trust in Allah (tawwakul) and not being proud of Islam, again this is something I find very disconcerting. My theory is that due to decades and centuries of being socially conditioned, mentally enslaved through colonialism and lazy in retaining out covenant with Allah this resulted in our honour being stripped away from us. As an ummah, particularly those living in the west, we have been socially conditioned to believe that the Western way is the only “right and only” way in which to succeed and sadly you’ve fallen for it.

The words of Umar ibn Khattab remain true to this day:

“We were the most humiliated people on earth and God gave us honour through Islam. If we ever seek honour through anything else, God will humiliate us again.”

You can’t seek tawfiq in anything else other than Islam, so given the words of Umar ibn Khattab, why do you try to seek honour and approval of a people who are the very antithesis of what Islam represents? Surely common sense would tell you this, right? Honour comes from doing that which is pleasing to Allah and enjoying in what he has permitted – even if it is at the expense of being subjected to stares or verbal and physical ridicule. But yet it seems that many Muslims don’t seem to have a backbone enough to say “I don’t care what you think or say about me, courage is being the way I am irrespective of what another has to say about me.” I think in order to alleviate ourselves from the humiliation as individuals, regardless of whether you come from non-practicing families or those who have reverted who come from a non-muslim background, I sincerely urge you to be staunch and steadfast in your convictions to Islam. Be strong! The price is high…but the end is near.

Don’t be a sycophant!