From a young age, I, like many Black girls, have had to defend my hair.
As a child, I didn’t like my hair. I don’t remember when this started, but I do recall countless hours spent screaming as my thick, full, curly west African hair was being done in cornrows of different styles, using hair weaving thread and every once in a while, my mother would let me get it braided with extensions. If there’s one thing my mother would not let me do, however, it was perm or “relax” my hair because of the chemicals used.
So for most of my childhood, I endured countless questions about my hair and why it was so tough; why I didn’t relax it. Of course there were not only questions, there were taunts whenever my hair was in its natural state. I was made to feel ashamed of my hair and I was. My mother eventually let me perm my hair when I was getting confirmed at 14-years-old. But she only let me do so once a year until I left home for college.
Hair is political – we know this. And how do we know this? We know because everything from beauty to professionalism is invested in a particular understanding of the type of hair that is associated with these constructs; the type of hair that is “acceptable” for certain bodies. The elephant in the room is that all these constructs are embedded in racial and racist imaginations of things. Like skin, the closer your hair is to European standards, the more likely it is to be considered normal, beautiful, professional, etc.
It cannot be stressed enough that Black women’s hair is diverse – based on everything from their genealogy, to the climate they were born in, to how they take care of it over time. So let’s not get it twisted and think that every Black woman you see with hair that is more straight, or associated with European features, has gone the extra mile to have it that way. But there is an irony that when Black women do manipulate their hair to conform to more European standards, they are accused of self-hate.
Alternatively, when Black women wear natural hair or braid their hair with extensions or do a whole host of things with their hair, there is often commentary about how the style is counter-cultural or may not fit well in mainstream spaces, or it is perceived as unkempt or something negative. It is endless. Black women, sometimes, just can’t win. You have to defend your hair – whether it’s permed, straight, curly, in a weave, braided, shaved, or natural, and doing its own thing.
I’m pretty tired of defending my hair; I’m tired of defending our hair. Now yes, I do perceive the hair on my head as political to the extent that I keep it in West-African styled braids to represent the culture and community I identify with. And I haven’t for many reasons, including that cultural representation, permed it or worn a weave in almost four years. It is a political act on my part. It is also an individual act that does not make me better or worse than other Black woman or any woman of any race.
What we say to society when we wear our hair in particular ways, deliberately or unintentionally, should inform our individual choice to wear our hair the way we wish, not negate those choices. Recognizing of course, the importance of those beautiful India.Arie words that, “I am not my hair” in all the politics of our hair. But above all, Black women, whatever hair you wear on your head, let us recognize that we do not owe the world explanations for it. We do not need to justify it to anyone. Our hair does not need vindication from society.
Stop defending your hair, Black women. And every time you are put in a position to do so, remind yourself that your hair, like your skin, like your body, like your culture(s) is not on trial. The only thing that continues to be on trial is a system that makes you feel like you need to apologize for any unique part of you.