Peace, Love, and Kinkiness: The Real Talk on Black Hair Politics
Written as Tertiary Literature by Nat V. Chin
Nappy, kinky, or curly; they are all descriptions of Black hair. Natural Black or African hair can range from a soft, ‘S’ shaped curl pattern to tightly curled hair and even to the tight, ‘Z’ shape cross- section of a kinky afro. Originating in Africa, kinky hair evolved for the dry heat by pushing away heat and moisture from the scalp. The relatively sparse density of Afro textured hair in combination with its spring- like coils results in a light, airy, almost sponge- like form. Jablonski states in her writing Skin: A Natural History that it likely facilitates an increase in the circulation of cool air onto the scalp. This hair type should be appreciated as a biological advantage and not considered “bad hair.” A large part of society, including Black people and non- Black people, believe that natural Black hair is essentially considered unprofessional or unattractive. The basic negative connotations of natural Black hair seem to be ingrained in their minds starting at a young age. With this problem, it is clear and apparent that Black men and women do not wear their kinky hair naturally because they have been taught to detest their natural hair and to style it in a way that assimilates them into White society.
Generations of Black people, specifically women, in America have dealt with the problematic social struggle of meeting the ideal beauty standard in this country when it comes to their hair. Black women who wear their kinky hair naturally are considered less feminine in comparison to Black women who choose to straighten their kinky hair. This is a particular struggle between not being White, but trying to look as though they fit in socially with the Eurocentric beauty standards of this country. It is also a battle between wanting to look and feel a part of the upper class. This identity crisis has literally impacted the hairstyle of Black men and women for decades. Bellinger’s social experiment and essay, “Why African- American Women Try to Obtain ‘Good Hair’,” states that “[a]ccording to theorists, hair has always been an important factor in defining one’s identity,” this identity being considered upperclass, considered attractive, or being considered affluent within the Black culture hierarchy.
There are social, cultural, and personal reasons why Black men and women choose the hairstyle that they donned everyday. To understand the social struggles of Black Americas, one must look at the history of their hair during the times of slavery. In “Hair story: Untangling the roots of Black hair in America” by Byrd and Tharp in St. Matin’s Press, the idea of “good hair” within the African American communities began when slave owners would compare Black hair “wool” and considered it inappropriate and problematic. In Donaldson’s “Hair Alteration Practices Amongst Black Women and the Assumption of Self- Hatred,” he writes about how in order to feel similar to the White women or men, African American slaves developed a hierarchy imposed on themselves where those with lighter skin and straighter hair over those that reflected more African or non- White features. Features that were more similar to White people were regarded as more attractive and appealing in comparison to features that reflected an African individual. According to Bellinger’s essay, straighter and less textured hair in the 1800s was a sign of one’s slave status. Vissa Studio’s 2012 article, “Back to the Basics – What Black Women Used During Slavery,” explains how during slavery, Black women and men lacked the palm oil and special combs to easily style their kinky hair. Instead they often tried softened their kinky hair texture with butter, bacon grease, and even kerosene. As unhygienic and damaging as this could be to the skin and hair, they were willing to do it to meet the expectations of the time. Vissa Studio’s article also explains that females slaves that did not have access to this these liquids would often secure their unkept hair in head wraps and head scarves so it was not seen.
Post emancipation, the idea of “good hair” grew stronger as African Americans wanted to be of a higher social status, as Eurocentric features were still considered ideal. In Byrd and Tharps “Hair story: Untangling the roots of Black hair in America,” it is explained that it was hard enough to prosper in a society while being considered second class. The two women also wrote how it was even harder without having straighter and textureless hair and “to gain access to the American Dream one of the first things Black had to do was make White people more comfortable with their very presence.” Black Americans continued to follow the double duty of investing in two physical changes to “fix” their differences between them and the dominant people of society: Skin bleaching and hair straightening. These were the two remedies to fix their differences. This was when Black women, and some men, used hot combs and relaxers to tame their hair.
In America, generations of Black women and men have internally suffered a form of self hatred that has expressed itself through the way they style their hair. The oppression caused by earlier White society and the social construct of this country has caused Black people, majority women, to style their hair using harsh chemicals and processes to have hair that looks similar to a White person. Generations of Black people have dealt with the social struggle of meeting the ideal beauty standard lead by White women and men in this country by seeking what they considered “good hair.” In the Black community, “bad hair” is not the equivalent of having a bad hair day, which is explained by Bank’s writing “Unhappy to be Nappy.” She continues to explain in her essay that bad hair is considered tightly coiled or unruly natural hair that is hard to style. They battle between not being White, but trying to look as though they fit in socially with the Eurocentric beauty standards of this country. Whitney Bellinger writes about young Black children in “Why African- American Women Try To Obtain Good Hair,” and says that around the age of three years old or four years old, young African American children start to understand the concept of “good hair” means for themselves and they understand the social hierarchy it can create. She also adds that parents start the process of chemically altering their child’s hair between the ages of six years old and eight years old. In Arena Martin’s article, “The Hatred of Black Hair Goes Beyond Ignorance”, she discusses a study that “policing young Black girls- and their hair- can have detrimental consequences and reinforce negative stereotypes.” These reinforced negative stereotypes lowers the self- esteem of young Black girls, and boys. At a very young age, they learned to hate the natural hair that they are born with.
