Untangling the roots of black hair

Women in general have a lot of hairstyle options available to us, but do black women have as many choices? Or does American culture dictate how we are to wear our hair? It’s amazing how tangled up black hair can get with politics and power status.

Apartheid actually has a lot to do with black hair in America today. How? Well, In 1948 the South African government had a particular problem with mixed-race people (the descendants of slaves), because many of them looked white. So the government started conducting tests on people who were border line cases. For example, they would insert a pencil into the person’s hair and if it fell out, you were classified as white, if the pencil stayed in, you were “colored”. So you can only imagine the politics of hair that emerged from this kind of thinking. Of course the common thinking would be that having straight hair and to be associated with whiteness was the best way.

I recently learned of twenty-four police officers being fired last spring after the Dallas Police department decided to fire anyone who wore their hair in dreadlocks, or “unconventional hairstyles” is how they referred to it. The Dallas PD went on to cite dreadlocks as an unbecoming look, that did not convey “power.”  WOW. Talk about encouraging conformity around here. People are being fired and discriminated against because their  “kinky” hair doesn’t conform to Euro-American standards — this is not a joke – far on the contrary. This is attacking someone’s very personhood. Some people in corporate America and Public Relations associate conformity with professionalism. I thought we were a nation that embraces diversity and culture?

From Don Imus’  recent statement about the college women basketball players, to celebrities reinforcing the notion that straight hair (Caucasian hair) is the popular/most presentable look, everyday Blacks everywhere have difficult decisions to make each day. Deciding whether or not to whether the storms of hatred and anomosity towards “unusual” hairstyles or to conform to how society wants to us to look.  I grapple with this challenge myself – daily.

I was on my way towards wearing my hair all natural when I hit a roadblock.  I was preparing to ride my bike to work when I went to grab my helmet. Then I remembered that helmets are designed with the “conventional” hairstyle in mind. I can’t wear a helmet with my afro! And,  thus, it begins. I was forced to get out the chemicals and chemically straighten my hair.  Other stories I have heard of blacks chemically straightening their hair for the sake of society, are those of graduates – not being able to put on that oh-so-important graduation caps!

Long, short, natural, straightened, weaved, locked or braided — hair is an important part of black identity. Lets face it, hair is an important part of everyone’s identity.  Does hair matter? Is there such a thing as “good hair?” Yes, and Yes. People wonder why so many black women have such a complex about their hair, gooping it up with lye relaxers, frying their scalp with hot combs and such. Well, hundreds of years of Euro-American billboards and insignia indicating the superiority of white hair will do that to us. The self-loathing endured by so many blacks all around the world is so culturally ingrained, so pathological, and it’s constantly reinforced by the messages like the ones Don Imus spoke about on his radio show.

In case some of you are unaware of the process of chemically straightening an afro, it is basically a watch-the-clock endeavor to see how long you can leave vile-smelling chemicals that have been gooped and smoothed over your entire head on. The longer the chemicals stay on your head the straighter your hair will be once you wash the chemicals out. The reason it is hard to leave the chemicals on your head for the correct amount of time is because the chemicals burn. So, along with beautiful straight hair you also now have a burning scalp which will soon peel then produce open sores on your scalp. But, hey society says it’s pretty so, I guess I’ll endure burning and peeling back my scalp for that celebrity-looking straight hair!

Am I cursed with difficult hair that in its natural state is the texture of a brillo pad or by a society that refuses to accept anything other than Euro-American looks?

One thought on “Untangling the roots of black hair

  1. interesting post..

    I think black women can do their hair whatever they want but when people connect getting a make over with race, its a problem


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