Anti-Blackness, Tokenism, and Other Struggles of a Sista with 4C Hair
Hi, my name is Jaz and I have 4C hair. I am not sure why I decided to open this post the way someone would begin their AA confessional. Perhaps I felt the need to reintroduce myself to the world after deciding to become natural again. Perhaps I’ve been staring at this page for about 20 minutes trying to decide how to begin this post. Maybe both. I’ll let you decide.
I felt the need to document my hair journey for some while now. I’ve been natural for almost a year. During this process, I’ve learnt so much about myself. I have also learnt so much about the world around me. In short, hair is powerful. It can convey messages about ourselves to the world.
Black hair, in particular, is extraordinary. It literally defies gravity. To our mainstream, Eurocentric societies, it is unnatural. Isn’t that ironic? Our natural hair is unnatural. Whether you are a Black man or Black woman, if you have kinky or curly hair, then what I am about to say to you may not be foreign.
I am about to take you through my hair journey, with a bit of a twist. Sit back and get comfortable. This is going to take a while.
Let me take you to the beginning of my journey.
For the majority of my childhood, I grew up with tough, dry, and kinky 4C hair. I absolutely hated it when my mother would comb my hair because she would yank her wide-tooth comb through my hair like she was playing a game of tug-of-war. When I would start to cry from pain, she would scold me for being too sensitive.
It was more or less the same situation when I would go to the hairdressers for a braid-up.
To be honest, I didn’t mind going to the salon that much. I always loved smelling the shampoos and conditioners before getting my hair washed. I liked the way my hair looked after getting it braided. It was all fun and games until my hairdressers would grip my hair to start braiding in the extensions. “Stop being so tender-headed,” they would say once I started crying.
By age 9, I had enough. In hindsight, I think I actually hated my hair, which is pretty disappointing to admit. I did not like that it was short or hard to comb. I didn’t like that my curls were so tight or that my styles were always so lame. Not to mention that my classmates taunted me because of my hair, which I hated.
Other Black girls in my class had hair that I absolutely admired. My friends always had these slick ponytails and long, flowing locks. I was curious to know why they didn’t have kinky hair like mine. When I asked them why their hair was so different from mine, they all gave me answers that changed the direction of my hair journey forever.
“Perm,” they all said.
I wanted to perm my hair.
I didn’t know what relaxing my hair would do to me, and neither did my mom or my dad. Looking back on the situation now, I realize how little all of us knew about 4C hair. I got all of my hair from my mother, who also has a 4C texture. My dad has a 2C texture, which all of my younger sisters were fortunate enough to inherit a piece of.
I begged my parents to let me perm my hair. My mother refused, but my father was enthusiastic about the situation. He said that my hair was as tough as a “bowl of salt” and that relaxing it would make it easier to manage. My parents compromised and settled for letting me press my hair with a hot comb.
You could not have told me that I was not the cutest thing at school the day after I straightened my hair. If you did, I would have just flipped my shoulder-length press in your face and walked away. I adored my hair for all of the 72 hours before it rained on my way home a few days later. My hair went right back to its natural state, and I went right back to asking my mom for a perm.
All the begging and pleading paid off eventually. When I was 10-years-old, my dad installed an Olive Oil at-home relaxing kit in my hair one day while my mother was at work. When she came home, you could say she was furious, but I did not care. I finally had straight hair.
In retrospect, relaxing my hair was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
It did not take long before my hair started to break. As I said, none of us knew much about caring for our hair. For the next 11 years, I suffered extensive hair breakage. I always waited too long between perms to get my next one and I did not treat my hair often during this time. I would switch back and forth between braids, crochet, pressing, and the occasional weave, but by the time I got myself into a routine, it was too late.
My hair wasn’t growing the way I wanted it to. My new hairstylist did not know how to care for my hair well. I felt so insecure when I wore my hair without a protective style. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I started thinking about going natural again but I quickly dismissed the idea. I thought about the relationship I had with my hair when I was younger. My hair was so short and tough to comb. I did not have the energy to deal with that again, so I continued with my inefficient routine.
In early 2019, my mother did the big chop, and it was at that time that I started to think about going natural again. At this time, my sister was an enthusiastic naturalist and I began to learn about caring for natural 4C hair. I became aware of the wide range of products available for Black hair and what I could do to address some of my biggest concerns with my hair. I started going to a new hairstylist, who was knowledgable about natural hair and started giving me the information I needed to make my decision.
By August 2019, I was ready to go natural.
I had not permed my hair since March of 2019, and I slowly began to chop off the relaxed ends of my hair. During the awkward transition, I mostly braided my hair. Finally, I was approaching the last tuff of relaxed hair. I was eager to snip it off and see what I looked like as natural. There was a sense of nervousness, but also a sense of giddiness and excitement.
As of January 2020, I am officially natural.
But hold on, my story does not end here.
On one hand, yes, my journey to accepting my natural hair does end here; however, there is more to the story. To understand, you need to know two things about me:
- I live and work in a predominately white neighbourhood
- I work with kids.
Around the same time that I decided to go natural, I had begun a new job. Since I started working there, no one has seen my natural hair. They had seen and liked my neat cornrow extensions. My coworkers were familiar with my micro Senegalese twists. Everyone was used to the ponytail attachment that I would use in between protective styles. All the while, nobody knew what my hair looked like.
Once I cut off all the relaxed ends on my hair, I was ready to wear my natural hair in public. Although this event may appear insignificant to others, it was a monumental milestone for me. I felt like a new person and I was excited to share this side of me with the world.
As I was driving to work the first day after I was 100% natural, my anxiety began to take over. I am the only Black girl in my workplace and one of the few Black people in my community. When my coworkers chat about their hair struggles, I sit idly by. The idea of them embracing Black hair, something they did not understand, seemed impossible at that moment.