Hair relaxers are a creamy chemical placed on hair to make it appear straighter and less texture permanently. They known to be extremely damaging for the hair and scalp of the user since it is a harsh alkaline that is composed of lye, calcium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide and others chemicals that can easily burn through metal. Hair Relaxers are also known for causing breathing problems, skin burns, permanent scarring, baldness, temporary or permanent blindness if it gets into the eyes an other known and unknown health problems. Even with the obvious damaging effects of hair relaxers on the skin and hair, Black women still used them to take away the kinks and curls of their hair. At the time, Black women were seeking long straight hair that is flat, sleek, and shiny, which they consider “good hair.” Black people had to put effort into minimizing the difference between themselves and White people. Even though self- hatred is recognized, permanently altering hair texture continued to be a flourishing practice in Black communities and determine social status. According to Bellinger’s essay, another reason why this practice has continued was because young African American girls relied on their mothers to style their hair, who also used relaxers in their hair, and previously, their mothers used relaxers in their hair. Relaxers process that have been passed down through generations according to Bellinger’s essay. This explains how hair has become more than a social construct in Black culture, but also a convenience for Black women.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a new sense of identity among the Black communities. In Carole Davies Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, explains how Black men and women in America started to appreciate the beauty of being Black and embodied the “Black is Beautiful” trend and as a reflection of Black pride. According to Bellinger’s essay, “Why African- American Women Try to Obtain ‘Good Hair’,” these Black men and women believed that their large afros were a symbol of strength and power. At the same time of this movement, it was more common for hair to be worn in its natural state as an untreated afro. She continues by explaining how Black Americans were confidently rejecting the idea that they had to permanently alter themselves to assimilate and integrate into White America. Simultaneously, men and women were both realizing the afro style was easier to maintain without being costly or physically harmful.
Although many Black people began to embraced their nappy, or natural, hair in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some still perceived the word nappy and natural negatively and did not want to engage in the movement nor wanted to wear their hair in its natural state. In Schottham, Krista M., Sellers, Robert M., and Nyugen, Hoa X.’s racial research study on Black teens, “A Measure of Racial Identity in African American Adolescents: The Development of the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity-Teen,” the writing explains how consequently, some African Americans begin to perceive some of their group members as not being “black enough” or not wanting to be identified as African American, which can lead to negative impacts on one’s self- esteem. If this belief persists, it may cause one to engage in self- hate and to have a problem with their racial identity. This caused another element of self- hate as these outsiders of the time were considered to not be Black enough or going against their people. Others, especially in the 1960s, viewed afro styled hair as a political statement and also as a symbol of the Black power movement. Davies also explains that this was also parallel to the idea that the afro was a symbol of Black militancy and anti- whiteness. The era of natural Black hair died down until the 1990s when afros were considered in style for a few years according to Ingrid Banks “Unhappy to be Nappy.”
The decision to chemically change kinky hair is also considered an economic decision. It has been observed that Black women and men without “tamed” or caucasian- like hair have a harder time finding employment as many jobs called for appropriate grooming practices, which is hair that is not in an afro, in thick braids, or cornrows. These common Black hairstyles are stigmatized and are believed by White people to be related to crime and gang related activities as explained in Ingrid Bank’s writing. In Bellinger’s social experiment and essay, she writes about how some Black women go as far as having micro braids. Micro braids are diminutive in size and give the appearance of having long, straight, and flowing hair. In Areva Martin’s article in the Times, she states that a study in 2017 “found that black women feel more anxiety about their hair type and are twice as likely in comparison to white women to feel pressure to have straightened hair in their workplace.” Black and non- Black of both (all?) genders are more likely show an implicit bias against Black women’s textured hair due to ingrained stereotypes it. Martin’s study also showed that a majority of people, not just in this country, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair, regardless of their race or gender; this bias holding White women as the worst offenders. Davies also explains that some Black people didn’t want to be considered political and anti- white for fear of losing their job and being targeted by people that were racist. For years, even today, there are official and unofficial policies within a work place that make the usual hairstyles of a Black person unacceptable in a work environment. In Martin’s article, she wrote about the previously made policy in 2014 by the military against traditional Black hair styles including cornrows, twists, and locs. (Fun Fact: I learned that the term dreadlocs was coined by slave owners who considered the style to be dirty and dreadful.) These styles are considered unprofessional, even when they are neatly groomed. The choice of a lock of Black people starts to be between having the natural hairstyle they want and having a career. Chemically straightened hair is a financial advantage and a necessity.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the afro because less of an empowering statement as the afro hairstyle started to become popular with people that were not Black. Instead, Black women and men started to style their hair with braids, cornrows, and straight weaves; all of which are still prevalent styles. With these natural styles though, came a big target. In Ingrid Bank’s “Unhappy to be Nappy,” she reports a study conducted by Angela Davis, a naturalista, in the 1970s. The study reports that Black men and women with natural hair are more likely to become a target of oppression versus a Black men and women with straighter hair. The Black women of the study with afros were more likely to be accosted, harassed, and arrested by police officers. Even though we are in a different century, the belief that wearing a natural afro will make a Black person a target for police harassment is still a feared belief that widely shared within the Black community.
