Since its conception the United States has discriminated against Black people in every way imaginable, including attacks on Black hair; the negative rhetorics around Black hair have residual impacts on the self-confidence and treatment of Black people in America and beyond.
-By: Candis Caldwell
Through colonialism, America inherited a social, political, and economic construct that systemically dehumanizes the full autonomy of Black individuals. Over time white supremacy has conditioned much of society to institute racial biases toward Black bodies. These racist expressions are demonstrated throughout social environments such as work and school, and reinforced through unjust policy creation. This system of anti-blackness has centered European standards and undermined the Black person’s natural state of being.
The conversation of Black hair has always been a sensitive topic for mainly Black women and Black girls. We live in a world where white beauty standards are treated as superior and popularized through media and advertising.
Though we are in a new day and age where Black hair in its natural state is becoming more widely respected, Black hair remains the most disdained hair type in comparison to other cultures. Not only does the disrespect of Black hair exist in the United States, this issue branches worldwide. The global ignorance and miseducation toward Black hair continue to give society permission to subvert the many wonders of Black hair and its sacredness.
For most individuals, physical appearance can impact how we view ourselves, how others perceive us, and how we socialize with others; our presentation can bring out confidence or make us self-conscious. Physical appearance has the power to influence the opportunities presented to individuals, as well as our political views, and finances. It may seem morally incorrect, but people do indeed judge a book by its cover because we live in a world where respectability politics carry weight in our social, economic, and political lifestyles.
Hair is often one of the first things we notice when interacting with other individuals and it is often a physical attribute many human beings have the power to easily change, unlike other body anatomies.
Since rise of colonialism and through the capture and enslavement of Black people, the glory of Black hair has been oppressed and these attacks have persisted for generations. In 1786, Louisiana’s Governor Esteban Rodrguez Miró passed the “Tignon Laws,” which prohibited Black Creole women from “displaying excessive attention to dress in the streets of New Orleans,” wrote Rediet Tadelein (Tignon Law: Policing Black Women’s Hair in the 18th Century). These laws forced freed Black women to wear a tignon (a fabric worn as a turban) over their hair because white women complained that their black counterparts were drawing in too much attention from their creative hairstyles.
Since the beginning of Afrakan civilization, Black hair has been used as a form of communication and self-identity amongst its people. Before the concept of racial biases came into fruition, the variations of Black styles were used as a way to identify ones’ heritage, social status, religion, marital status, one’s tribe affiliation, and other unique expressions.
Even during enslavement, it was very common for enslaved people to use hair braiding techniques to store rice in their hair for emergency purposes due to lack of food given by their white slave masters. Additionally, black hairstyles, such as braids, were another form of essential communication, as braid patterns were utilized for navigation in case one was lost or fleeing.
Due to the brilliance of Black hair white men and women across generations have leveraged their privilege to strip and shame Black women for their hair; from chopping the hair of Black enslaved women, to enacting policies such as the Tignon Laws, which were created to lower the status of free Black women beneath that of white women and their standard of beauty.
When slavery was abolished in 1876, Black women faced new ongoing oppression toward their natural hair because the white-dominated society viewed Black people as barbaric, which forced many Black people, especially Black women, to assimilate to white beauty standards in order to obtain a decent living in society and survive. In this time being able to straighten or “tame” Black hair was a way to give Black people social and economic advancement in American society because straight hair was considered superior. The straightening of Black hair became synonymous with the black experience in the early 1900s, as hair tools and products such as perms and pressing combs became popularized in the Black community.
Madam CJ Walker was a well-known entrepreneur in the 1920s who created Black hair care products and popularized the hot-comb. Many have critiqued Walker and her promotion of the hot-comb because it helped to push rhetoric that potentially supported normalizing the white European standard of beauty. However, on the contrary, it is very important credit is given to Madam CJ Walker because her work created a gateway for Black women to coexist in a world that oppresses the Black body through hair discrimination. Furthermore, despite Black women having to assimilate to white culture by straightening their hair, these tools helped opened a door for people to see the many capabilities of Black hair styling.
