As we move towards a more inclusive society additional descriptors of identity are added to our causes for inclusion. In recent years, hair, or dare I say “Black” hair has been part of that fight for inclusion in being added to legislation. Yup, you heard correctly, Black folks actually need legislation in order to show up to school, workplaces, athletic fields and other public spaces with their hair in its natural state. Side note, when Black folks say natural hair, it most often means Black hair that has not been straightened with searing heat or chemicals. Dyed hair that has not been chemically straightened would still be considered natural hair by most African Americans.
As of this writing 12 U.S. States have prohibited discrimination based on hair texture. The majority have passed the (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Crown Act while others have expanded existing non-discrimination Amendments to include hair. Last year (January 2021) Durham and Greensboro adopted Non-Discrimination Ordinances (NDOs) which includes discrimination protection for wearing hairstyles such as braids, dreadlocks or afros. A few months later, Charlotte joined them. Charlotte’s NDO “Prohibits discrimination by an employer on the basis of race, natural hairstyle, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, marital status, familial status, pregnancy, veteran status, religion, age, and disability.”
These same protections apply to public accommodations as well.
Why is legislation for this necessary you ask? Well, in case you missed John Oliver’s HBO commentary on Black Hair last year, don’t remember all the hubbub about Colin Kaepernick’s mega ‘Fro, forgot about the the high school wrestler whose locks were hacked off by his coach mid game or back in the early 2000s when Carowinds refused to hire anyone with locks; stick around a little longer and keep reading.
The article you are continuing to read may very well be the most difficult I’ve written since joining the Qnotes family as a staff writer. I work with a wonderful group of folks who are welcoming, affirming and take care in never tokenizing me as I am (currently) their only Black staff writer.
Honestly, sometimes it’s a little much – that responsibility of assisting my well-meaning white male counterparts as they navigate through cancel culture and political correctness. In instances like these, my Double Consciousness (the inward two-ness experienced by Black folks who consciously or unconsciously alter their behavior when in the presence of white people in order not to appear threatening or dangerous) shows up a little differently; meaning I’m not adjusting my behavior in an attempt to outrun a stereotype. Instead, I’m gently providing education and allowing my co-workers who routinely champion diversity and inclusion, to just be – human beings whose misconceptions (of understanding or defining cultural attributes) are not malicious or intentional.
When I was asked to write this article on natural hair (here forward referred to as natural Black hair as the term never seems to be used to refer to those of any other race or ethnicity but Black) I was immediately transported back to my youth. As one who grew up during America’s Civil Rights Era (‘60s and ‘70s) I was reared by a woman with an afro (also referred to as ‘a Natural’ at the time) that grew from close cropped into a massive halo of hair and back again. At seven, I begged her to cut my hair down so I would look as beautiful as her. This was a bit of a challenging undertaking for a mother and daughter with 4C hair. In the 21st century, Black hair is now categorized by straightness and curl tightness. 4C hair is the least straight hair with the tightest coils. But I digress.
I still fondly remember an elementary school trip to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) – a massive and luxurious theater where I had previously seen renditions of the Nutcracker and Swan Lake. During this particular trip to BAM, a lone Black woman took the stage and performed some poems. I was about eight years old at the time and recall being awestruck. This woman resembled my mother, she looked like me, with her natural short afro, ebony skin and radiant smile. An unapologetic black woman, on stage in a space that generally occupied more white people than anything else was a big darn deal in the early ‘70s.
Her poem “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals” was an ode and a charge to self-love and acceptance. Her name was Gwendolyn Brooks and she was the first Black American to win a Pulitzer Prize (though I didn’t know that back then). Mind you, this was around the same time that actress Bo Derek was being admired for wearing corn rows in the movie ‘10’– while Black women were being discouraged, put down, ostracized and fired for wearing the style Bo Derek co-opted from Black culture.
During a 2020 US Magazine interview Derek lamented about the situation,
“I get in trouble for it now, I get a lot of criticism for being a culture vulture, that I’m being insulting and even worse, hurtful to African American women [and] that I copied their hairstyle.”
Now she can’t escape it, but when the film was originally released, she says, the reaction was totally different. “I can’t tell you how many African American women came up to me and said things like, ‘Thank you so much. I work at a bank and my boss would never let me have that hairstyle at work but now I can.’”
Sans the Bo Derek hype, as a little girl, I was surrounded by affirmations of Black is Beautiful that included, finally, natural hair. I say finally because with all that Black pride going around, the women in my community and family (mom included at one point) still saw fit to put me through the grueling kitchen chair ritual of having my kitchen erased.
In Black culture, kitchen doesn’t just refer to where food is prepared and eaten. A kitchen also refers to the nape/back of a person’s neck, where [Black] hair might be or considered fuzzy, beaded up or tightly coiled (i.e. Nappy). It’s also the part that causes the most distress during hot combing or pressing (for the purpose of straightening it). I still shudder when recalling many of these experiences where a metal comb was place on a gas stove’s open flame and grease (aka hair pomade) was also applied to aid the process. One drop of hot grease on one’s neck however, was enough to cause the trauma similar to that of what our mothers still experience when recalling the grease stains our drippy Jheri Curls left on their sofas during the 1980s.
Back in the day, and for some currently, any occasion that was deemed special or required an appropriate and/or professional look, meant Black hair had to be “fried, dyed and laid to the side.”
In other words, before venturing out into public spaces – the heads of little Black girls needed fixing, correcting and styling to embody Eurocentric standards and looks as much as possible. For little Black boys, this typically meant a close-cropped Caesar cut; though between the 1940s and 1960s, many Black men were also adopting hairstyles [like the Conk] that gave them straight or wavy hair. For Black men also, braids, dreadlocks and afros were threatening and unacceptable.
Whatever the gender, whatever the occasion or the message – dating as far back as slavery – was loud and clear:
You are not beautiful, acceptable or welcome as you are.
Many of us internalized those messages, and those of us who didn’t, were seen as militant Angela Davis and Black Panther Party revolutionaries to fear, oppress and control. Historically this has been going on for what feels like forever. For centuries, the white ruling class has battled with our hair by shaving our heads, forcing us to cover our hair and disallowing any style that went against the grain of a white beauty standard or seemed to reflect our own culture pride, as indicated by our hairstyles.
The awareness Black folks have of this situation and our need to achieve success through inclusion has greatly contributed to how much we spend annually on hair care products. According to Essence Magazine, “In 2018 the Black hair care industry raked in an estimated $2.51 billion, as Black consumers have progressively made the switch from general products to those that specifically cater to them. In 2017 African Americans captured 86 percent of the ethnic beauty market, accounting for $54 million of the $63 million spent, Nielsen reported.” All those dollars weren’t purely spent on wigs, weaves and chemical relaxers either (though those product lines account for a significant number of purchases). Today, there’s been a noticeable resurgence of Black cultural pride. Natural hair has once again made a comeback.
And although we [as Black people] may continue to argue among ourselves over wigs, weaves, wearing our natural hair and all the implications of sporting whatever kind of style we do, we have more choices today than we did yesterday.
Additionally, before we engage in these arguments about assimilation and reflections of self-hatred, we might also want to put some time and effort towards the economic implications of this. That is to say, we spend the most (on beauty and hair products) but do not own or control most of the market, which is currently dominated by Korean merchants and distributors.
Simply stated, our hair might be at the root of our economic mobility now more than ever.