IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT, YOU ARE MINDING YOUR OWN BUSINESS, BROWSING IN THE AIRPORT BOOKSTORE. As you quietly turn the pages of a magazine, someone stands next to you and simultaneously asks and touches your hair. It’s me. It happened to me. I quickly leaned my head away from her reaching hand and took a step back. Looking both offended and afraid, she said, “I’m sorry. Your hair is so beautiful and curly, I just wanted to touch it! It’s softer than I thought! Did it take a long time?”
I was already irritated from having my hair hand-checked at airport security. I responded, “No, it didn’t take a long time. This is how it grows, but thank you.” She apologized again. I told her, “I don’t mind your questions but touching without asking is not OK. It’s just hair and yes, it is soft.”
She apologized again, and walked away, her straight, blond hair swinging behind her. No, that was not the first time a stranger touched my hair. Yes, they always hand-check my hair at security when I wear it naturally.
For a Black woman, her hair is as much a part of her identity as her skin color. It tells a story before she even speaks. Onlookers wonder if she is making a political statement; is she approachable, intelligent? The texture of her hair can determine how she is perceived and received by people inside and outside of her culture. Straighter hair is closer to the “beauty standard” and seen as better or as “good hair”.
Good hair: In the United States, “Good Hair” is considered to be hair that is wavy or straight in texture, soft to the touch, has the ability to grow long, and requires minimal intervention by way of treatments or products to be considered beautiful. While the “Good Hair” standard has historical roots, it is perpetuated by pervasive cultural messages that idealize this vision of hair and offer treatments or products to achieve it. – The Perception Institute – Perception.org
All human hair is made up of keratin. The angle that it grows from the scalp determines if it will be straight or curly. Much like when you curl a ribbon with scissors. That is it. That is the difference. A look back. Pre enslavement, an African woman’s hair was considered her crown and represented beauty, lineage, and status. African women have been queens who ruled nations and led troops into battle. In fact, African women, planning for survival, braided seeds of okra, rice, and beans into their hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships.
While enslaved, she no longer had the tools, products, and self-governance to maintain her crown. During the middle passage, she was separated from her tribe, family, and even those who spoke the same language. This resulted in the loss of traditions, poor nutrition, and harsh living conditions that, no doubt, led to skin, scalp, and hair damage but that did not stop her from braiding maps to freedom into hairstyles.
Post enslavement, her hair remained a source of shame, ridicule, and a measurement of her beauty at work, school, and at home. Because her hair was not straight, it was often described as unkempt. Black women and children were often teased and bullied because of their hair.
Over time, Black women became college educated and obtained careers in spaces not typically occupied by Black women. Looking for ways to “normalize” and fit in, Black women used various methods of straightening their hair.
Madame CJ Walker became the first Black female millionaire by creating and selling products to Black women. The pressing comb, or hot comb, is still used today to straighten hair, but it is temporary solution as the curls return when the hair becomes wet or subjected to high levels of humidity. Billie Holliday wore a gardenia to cover hair loss from a hot comb.
When chemical straighteners, called relaxers, were introduced, Black women and men could permanently straighten their hair. The downside is that the primary ingredient is lye which can burn the scalp and hair, resulting in temporary or permanent hair loss. Tina Turner wore wigs after her hair fell out.
"... We have the God-given right to live our lives with our hair the way it grows naturally.
It is not the Black woman’s responsibility to make others feel comfortable with her hair, it is the responsibility of others to ask themselves why they feel uncomfortable."
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Civil Rights Movement empowered Black people to express themselves with pride and confidence. Black men and women proudly began wearing their hair in its natural state.
This movement toward wearing afros and braids to work prompted employers and educators to create dress codes that made it against policy to wear certain natural styles. Failure to comply at school or home could result in termination or expulsion from school. This relegated Black women, once again, with limited options; press, relax or wear wigs, extensions, and other natural protective styles. Protective styles are braids, twists, or corn rows worn with or without extensions or wigs, allowing for
These discriminatory practices led to lawsuits and the creation of a bill which became law in only 11 states, not including Texas. Read this part aloud and slowly: A LAW was passed in 2019 so that people can wear their hair as it grows naturally from their scalp AND 39 states have not passed it.
The CROWN Act stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” created in 2019 to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools. – CROWNACT.com
Today, Black Women are wearing our crowns with pride and honor. We have embraced the lovely coils, curls, and waves that are our tresses with bold expression and creativity. So much so that mainstream media and culture emulate the styles and call it fashion. People like Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and Bo Derek wear Black styles just for fun on TV and in magazines. To them, it is just a cool hairstyle. For us, we lost jobs, lost hair, and still must pass laws to prove we have the God-given right to live our lives with our hair the way it grows naturally. It is not the Black woman’s responsibility to make others feel comfortable with her hair, it is the responsibility of others to ask themselves why they feel uncomfortable.
Black women are not a monolith, I do not speak for everyone as our lives and experiences are different.