The Politics of Hair
Your hair is not just hair. Then what is it? You might wonder. Hair has always had a significance socially, culturally, and even religiously for hundreds of years and across different cultures. Growing up, hair did not mean much to me; it was just hair, but as time went by, I began seeing the different perceptions or reactions to people depending on how they chose to wear their hair. I went to a Christian boarding school in Western Kenya, and it was a requirement that everyone cuts their hair to its entirety. It was no surprise to me because that was the norm in a lot of schools in the region. The reason given by the teachers was that hair was a distraction, and we would perform poorly in our examinations if we were allowed to grow it out. But as time went by, it became apparent that it was not about growing out hair to a specific length but rather about the texture and type of hair being grown. For the girls who had 3b hair texture, they were allowed to grow out their hair so long as they kept it neat, but for the students who had 4c hair, who made up the majority of the school population, they were not allowed to grow out their hair. This obsession with hair that has close proximity to white hair is rooted in colonialism, as you will find out later.
My hair, My Power
According to (Johnson, 2021), African women shaving their heads was not the norm apart from the Masai women from Kenya and Tanzania who shaved their heads bald. When the colonizers invaded African countries, they were fully aware of the stigma attached to shaved heads in African cultures, and so, they used the cutting of an enslaved woman’s hair as punishment. The enslavers’ wives who were jealous of the enslaved African women also cut off their hair so that they would not be found attractive by the slave masters. For African women, hair was not just aesthetic adornment, but rather, it was used to define social status, establish class within the society, and enhance self-image and esteem (Omotoso, 2021). And so, when an African woman’s hair was cut unceremoniously like that, it was a symbol of her history, which was greatly valued and authenticity being taken away.
During the fight for independence in Kenya, the Mau Mau, who were part of the freedom struggle, kept their hair into dreadlocks as a form of survival and resistance against the indoctrination of hating their own African ancestry and African features (Hinds, 2021). This was a form of resistance and a way of taking back the power that the colonizers had over them. It is pretty interesting to note how much the perception of dreadlocks has changed over time. For a long time, people who wore their hair into dreadlocks were profiled into being violent and unprofessional, but dreadlocks are currently worn as a fashion statement or one’s celebration of their African heritage. Therefore, it is apparent that hair has not just been for aesthetics or fashion for a very long time but rather has been a symbol of power. Although it is implausible that one would wake up in the morning and decide that they are going to wear their hair a certain way as a symbol of power, the messages that our hair sends precede us. One of my friends once wore an afro to school, and to her, it was just a hairstyle that flattered her face, and it also made it easier for her to comb through. To her surprise, however, she encountered several people who threw up a fist and said ‘revolutionary’ words to her regarding her hair. Even though it was just a hairstyle for her, the afro symbolized revolution, just like in the 1960s where the natural afro worn by political activist Angela Davis came to symbolize the Civil Rights Movement (Burney, 2021). This further reinforces the point that hair is a symbol of power.
Beauty Lies in the Colonizer’s Eyes
In Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Americanah, Hair is a significant theme all throughout the book. At some point, the protagonist, Ifemelu, asks if Barack Obama would have been elected into office as President if Michelle chose to wear her hair naturally (Wilcox, 2021). This might seem like such a menial issue and easy to brush aside, but you have to wonder why Michelle Obama has to have her hair always relaxed to have a more ‘professional look or a look that the people are comfortable with?
Over time, I have found myself in spaces where conversations about professionalism become very heated when one begins to dig deep into what it really is. What really is professionalism, and who gets to dictate what is professional and what it is not? According to American grassroots, organizer-scholars Tema Okun and Keith Jones, the standards of professionalism are heavily defined by white supremacy culture, which explicitly privileges whiteness and discriminates against non-white standards of professionalism in relation to speech, work, dress-code and style (Gray, 2021). Have you ever thought about the fact that every time you are asked to dress professionally, your first thought is to throw on a tuxedo suit, or when you look up professional dressing on Google, what comes up is a group of primarily white people in suits? Whether it is unconscious or not, this bias spills over to the way employers or people, in general, respond to speech; for example, if one has an accent, they are considered unprofessional or when their dressing is not up to western standards. The same goes for hair in ‘professional’ settings. Hair, especially for black women, has always evoked conversations in the workplace, specifically about personal brand, career advancement, and even performance (Hill & Hill, 2021). There is a lot of stigmatization and bias that a lot of black women face in the workplace because of wearing their hair in their natural state. This is mainly because straightened hair with very close proximity to white hair is considered professional hair. The perception of black hair as unruly, wild, and defiant has been in existence since the colonialism days and modern black women having to deal with the same issues makes it such a sad state of affairs. It is pretty interesting to note that this bias exists in the work setting and in social settings or educational settings such as schools. In 2016, a group of teenage girls from the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls went on a protest against a clause in the school’s code of conduct that banned wide cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks (Greenblatt, 2021). Even though the policy was not a new one since a lot of schools in South Africa had passed the same policy, the girls decided to fight back because it was clear that the policy was not about grooming but rather was formed based on race. According to (Joseph-Salisbury & Connelly, 2018), the policing of black hair, which is an extension of the policing of the black body, is white social control which has its roots deep in enslavement and colonialism. It is almost as if to say, beauty or professionalism lies in the colonizer’s eyes.
