Black women’s hair is the bad type; very tight, coiled, dense and closely knit. It grows at a slow pace and when washed it becomes almost half its entire length. From a young age many black girls have grown up believing this statement was true; that their hair, in its natural state is something bad that needs to be fixed. It doesn’t belong. It needs to be transformed into something different in order for it to be accepted and considered beautiful.
A significant amount of time of black girls’ childhoods (as did mine not so long ago) is spent believing that their hair is less than perfect. Their heads are regularly lathered with crème relaxers to achieve the straight look associated with prettiness. Their hair, in its rough and rich feel was and still is seen as offensive because it does not appeal to European standards of beauty; it needs to be concocted into something smoother, silkier, longer, straighter or it should have big curls in order for it to be deemed worthy- all the while white women’s hair is taken as the default.
Race, politics, fashion, the affirmation of pride, history, pop culture and assimilation are some of the words that come up when discussing the passion fuelled topic that is black women’s hair. Throughout history, many black women have embraced their hair in such intricate ways that it has formed a huge part of their identity. They invest many resources, including time, energy and money in grooming and keeping it to a standard they deem fit.
Black women’s hair is not an easy topic; it carries with it a rich history, much of which encompasses issues of identity, some ideals and certain expectations from society. The history incorporates in it the forceful need for people to conform and to assimilate towards certain standards of beauty so as to attain better opportunities. An example is that of the times during the apartheid era where one could only be afforded some opportunities based on racial lines which could be decided upon by the texture of one’s hair. The pencil test, as it was known, was a humiliating act used to decide the racial identity of an individual based on how easy or difficult a pencil could slide through one’s hair.
The world has over many years now, been dominated by Western ideals. In Africa, and South Africa to be more specific, this, through horrific colonial mind control systematically ensured that black people were and still are marginalised and treated as a lesser race. Through ghastly manipulation tactics, black people are dispossessed of ownership of their land and excluded from owning the economic means of production. To assert power and keep their race elevated, white people were suppressive of other races. Black people, having been subjugated and discriminated against, were also slapped with racist stereotypes. Their dignity was taken from them and the negative thoughts they were fed about themselves were then slowly internalised by many. Negative perceptions of themselves regarding their beauty formed and later trickled down into future generations because of the dominance of colonialism in black culture.
The media also played an important role in elevating Eurocentric standards of beauty and creating negative perceptions about black people. Many black people started modifying parts of themselves; their behaviour, their looks and speech so as to be closer to the biased unattainable standards of whiteness. This was done in many ways with the view that more opportunities would be available as one moved closer to whiteness. The hair was a significant part of this modification among black people.
The question is often asked then as to why it is that given the rich history of black women and their hair, many still choose to this day to wear theirs straight or long with bouncy curls in the form of wigs and weaves or choose to relax their hair so as to tread closer to whiteness. They are asked why they do not wear their hair natural and why it is that they still try to imitate whiteness.
This question assumes that black women are a homogenous group of people with similar thoughts and lived experiences and that they have no power to individually decide for themselves what to do with their bodies. Black women mostly wear their hair the way they want to because they can. The modern world had made it possible for different hairstyles and textures to be easily accessible.
Some women state that wearing their hair this way makes it easier to maintain and that they like the way it looks just as they like the way their natural hair looks. They state that it isn’t a way to chase after whiteness as white people do not own the monopoly to straight hair. Other women argue that wearing a weave gives a new way to protect one’s natural hair and to have a new look without having to permanently change one’s hair to achieve that kind of look. A black person, by virtue of wearing a weave does not look whiter, but rather looks like a black person with straight hair.
Other women simply dismiss this question as irrelevant and as another ploy used to police them into fulfilling a standard of blackness they might not necessarily wish to adhere to. They correctly state that their motives are always questioned as they are always asked to explain themselves. People differ in their view points and it is rather a gross exaggeration to assume that all black women who change their hair in this specific way are doing so because they are self-hating.
Having gone through a phase where I was made to believe, by the general world around me, that my hair was offensive because it grew from my head up in small coils and not straight down, I found that I had to put much effort into repositioning my thinking around it. This is an extra burden that befalls many black women who are still trying to navigate their way through this oppressive, patriarchal, Eurocentric world.
Black women have a lot to deal with in their daily lives and hair should not be another aspect of their bodies further used to oppress them. It would be ideal for a woman to know that she would still be seen as the same person and still be taken seriously whether she chooses to wear a wig or a weave, to straighten her hair or to keep it in its natural state. Many black women are still on a path to unlearn the harsh lies that they were fed about what their looks represent; instead of attacking black women for their hair choices, it would be more worthwhile to deal with the source of oppression that makes this unnecessary bashing possible.
By Fentse Mokale