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THE WELL Editors

Published: 02/10/2022

Hair is an undeniable form of self expression — a way to communicate to the world a part of your identity. But living in a culture steeped in systemic racism and sexism, hair can also be a catalyst for judgment and prejudice.

“Hair matters — and it matters to all of us — because it is a form of non-verbal communication,” says social and cultural psychologist Johanna Lukate, Ph.D.

However, as Dr. Lukate points out in her TEDxTalk The Psychology of Black Hair, women of color are having a different discussion, "a conversation about the history of slavery and colonialism… about the history of sexism and racism — contemporary stories of migration and belonging.”

“For women of color, hairstyling — from chemically relaxing to covering your hair with a wig or deliberately wearing it in an Afro — is about managing a marginalized identity,” says Lukate. “It is styling your hair with the understanding that you’re not just judged by what is in your control… but you are judged by physical attributes given to you at birth, such as the color of your skin or the texture of your hair."

“For women of color, hairstyling — from chemically relaxing to covering your hair with a wig or deliberately wearing it in an Afro — is about managing a marginalized identity."

Take the natural hair movement, for example — a movement encouraging men and women of African descent to embrace their natural hair texture — which found its roots during the Black liberation movement of the 50s and 60s and has continued to grow through the use of social media.

In the early days of YouTube, Black beauty bloggers became a huge catalyst in spreading the natural hair movement. Women of color were sharing haircare tips and creating online communities, linking people all over the world and celebrating their authenticity and beauty in the process.

And thanks to social media, that has become even easier. On TikTok, #naturalhaircare has 133.4 million views. Not only does this open up the conversation about Black hair, but it’s a way of continuing to celebrate Black joy and uplift future generations. Case in point: This video of a little girl coaching her Dad on how to tie her head wrap; her smile at the end when he finally gets it right is pure delight.

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The Historical Significance of Black Hair

Black hair has a rich history, symbolizing both empowerment and individuality as well as survival and resistance for men and women.

1 Hair was a sacred tool of communication in ancient African societies.

In the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, co-authors Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps discuss how hair was an integral part of communication in West African societies in the early fifteenth century. It functioned as a “carrier of messages” particularly for those societies that would later fill slave ships, “including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo and Yoruba.”

In the book, Byrd and Tharps go on to explain that “within these cultures, hair was an integral part of a complex language system. Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community. In some cultures, a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyle. The hairstyle also served as an indicator of a person’s geographic origins.”

2 Slave traders shaved the heads of those they captured, beginning identity erasure for enslaved Africans.

An estimated 12 million men, women and children were sold into slavery during the transatlantic slave trade. According to Byrd and Tharps, one of the first things slave traders did was shave the heads of those they captured. “Presumably the slave traders shaved the heads of their new slaves for what they considered sanitary reasons, but the effect was much more insidious — it was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slaves’ culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair… Arriving without their signature hairstyles, Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel,” Byrd and Tharps write.

3 Hair became a means of protection and survival for enslaved Black people, sparking the beginnings of texturism.

Texturism, or the belief that certain curl patterns are superior to others, began to spread within slave communities. Following European beauty standards, slaves with lighter skin and straighter hair were often favored for safer and more desirable positions within the house.

Cornrows also became a means of survival. As this Face2Face.com post explains, escape routes were braided into the hair of slaves, since carrying a map was far too dangerous.

4 Laws forced Black women to cover their hair when in public.

In 1786, the governor of Louisiana enacted the Edict of Good Government, (also called the Tignon Laws), which “prohibited Creole women of color from displaying ‘excessive attention to dress’ in the streets of New Orleans.” They were forced to wear headscarves called tignons, in order to cover their hair and visibly communicate that they were a part of the slave class.

As this article reveals, historian Virginia M. Gould notes in 1997’s The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South that the tignon laws were intended “to return the free women of color, visibly and symbolically, to the subordinate and inferior status associated with slavery… but free women of color subverted this original intention. Instead of wearing drab headscarves that minimized their beauty, Black women enacted their autonomy by purchasing bright, colorful headwraps, elaborately wrapping and tying them, and adorning them with jewels, beads and ribbons.”

5 The Afro became a symbol of resistance during the Black liberation movement.

During the 1950s and 1960s, natural Black hairstyles such as the Afro, became a pivotal part of the Black liberation movement and a symbol of the growing resistance in a racist America. As Tharp told CBC, “It wasn't about a style, it was a form of protest to say, I am not going to straighten my hair anymore. So the Black Afros that we associate with people such as Angela Davis and the Black Panthers of the civil rights movement really became a symbol of resistance."

6 Institutional bias against Black hairstyles continues to exist today.

According to a study at Duke University, “Black women with natural hairstyles, such as curly Afros, braids or twists, are often perceived as less professional than Black women with straightened hair, particularly in industries where norms dictate a more conservative appearance.”

Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a management professor and a senior associate dean who conducted the research, says these findings “offer empirical evidence that societal bias against natural Black hairstyles infiltrates the workplace and perpetuates race discrimination.”

This evidence appears in modern-day stories like that of Jenesis Jones (a Florida teen who was told her Afro was distracting and can’t be worn at school) and in countless others that don’t make headlines.

Part of dismantling this bias is by educating ourselves and others about the history of Black hair, something we can only scratch the surface of within this piece — continue your education by reading the resources listed below.

It is also up to all of us to take action. The CROWN Act, created in 2019, is the first piece of American legislation to protect “against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs (also known controversially as dreadlocks), twists and knots in the workplace and public schools.”

Sign the petition to end hair discrimination here.

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