I first posted this piece in December of 2013. Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at making Medium my blog’s new home. As I find my way around, I’m going to share some of the essays I’ve written over the past few years.
Yesterday on Twitter I happened upon a discussion about black people’s hair. The Essence Debates team was soliciting thoughts on wearing natural hair at work. Initially, I was ticked off.
“It’s 2013, and we’re STILL discussing this…?!?”
My mind even slipped into snarky territory.
This is what’s wrong with black women. We still think we need permission to be ourselves.
But then I looked at myself. You’re reading a post by someone who still receives notes from relatives who offer to make her over. These offers stem from the belief that I’d look better if my appearance matched their vision. And there are times when their words still get to me. Hence, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the way I look is a sensitive topic.
Hair is HUGE in the black community — especially among black women. And for many of us it’s not a matter of mere vanity.
Take the selfie that’s a few lines down.
I think I look ok. Still, there’s a huge section of the population that will look at that shot and think my hair shouldn’t be seen. Not unless it’s straightened or weaved to within an inch of its life.
If you don’t quite get where I’m coming from, stick around. The text after my photo is from a draft of an essay I wrote earlier this year for an online magazine. I’m not sure if they still want to use my work. But if you’re new to my blog I figured now’s as good a time as any to tell the truth about how some black people feel about the way they look…
If certain people had their way, I would look like Naomi Campbell.
I figure I’m halfway there. I’m black and although my skin isn’t exactly perfect, I have basic features that some consider beautiful.
Still in some folks’ eyes, there’s one thing keeping me from being accepted in established society. My hair.
For over a decade I’ve refused to get it chemically straightened. (I’ve tried a few times. But I never went more than a couple of months before cutting my hair off and starting to grow it out again.) I remember when I first decided to sport my own hair or “go natural”. When I was 24 I went to get my hair done at a pricy Toronto salon. However, according to their stylist, my hair was chemically over-processed. The only cure that was prescribed was a cut. I made an appointment, and by the end, just about all of my hair was gone.
In the aftermath, I decided that I actually liked the feel of what sprouted naturally from my scalp. I let my strands grow. I wanted to get to know them.
Fast forward to earlier this year. I barely had half a foot in the door of a career in education. I was as a substitute teacher. I’d spent a substantial amount of time trying to make the leap into full-time work, but without any success.
And according to everyone from family to older, supposedly wiser (black) friends, a steady job eluded me because of my appearance.
People’s attempts at giving me advice about this problem taught me an intriguing truth:
You could take the most cultured, well-spoken black person in the world. Their level of education could rival Stephen Hawking. Yet confront said individual about whether or not a black woman has the right to wear her hair in its natural state…?
You might just be opening a Pandora’s box.
After I earned my BA in the late 90s, less than a decade afterwards, I decided to pursue a degree in education. A few months after I graduated I was taken to visit an older relative’s friends. I told her of my non-adventures as a teacher — during the last few weeks of my program I had attended an interview, but was unsuccessful.
The woman I spoke with was a proud individual who owned her own business. After some small talk, she asked me the most benign of questions.
“Why do you wear your hair that way?”
At the time I didn’t think anything of how I looked. My hair was tidy. I wore a short afro puff with a dark headband. It was a subdued style.
Nonplussed, I told the truth.
“It’s my hair on my head.” I shrugged. I didn’t see anything wrong with the way I looked. I thought my answer said it all. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything detrimental about a black person wearing her own hair in public without altering it.
Yet the woman in question didn’t like my response. She lit into me. She commented on my lack of professional success. She told me that it was no wonder I hadn’t been hired — she herself would not hire me. Not with my hair looking like THAT.
Minutes later, I witnessed a disturbing conversation. According to my elders, it was critical for black people to assimilate into North American society. And that assimilation was often hindered by one vital item. Our hair. I sat stunned as in front of my face, I was talked about as though I’d announced a decision to start a drug habit.
Like it or not, a standard of conformity concerning hair exists among black people. For many, the ideal aesthetic involves the straighter tresses found on women of other races. And those who don’t toe the line risk being ridiculed.
In addition to having been told that my hair needs to be “done”, over the years I’ve heard that it looks like “filth”. (And by “filth”, I mean actual “shit”.) Online I’ve read stories of parents threatening to withhold privileges from their teenage children, men giving their wives a hard time…Two of the most significant things that black women are told about choosing to wear natural hair is that they will remain single and that they aren’t employable. The notion of Black Woman With Natural Hair = Unworthy is huge. And hurtful.
It’s kind of funny. The people who insist on being nasty to those of us with natural hair think they’re doing a good thing. I’ve heard some of them try to justify their obnoxious attitudes. They say they want to spare those who walk around with nappy hair from ridicule. Yet just who is it that is being insulting?
The truth is that most people who aren’t black don’t even know that our natural hair texture is a problem. More than once, I’ve received complements on my hair from peers of all colours. (Even in its current crazy, developing-dread stage.) Back when I first went natural I tried to relay this information to relatives. Yet what did I hear in return? That the person in question was lying. Plain and simple.
Now, I could see their logic if only one person had told me that my hair looked nice. But various, separate individuals? I even read an article online where the author insisted that positive feedback concerning our hair can’t be authentic.
Meanwhile, I believe that a change is long overdue. Some black people need to grow beyond the idea that every time a non-black person is kind to one of “us”, their gesture is insincere.
I mean, honestly. This is 2013. These days, the only non-blacks who hate black hair’s natural texture are racists.
In all seriousness, the amount of nonsense surrounding the way black people view natural hair has got to stop.
People in North America have been blinded by the most insidious of all beauty myths. Curly hair is not unattractive. Nappy hair is not hideous. Having it should not make someone unemployable or unacceptable. However, many black people have grown too accustomed to seeing textured hair manipulated into straighter styles. Anything that does not fit this ideal is depicted as a problem.
Yet this difference is not a problem. It is not a barrier. Rather, authenticity is an opportunity.
If only the people I love would recognize it.