Black Women, White Women, and Natural Hair

3 years ago

The burn of a relaxer on my tender scalp.

The hiss of the hot comb against my untamed roots.

The fear of moisture in all of its iterations: rain, sweat, ocean.

The anguish of getting the most minor trim because length--not health--was paramount.

These are the memories I carry of the never-ending battle to hide the state of my kinky hair. It's an experience belonging to sisters all over the globe, this fight to make our hair submit to societal standards of what is acceptable and proper.

Recently, Twitter exploded when news spread that Curly Nikki had profiled a White woman's journey to accepting her natural hair texture. I never frequented the site, but I assumed the backlash stemmed from it being a place for natural Black hair exclusively.

Like many Black women, I disregarded the health risks of applying toxic chemicals to our skin or the inevitability of burns when hot metal combs come into contact with delicate hairlines . Our "kitchens" (a.k.a., the hair at the nape of the neck) mustn't be nappy, by any means necessary. We endured all of this and more, in a quest to have long, smooth locks, cascading down our backs, convincing ourselves it was worth it.

Growing up, my hair rarely made it past my shoulders without breaking, its health regularly suffocated by chemical treatments and extreme heat. Despite hating it for decades, the idea of returning to my natural texture terrified me. When I neglected to maintain my processed style, my mother would threaten to shave it off and/or give me dreadlocks, until I tearfully pleaded with her to reconsider, to give me another chance to "do better."

Meanwhile, my hair looked like this... on a good day. *sigh*

Me, around 15 or 16-years old.  Just say no to the Wave Nouveau, kids!

Years later, when I joined my husband, Eli, in California, one of my biggest concerns was finding a salon. However, the prospect of undergoing such a search in a new city was daunting, so I procrastinated. The longer I waited, though, the less I wanted to get my hair done. I'd gotten married and moved out of my mother's house, but I was still restless for more change.  

When Eli suggested locs, I was intrigued, but noncommittal. I didn't know the first thing about them. Weren't they dirty and gross? Did one need to be a Rastafarian? If I don't like it, will I have to cut all my hair off again?

I mulled it over for months, going back and forth in my mind, furiously weighing the pros and cons. Finally, I realized I really didn't have much to lose. One morning, I agreed to go forward, but with one caveat: I refused to cut off the permed portions of my hair. 

It looked awful

Studying my reflection in the mirror, I wrinkled my nose at the competing textures.

"Cut it off. All of it."

Eli looked at me, earnestly. "Are you sure? You have time to think about it."

"It's time."  

My two-year hair journey

It was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had, surpassed only by marriage and the births of my children. Decades of baggage were left on the bathroom floor that day as I ran my fingers over my head, feeling nothing but small, tight kinks and scab-free scalp. (If you'd like to see more pictures of my hair throughout the years, watch this video. )

I'm sharing all of this to highlight the uniqueness of the endeavor, and the importance of the natural hair movement to Black women specifically. Having the encouragement of my husband and family was integral, especially during that first year, but many women of color lack a proper support system. This is one reason why the natural hair community is so vital. The education and solidarity I've found within it have been priceless. We are living in a time when African American women are being fired for going natural, and Black girls are being suspended or expelled from school because their hair is "a distraction". Having this sacred space to share ideas, tips, styles, and, most importantly, celebrate Black beauty is so very important. It is a haven, a way to block out the daily barrage of negativity hurled at us for falling short of Eurocentric standards of attractiveness.    

Sample of Google search results for "woman"

Back to the Curly Nikki controversy. Apparently the site was never intended to be exclusively for Black women. Yet, the debacle is illustrative of an all-too-familiar pattern, as Jamilah Lemieux eloquently makes clear:

Throughout our time in this country, we have created culture and space where we are able to affirm and uplift ourselves in face of efforts to quell our creativity, destroy our spirits and control our bodies. Today, though our access to the world around us has expanded tremendously, we are consistently being told that we are unable to have anything to ourselves---and that everything we create is not simply ripe for integration, but rather, appropriation and domination by Whiteness. Our music, our fashions, our foods, everything that is uniquely ours is seized upon until it is no longer uniquely ours. Imagine if America loved Black people as much as it loves the products of Black labor. We wouldn’t have to plead a case for reparations, they’d be directly deposited on the 1st and 15th from the National Bank of W.E.B. DuBois.

Women of color are pushing back, not out of hate, but simply because we've been here before. There is a legacy of Black Americans making valuable contributions to society, then being omitted from its history. And despite living in the Age of Google, the erasure is still happening today. 

I'm not denying that women of all races can have similar experiences when it comes to hair and identity, but "similar" does not mean "same", and these differences should not be overlooked or dismissed. Learn the roots of the movement. Understand that hundreds of years, countless hours, and unspeakable amounts of money have been sacrificed in order to inch ever closer to "the ideal".  Acknowledge that despite these efforts, Black women are still criticized daily for not measuring up. Respect the fact that before we can even entertain the idea of being all-inclusive, a communal healing is necessary; please recognize how meaningful this space is to those for whom it was intended.  

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