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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