The politics of black hair in America

Category:  Opinions
Friday, November 15th, 2019 at 11:02 AM
The politics of black hair in America by Shayma Musa

It’s a cherished memory among black Americans: sitting on the floor between their mama’s (or grandma’s, or auntie’s, or that lady next door’s) legs on wash day as she worked out the wet, tangled knots with a wide toothed comb, applied a generous dollop of Blue Magic hair cream, and twisted our hair into tight cornrows that would last the month. Of course, then those edges where plastered down with some gel and a toothbrush. 

Another unifying memory: sitting in class, or on the bus, or at work, and feeling a strange tugging on your hair — whether it be your natural hair, braids, wig or weave — only to turn and see Karen, Jill or even a particularly bold Richard fondling your hair between their fingers.

“Oh my gosh, it’s softer than it looks,” they exclaim. 

You just want to scream. 

Unfortunately, the latter is something that black Americans are still experiencing in 2019. 

According to The Good Hair Study by the Perception Institute, “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair.” No statistics have been collected on the number of black Americans who report having their hair touched.

This is problematic in several ways. The freedom that individuals, often white, feel to encroach upon the personal boundaries of another person in order to touch their hair is to put it bluntly, rude. In a country with history regarding the ownership of black Americans, where blacks were given no rights over their bodies, not even their hair, this touching acts as a behavioral relic. It hearkens back to a culture where black bodies were viewed as ugly, imperfect and, in some circles, animalistic. 

To touch someone’s hair in the way that black hair is touched is akin to petting an animal. If the thought doesn’t cross a mind that, “this is a person and I am touching a part of their body without permission,” it says that certain Americans still haven’t come to terms with the fact that blackness equals humanness. 

In a post #MeToo world, one would think that people would be more cognizant of the connotation that touching another person’s body has, yet again it seems that the black body is left out of the conversation. New societal rules about how individuals interact with each other doesn’t apply to black hair. 

This attitude toward natural, unaltered blackness in America then rubs off on the kids who grow up in this culture. For too long, black women in particular based beauty on the standards of the white men and women who controlled, and for the most part, still control the beauty industry. Our curls were dirty, they said. They are ugly. So generations of grandmas, moms and aunts used chemicals to relax the natural coiling of their hair.

Within the black community, those messages were internalized and two groups of blacks emerged: those with “good hair” and those with “bad hair.” At some point in time, a black girl’s rite of passage into womanhood was finally being able to give up the wide toothed comb and relax her hair. There is nothing wrong with altering your hair. But there is something wrong when you only alter your hair because you feel less than human for wearing it naturally. 

According to the American Psychology Association, micro-aggressions, like touching someone’s hair, makes them feel different — as if they don’t belong. In an article, titled “Associations Between micro-aggression and Adjustment Outcomes: A Meta-Analytic and Narrative Review,” researchers found that individuals with micro-aggression experiences were more likely to have negative adjustment, which means that they are at a higher risk for internalized health issues such as depression, anxiety, higher levels of stress and other health issues.

Black Americans who choose to wear their hair naturally shouldn’t get to a point where they are depressed, or even anxious about something that is naturally a part of them. Black hair is just that, a natural phenomena. It has been unnecessarily politicized by a society that is still coming to terms with systemic bias against black Americans. 

So, I put it plainly: Don’t touch my hair, Karen.

Tags: hair, politics

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