The first recorded natural hair movement arose during the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, as it created a space for Black people to embrace their natural beauty after living in a country that told them that their Blackness is not beautiful. Men and women wore their natural afros, urging Black people to stop wearing perms and straightening their hair to survive in the white-dominated society. Unlike the natural hair movement of today (2021), wearing an Afro then was a political statement, defined as “a weapon in the fight for racial equality, as well as a declaration for self-love and solidarity within the Black community,” wrote Griffin, for JSTOR Daily.
For most Black people, finding employment continued to play a factor in how individuals chose to wear their hair. Since the afro was often equated to being apolitical statement that centered Blackness, many employers would view those who wore their natural hair as “militant” or “troublesome,” and while some Black women continued to fight against the discrimination toward Black hair, once again there was a large percentage of Black women who continued to conform to European beauty standards with perms and hair straightening tools in order to find better job opportunities and advance in the white-dominated society.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created in 1965 to work toward prohibiting discrimination in the workspace. This organization was aided by the Civil Rights Act, which made segregation illegal in public spaces and while Black people have experienced some progress toward equity, creating the reality of hair equity still remains an ongoing issue.
One of the first federal hair discrimination cases took place in 1976; the case of Jenkins versus Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance Inc. A race discrimination lawsuit was formed against Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance Inc. for banning afros in the workspace. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, workers should be allowed to wear their afros. Though justice was served for Black hair during this case, there are still many inconsistencies in the judicial system when it comes to the laws of hair discrimination, and subsequent pressure from society has caused many Black women to continue to find solace in their assimilation to white beauty standards.
Black women today have created a new wave of the natural hair movement, and this time it’s less about making a political statement and more about self-care for Black women. Many Black women are understanding the maintenance of their hair in order to create better hair health, as Black people continue to combat the many challenges created through the long history of discrimination against Black hair.
According to the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, which is a law first introduced in California to ban race-based hair discrimination, 80% of Black women agreed they are put in a position during work and job interviews where they are required to change the natural state of their hair to receive the respect.
The incidents of Black people beings discriminated against, humiliated, left out, or “othered” have continued. In 2018, the story of a 16-year-old Black boy, Andrew Johnson surfaced. Johnson was a wrestler at Buena Regional High School, who was recorded publicly getting his dreadlocks cut off before a wrestling match because the referee considered his hair to be “unfit” for such sports competition, reported the Washington Post.
Where do we go from here?
The conditions of white supremacy have placed a huge burden on the care and freedom of expression for Black hair care, therefore it is imperative to recognize some of the trauma has been absorbed and perpetuated by people within the Black community. Hair texturism has been an ongoing discussion within black spaces. The varying textures of Black hair have been both uplifted and demonized by the people who share the same heritage, including many men who hold Black women to white beauty standards.
It is important for all people to understand the difference between educating oneself and being invasive while developing an understanding of Black women and their hair care. Black hair is not a free for all; it is essential to respect the bodies and space of Black women. Black hair can often take hours and even days of maintenance. No matter if the woman has weave or straight hair, it is not an opportunity to whisper in public or ask if her hair is really her hair.
Despite the many barriers placed upon Black women and their beauty standards, they have managed to create beauty trends throughout history in order to progress in white society, especially with the autonomy of hair. Fortunately enough, Black women continue to create space for expressing the multidimensional aspects of Black hair; with styles ranging from braids, twists, dreadlocks, curly and coily styles, to managing wig installations and weaves, or straightening their hair to show its true length, and many more. Black women and their hair are continuing to show society there are no limits to setting trends and expressing the brilliance of Black hair with every strand.
Every time Black hair is challenged, black women continue to defeat the odds. We are living in a space where each and every day we have new opportunities to continue combatting the many destructive, binding, and limiting ideas surrounding black hair. The fight for Black hair liberation is ongoing.