Welcome to my channel!
It is very likely that when scrolling through Instagram, you have come across a page that is dedicated to celebrating natural hair, be it dreadlocks, braids, or even cornrows. The natural hair movement was born as a movement to encourage people with afro-textured hair to embrace it. Social media has played a significant role in the mobilization and impact of the modern natural hair movement (Simeon, 2021). These social media platforms have allowed men and women interested in growing out their hair naturally to form forums where they could hold discussions, share their journeys, and even tips on platforms such as Youtube. This has helped in the advancement of the movement in general and also in the calling out of discrimination against people just because of their hair, for example, in the case of DeAndre Arnold, whose school had barred him from graduating unless he cut off his dreadlocks (Beachum, 2021). DeAndre’s case sparked a lot of conversations online, and activists came up to challenge the school’s dress code policy because a student could not be denied their right to graduate just because of hair. As much as social media has contributed to the growth of the natural hair movement and the acceptance of black hair, it has also played a role in reinstating the biases. According to (Akutekha, 2021), the natural hair movement has failed black women by glamorizing looser curls prioritizing techniques and products to create “defined curls and focuses less on loving textured hair. This contrasts with the initial goal of the movement since it shows that natural hair can only be accepted and embraced if it is leaning towards Eurocentric beauty standards. Such a perception only reinforces the stigma attached to textured hair.
It is, therefore, evident that the concept of hair being just hair goes beyond that. Just as in traditional African societies where hair was dynamic, in that it showed class, ethnicity, religion, and even respectability, it is no different in modern society. Some people wear their hair as an identity, while others choose to wear it just as a fashion statement, which shows just how much dynamic hair is. The dynamism of hair itself means that we should not let our perceptions of a certain kind of hair cloud our judgment. Does a person wearing dreadlocks suggest that they are irresponsible? Or does having straight and relaxed hair mean that one is more competent and better at their job than the person with a combed-up afro? Think about it; if your answer is yes, then there is still work to be done. For more information and a better understanding of how complex hair is, Chris Rock’s documentary ‘Good Hair’ is a good place to start.
Akutekha, E. (2021). How The Natural Hair Movement Has Failed Black Women. HuffPost UK. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/natural-hair-movement-failed-black-women_l_5e5ff246c5b6985ec91a4c70.
Beachum, L. (2021). Student will be barred from graduation unless he cuts his dreadlocks, school says. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/01/23/texas-dreadlocks-suspension/.
Botchway, D., Sarpong, A., & Quist-Adade, C. New perspectives on African childhood.
Burney, E. (2021). Untangling the politics of hair. Vogue India. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.vogue.in/beauty/content/the-politics-of-hair-how-protest-hair-became-a-form-of-political-expression.
Gray, A. (2021). The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards (SSIR). Ssir.org. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_bias_of_professionalism_standards.
Greenblatt, A. (2021). NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. Npr.org. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/09/06/492417635/a-ban-on-black-hairstyles-raises-deeper-issues-about-race.
Hill, S., & Hill, S. (2021). An Honest Conversation About Hair Politics in the Workplace. Black Enterprise. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.blackenterprise.com/honest-conversation-black-women-hair-politics-workplace/.
Hinds, L. (2021). The Journey of Dreadlocks: From the Forest of Kenya to the Corporate Offices of America. TAPinto. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.tapinto.net/towns/east-orange-slash-orange/articles/the-journey-of-dreadlocks-from-the-forest-of-ken.
Johnson, E. (2021). Resistance and Empowerment in Black Women’s Hair Styling.
Joseph-Salisbury, R., & Connelly, L. (2018). ‘If Your Hair Is Relaxed, White People Are Relaxed. If Your Hair Is Nappy, They’re Not Happy’: Black Hair as a Site of ‘Post-Racial’ Social Control in English Schools. Social Sciences, 7(11), 219. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7110219
Omotoso, S. (2021). Untangling the knotty politics of African women’s hair. The Conversation. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://theconversation.com/untangling-the-knotty-politics-of-african-womens-hair-48252.
Simeon, A. (2021). How Natural Hair Has Influenced A Generation. Refinery29.com. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/natural-hair-industry-history-evolution.
Wilcox, I. (2021). Hair matter in Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” | Happening Africa. Happeningafrica.com. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.happeningafrica.com/hair-matters-in-chimamanda-adiches-novel-americanah/.