Even if Black women are not told that straight hair is more attractive on women, hair commercials to models in magazines and catalogs, tell women that straight hair is more attractive. Women, no matter what race, are susceptible to wanting to look just like the popular models that are seen on the magazine cover or on the television advertisement. This is stronger within the mind of young Black girls because they have lacked the visual representation within the media for decades. The possibility of a younger Black girl looking similar to the beautiful women that are broadcast is very slim. This leads to the feeling that their skin and hair are not worth being shown, to slowly morph into self- hate. The closest thing that they can change about themselves is their hair, which is chemically changed for unattainable aesthetics. Leading, again to the idea that the self- hate within the Black community is caused by the social construct of America’s predominantly White society.
Another form of self hatred is show through the dangerous practice of skin bleaching. Skin bleaching or skin lightening are using chemicals including injections, creams, gels, and pills to lighten natural skin tones. In Alicia Jackson’s “Attempting Whiteness: Black Women’s Expected and Actual Results of Skin Bleaching,” she explains about how skin bleaching has been a practice among many cultures for centuries for the purpose of obtaining a lighter skin tone because darker skinned women hate their skin color. Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin’s essay “The Evolution of Skin Pigmentation and Hair Texture in People of African Ancestry,” states that “the persistence of racism and colorism has contributed to the promotion of skin lightening and the widespread use and abuse of skin bleaching.” Colorism is the belief that those with a lighter skin tone , light- skins, are more attractive then those with a darker skin tone. It is considered a prejudice against darker skinned people within the same race or ethnic group. African and American Black’s are prominent consumers of the dangerous practice of skin bleaching, particularly deeply dark skinned women. Those that do not have access to the expensive creams opt to stay out of the sun or cover their skin in sunscreen to reduce the possibility of becoming darker.
Colorism among Black people has deemed darker colored complexions unattractive and undesirable; the darker the skin, the more unattractive you are considered within the Black community. Black women especially feel pressure to be more attractive and desirable and feel as though a lighter complexion is a way to look good. Lynn Okura’s “Inside the Controversial Skin bleaching Phenomenon,” of Huffpost writes about how even in modern times, the practice of skin bleaching is still common, but is socially looked down upon within the Black culture of this country. Skin lightening dramatically reduced as a practice, but still occurs, since it is has been seen as a ritual of self- hatred, but towards their skin instead of their hair.
A counter belief is that in today’s society, a Black person’s need to conform is not the fault of White people and that it is the fault of whoever feels the need to chemically straighten their kinky or curly hair. The oppression of slavery and segregation caused White people to feel shame in the presence of all Black people, who reminded them of the crime of previous centuries. Black men and women straightened their kinky and curly hair to ease White people’s conscience by appearing to assimilate and following their beauty standards. When Black people maintain chemically straightened or flat ironed hair, it makes them and the White people around them comfortable since straight hair appears as a way to conform.
In modern America, Afrocentric hairstyles, like afros and braids, have slowly donned popularity and has become increasingly more accepted as professional and attractive. The increase of media representation of Afros and braids even makes these styles popular with White people, to the point of sometimes being controversial and appropriating. Juang and Morrissette’s article “Hair” from the journal Credo says that Afrocentric hairstyles such as braids and afros increased in fashionability and popularity with the aid of popular Black professional athletes and entertainers in America. The authors believe that since these styles are public and are now more common, they reduced the negative stereotypes that were previously associated enough to make the styles more acceptable. The current generation and future generations in this country are starting to understand that nappy, kinky, and curly hair are not necessarily the equivalent of having bad hair and straight hair is not the equivalent of good hair.
*Well, I hope you like this and that you do not think that I am prejudice in any way, shape, or form.*
Schottham, Krista M., Sellers, Robert M., Nyugen, Hoa X. “A measure of racial identity in African American adolescents: the development of the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity–Teen” Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology, vol. 14(4) (2008): 297-306.