Ideologies, thoughts, images, or ideas that keep us from knowing who we are, being who we are, or even being who we want to be, constitute the modern chains of enslavement that prevents so many from loving who they are, from loving themselves, and loving their hair.
Examples of entangled racism, from outright screams to subtle whispers of discrimination, continue to be part of the rhythm of our daily lives. After public outcry, a 1997 racist Brazilian song comparing afro-textured hair to a metal sponge used to clean cooking pots was finally banned.[i] In America, courts have held that employers were able to tell women of Afro-descent that they cannot wear braided hairstyles,[ii] dreadlocks,[iii] or dye their hair blond.[iv] These outright prohibitions on the use of natural hairstyles for afro-textured women only have one exception: the Afro, or the symbol of the American civil rights movement. Across the globe, women with afro-textured hair are subjected to the same prejudice but through the media’s subtle racist whispers, which instill an expectation to conform to the dominant idea that afro-textured hair is not appropriate, not professional, or even not beautiful. Indeed, the world’s representation of woman of African descent is woven with the images coming almost exclusively from America, images of women who do not wear their hair in its natural state.
So it is not surprising that so many afro-textured women resolved themselves, consciously or by omission, to emulate the images of beauty provided by the powerful and wealthy, echoed by our peers, advanced by the media, and sometimes even promoted by the hair industry: images that for too long have dissimulate afro-textured hair. Whether through chemical modifications, concealment, or even embodied in the insidious Spanish phrase “pelo malo,”[v] afro-textured hair has been translated as an ill requiring a remedy.
So when the mainstream idea of beauty still denies our texture its rightful place, when employers are prohibiting afro hairstyles, when across the globe afro-textured hair is denigrated, how can any of us stand strong and claim that rejecting our natural hair texture is just an individual, personal choice that does not impact anyone else? When even only one of us feels inadequate about her hair or believes that wearing someone else’s hair texture makes her more beautiful, it is all of us that have failed. We have failed to ensure that afro-textured girls, our daughters, our little sisters, our nieces and cousins are properly nurtured and given the opportunity to be confident about who they are and love their hair.
From the numerous focus groups I have been conducting in the past three years, it has become clear that altering the texture of one’s hair or wearing a wig or a weave on a consistent basis has very less to do with a personal choice but a lot more with the collective images and prejudice placed upon one’s own hair texture. A common affirmation from all participants whether they were natural or not has been that they have all been subjected to pejorative commentaries about afro-textured hair, whether from friends, family, or hairdressers, in addition to the constant bombarding of images of non-afro like super straight hair. These ideas, thoughts, and images constructed the chains that have tied down the self-confidence that is the very essence of any afro-textured hair woman, as an individual or a distinct physiognomic group. These chains constitute a type of psychological violence as damaging as any other self-esteem problems and have entrapped so many of us for too long.
So the natural hair movement is not a fashion trend like the bob or the asymmetric cut. It is an awakening of thousands if not millions of women of African descent who realize that they, too, have a place in our global society. Afro-textured hair, whether curly or kinky, is not to be tucked away shamefully under a wig or a weave, relentlessly and dangerously chemically modified, frantically avoided or pejoratively looked at and described. Afro-textured hair is a woman’s pride, a woman’s identity, her inheritance and her legacy. It is a part of who we are.
Through this Hairolution, women with afro-textured hair are freeing themselves from the chains of prejudice against their hair, against themselves and humanity. As this takes place, I cannot help but truly believe that once we all accept our hair texture for what it is, only then, will we be able to look even deeper and discover even more about who we all are, unique but yet so alike. So for those who were scared or still hesitant, be ready to reclaim your freedom. Change is coming, the Hairolution is here.
By Ida Ngueng Feze Esq.
[i] After over a decade of litigation, Sony Music was ordered to pay $1.2 million in damages for producing the song, which was deemed racist and banned in Brazil. See Julee Wilson, “Natural Hair Song By Tiririca Deemed Racist, Sony Music Ordered To Pay $1.2 Million” The Huffington Post, 6 January 2012.
[ii] In this case, the employer prohibited all-braided hairstyles even wondering “why would anyone wear their hair that way.” This case is still valid today. See Rogers v. American Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229 (S.D.N.Y 1981). For an in depth discussion of the case see Paulette M. Caldwell, “A Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Gender” 1991 Duke Law Journal 1991(2):365-396.
[iii] Pitt v. Wild Adventures, Inc., No. 7:06-CV-62-HL, 2008 WL 1899306 (M.D. Ga. Apr. 25, 2008). In this case the employer stated that instead of cornrows the afro descendent woman should get her hair in a “pretty” hairstyle and just to make sure it was clear enough, the work policy prohibited “dreadlocks, cornrows, beads, and shells.” Braided hairstyles, even today remain unprotected under anti-discrimination laws.
[iv] Sante v. Windsor Court Hotel L.P., No. 99-3891, 2000 WL 1610775 (E.D.La. Oct. 26, 2000). A black woman was denied employment because her dyed blond hair was considered to be “an extreme hair color”. In contrast, in the matter of Burchette v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 08 Civ. 8786, 2009 WL 856682 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2009), the court estimated that a black women who was told that she must only wear a hair color that she was born with was justified in alleging that discrimination had occurred.
[v] The term “pelo malo” means “bad hair” in Spanish and is used in the Latin community to undermine Latina with afro-textured hair as having bad hair, hair requiring to be made straight in order to be manageable and beautiful.