I was wondering how people would react to my hair.
Would my ‘fro be considered “unprofessional”? Would it be viewed as weird or intimidating with the youth that I worked with? Was I going to get annoying questions like “can I touch your hair”? These thoughts and more raced through my mind as I walked through the front door.
As I braced myself for an uncomfortable reaction, I received one that I did not anticipate: silence. As I made my way around the room and said my hellos, I felt the eyes of my coworkers and students follow me, or rather, my afro. Unlike the other styles that I had dawned, I did not receive any compliments for my most authentic style yet.
The issue here is not the reaction that I received. Rather, it is the anti-Black culture surrounding Afrocentric hair that I find to be problematic.
I don’t mind the fact that I did not receive compliments or that my natural hair turns people off. That does not bother me.
What I do mind is that we live in a society where Black men and women feel like they have to conform to Eurocentric appearances when they are in the workplace because their natural hair, skin, etc. is deemed to be unprofessional. I do not like that I had to question whether it was “safe” for me to show my natural hair at work. I do not like that the negative preconceived notions about Black hair have led workplaces to prohibit Black men and women from wearing their natural hair.
My hair journey has been long and complex; nevertheless, I finally made it to a place where I can say I love my hair. This feeling of peace and joy has been taken away by mainstream society and Eurocentric beauty standards. What was once satisfaction was briefly replaced with doubt and fear.
I am fortunate enough to work in a place where I did not have my boss tell me not to wear my natural hair. Despite this blessing, this process made me think about all of the Black men and women who were told not to wear their natural hairstyles in the workplace. This form of discrimination is not foreign. Just a few months ago, Gabrielle Union was let go from America’s Got Talent because her hairstyles were viewed as being “too black”.
Black hair has been politicized.
Research shows that hair discourse intersects with race and gender. For example, in African countries, the texture and length of hair are used to determine socioeconomic status, represent sexuality, and determine and desirability for both men and women.
During the 1700s, Black women were forced to wear headscarves over their hair to indicate that they belonged to the slave class, even though some of these women were technically free. This practice began to associate Black hair with low socioeconomic classes. In Western societies, Black hair became synonymous with rebellion against discrimination in the 1960s when the afro became a symbol of the Black Panthers. The Panthers were feared by mainstream populations, which indirectly inspired fear amongst these populations into symbols of the Panthers, including the afro.
Even the physical nature of Black hair contradicts Eurocentric society and values.
Mainstream Eurocentric beauty standards praise long, straight hair, which is usually held by white men and women. This hair is viewed as being everything that mainstream society thinks it is: good, beautiful, and orderly. Black, Afrocentric hair contrasts Eurocentric beauty standards in almost every way. Our hair is curly and kinky. From an outside point of view, our hair is untamed, which opposes the image of order projected in white hair aesthetics.
North American communities have made it hard for Black men and women with natural hair to assimilate into mainstream society. The stereotypes associated with Black hair have kept naturalists from obtaining opportunities that may be important to their survival. Some may critique that Black people do not need or want to fit into the values of our Eurocentric society. I argue that Black people have been marginalized from these environments for way too long. We deserve the opportunity to choose if we want to be included in these spaces or environments. If a naturalist wants to adhere to the lifestyle of mainstream society, then that opportunity should not be taken from them because of how they wear their hair.
For example, corporate America has strict policies about how their employees must look. In the United States, many Black men and women have experienced hair discrimination in the workplace. Many have been unequivocally coerced into conforming to the Eurocentric workplace aesthetic. Thankfully, legislation has been introduced in numerous states, including New York and California, to prohibit discrimination against natural hair in the workplace. Despite this progress, many Black men and women in America are still fighting for the right to be accepted for who they are.
Black hair must be normalized.
Western society has told us that Black hair is abnormal. This is a message that even Black people have internalized. Looking back at the beginning of my hair journey now, I see that I subconsciously believed that my hair was “bad” and that it “needed to be fixed”. I was being mocked at school about my hair and was told at home that it was impossible to maintain. The negative reactions that I received towards my hair made me feel like something was wrong with my hair. As I young girl I never saw Black girls on television with their hair in its natural state (aside from the occasional boxed braid). Even the language used to address my hair, like the phrase “fix your hair” suggested that somehow my hair was broken. I experienced tokenism before even knowing what it was.
In recent years, a natural hair movement has been sweeping across the Western world.
Black women and men are being told that it is okay to wear your natural hair in public. In this technological era, naturalists have more access to hair tips and products than ever before. There are communities, online and in real life, that support the acceptance and normalization of Black hair.
Even pop culture, and mainstream TV and film are beginning to show Black men and women with natural hair. At the 92nd Oscars, “Hair Love,” an animated short film about an African-American father learning to do his daughter’s natural hair, won Best Animated Short Film.
The Netflix original film “Nappily Ever After,” explores the relationship that an African-American woman has with her natural hair after an incident at a hair salon. The film also explores how society’s perceptions of Afrocentric hair affects this relationship.
Natural, Black hair is beautiful.
Despite what the media says, despite what your coworkers say, despite what your family says, Black hair, your hair, is beautiful. There is so much versatility in Black hair. Braids, weaves, wigs… I’ll just let Jill Scott explain it to you.
My brothers and sisters, don’t succumb to the idea that our hair is “hard to maintain,” or that there is such thing as “good hair” or “bad hair”. Our hair is perfect the way that it is. Be proud of your natural state. Of course, if you like perming your hair or wearing weaves there is nothing wrong with that. You look your best when you are happy and confident, and that is all we want for you.
What is your hair journey like?
Comment your thoughts below!
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