Is it Really Just Hair?
“You’re brave to be wearing your hair like that,” she said, tying her box braids back into a ponytail with an elastic band, the ones that rip and pull at your hair when you try to take them out. I smiled back, but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. I washed my hands off while she walked out of the bathroom, leaving me to look at myself in the mirror for a few seconds. I checked my hair, avoiding it with my wet hands to make sure it wouldn’t shrink even a little. I wondered why I had to be brave to be going natural, why I couldn’t blend in like everyone else. Why was my bravery measured in the way I connected with my natural roots? Why was my natural braver than other girls’ natural? With these thoughts in mind, I walked out of the bathroom as well. This was in middle school, and I only ever permed my hair once since.
When accepting parts of black culture like music, fashion, and vernacular, there still needs to be respect and appreciation for the actual people. This connects to the importance of hair, and how despite people embracing aspects of black culture, society does not accept their hair. Hair is one of the most vital parts of being human. Yet over history, it has become more than just what grows on our body. It has become a sign of culture, strength, and self-love. There are many hair types/textures that vary from race and culture, and it is evident that they are what help to define who we are. It is no longer about telling people what to do with what grows on their head, but also about depriving people of what they believe and love.
The Crown Act, which is the banning of natural hair discrimination for workers and in schools, was passed in California in 2019. Crown stands for creating a respectful and open world for natural black hair (https://www.thecrownact.com). Although passed in 2019, it revived the conversation about the importance of hair and how it is a reflection of black culture. The act was approved in NY 12 days after being passed in California, and that’s when schools started to edit their dress code violations. Before being edited, dress codes were saying our hair, when natural, was “unprofessional” when in reality it was referring to most black or Afrocentric hairstyles that we should be allowed to wear.
Joy Babalola, a Nigerian-American high school senior, talked about her hair struggles growing up. “It is very hard to manage socially. In elementary school, kids would be like ‘I wash my hair every day’ and I knew I couldn’t do that. But that’s the usual, what mostly everyone goes through.” If these types of social struggles are continuously ignored, there won’t be change. This especially applies to work and in school. Babalola also says, “It’s really sad. But I know for a fact that if I go to work, I’ll see others who look just like me.”
That brings up the question of why natural black hair is considered unprofessional in society. Why is any other hairstyle in the books marked as professional? Social media influencer Lotte Mcnnane says, “There is a racial stigma when it comes to professional and unprofessional hair. When I went to interviews I was always nervous. The way I was thinking of things was due to society. Natural hair or wearing an afro shouldn’t be seen as unprofessional because that’s just how hair really is.” This all supports the fact that despite hair being judged, black culture is still exploited and used without the full appreciation of the people.
My story, along with many others, shows that growing up natural is never something we are drawn to, but rather something we had to find within ourselves to take the courage to do. I remember the times in elementary school where there would be special events like concerts or class pictures and how I had to get prepared. I always went to the beauty supply with my mother, hands clasped, walking through the aisles in search of a perm set. The process of putting it in was always my biggest fear, how it burned, how my sensitive scalp couldn’t endure the treatment, and how after an hour of crying my mom would say it looked so much better. The soft and straight texture of my hair could finally take on the gel, and I would be ready for the event I was going to. I never had the choice of going natural then, but why were my straight tips appreciated more than my curly buns? Why did I never have the chance to love what my hair was before it was smeared in white perm, sitting for hours? In the total time I spent sitting while my perm set, I could’ve spent learning how to take proper care of my natural hair. I doubt standing on stage at a school concert or taking class pictures with my natural hair would’ve made me less of a person. So why did I have to change it? Because it is NOT just hair. If it was just hair, there would’ve been socially acceptable options.
Umu Barry, a high school senior whose parents are from Sierra Leone and Guinea, says, “When people have different or silky hair compared to you it makes you feel a certain type of way. Yet when I started watching YouTube videos and tips, I started to love my hair. I started transitioning to natural hair. I learned how to appreciate it and it helped with my confidence.” The feeling of being able to go out in public with natural hair and not fearing being judged or looked down upon for no right reason is a feeling everyone has the right to have.
In August 2016, Perception Institute made a study by releasing an IAT (Implicit association test) to 4,000 participants to find out more about the bias and discrimination for black women with natural hair (https://perception.org/goodhair/results/). This is referred to as ‘The Good Hair’ study. The results showed that most people, regardless of race or gender, were found to have a bias against natural hair. It also shed light on the social issues surrounding hair discrimination. The study found that one in five black women feel social pressure to have to straighten their hair for work, which is twice as many as white women.
Olivia Adechi, a West-African woman working for a non-profit organization, says, “I think that the policing of black and brown bodies and the regulation of it is inappropriate. The fact that White people would define what professional versus unprofessional looks like for a different hair type, or that there is a standard, doesn’t really make any sense.” This is very common for workers and although not said aloud, is a running belief against workers with natural hair. The Crown Act, along with the help of media and influencers, is working to stop discrimination and judgment for natural hair in schools, the workplace, and social settings.
Youth are the biggest target for these topics because we are the ones who hold most of the power for the future. If we continue to ignore the identity of black people, it will only be buried. It is so beautiful to see people transitioning into the natural hair journey, and it is mostly because of the support they have from those around them and the figures in the media who inspire them to take on this journey.
I wish I would’ve had this many positive influences for hair when I was growing up, because maybe then I would have been more comfortable with my hair. My transition really happened two years ago, when I had a weave in for a school event, and by the time I took it out, most of my hair had fallen out. It was a shock to me and I never realized that what I was doing was slowly damaging my hair. I remember it falling out in clumps on the bathroom floor, and crying to myself because I wanted to take it all back. It was that moment that changed everything for me. I made the decision to go natural and did not get any perms after this incident. When I told my family they thought I was crazy and told me it didn’t make sense because I didn’t have the length or courage to do so. They were partially right, seeing as I still hid behind wigs and box braids, but as time went on and my hair grew longer, I had this new bravery to start wearing my natural hair out in public, something I would never have imagined doing. I find beauty in going natural, and I have influences in the media who inspire me to continue to work hard to stay on this path. Yet not a lot of young girls get to have this moment of realization before it is too late. This is why our generation, that is glued to their screens and immersed in the media, has such a huge impact on our future.
It is amazing to see how many can be a sense of inspiration for people of all generations today. Social media influencer Lotte Mcnnane talks about her hair journey and the impact she has on social media. “I personally strive to be a light of positivity. I never expected to gain a following. When I first started it was just my cousins saying how much they looked up to me, then my aunts saying I was a positive influence. It grew out of my home community but I still have the core of being a positive light and bringing knowledge to others, especially with natural hair.” Mcnanne now has over 84K followers on TikTok and has continued to grow on platforms like YouTube and Instagram. I found her account and I instantly loved what she was doing for those who admired her hair. She is a prime example of how we can use the media to our benefit in this day and age.
To make a safe space for other individuals to make this decision or support others, it is important that people start to change their mindsets and become more open and accepting of differences. Yet change comes from understanding; it comes from honesty, courage, determination, and the will to make a better community. Change starts with us.