Before I moved to the Netherlands one of my biggest worries besides the weather, the language and whether I should get a bike or not, was what I was going to do with my hair. A question not many people have to ask themself before moving to another country. As a black woman, my hair is unique in its structure, in how it behaves, its versatility, and the struggles that it brings not only in maintaining it just like everyone else does but also in how the world views it. Living in Zimbabwe, a predominantly black country, my hair was never an issue or something I ever really paid much attention to. In primary school, the school I went to only allowed us to have cornrows, something that I didn't like simply because I wanted to have braids like other girls from other schools did. I felt that they made me look plain and boring (which was probably the point of it, and as my mom would always say “You go to school to learn, not for a fashion show.”) so I only ever got braids or other ‘fun’ hairstyles during the holidays. During the 4/6 years, I spent in high school, I was also only allowed cornrows, unless you were a senior then you got to have braids which was a ‘privilege’, but still only a certain length and colour. However, in my last two years of high school, I moved to a different school, so I finally got to have braids, (still with restrictions)! Every school in Zimbabwe has its rules and attitudes towards what is acceptable or appropriate for school, but one thing I feel like they all have in common is that black girls’ hair needs to be controlled, changed and presentable in a way that doesn’t fully allow them to express themselves or even embrace their natural hair in all its beauty. A concept I only really started to question and reflect on a year ago, when conversations around the black student experience at certain schools were brought forward in the form of Instagram pages by the many protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter Movement that happened on the other side of the globe. When I first moved to the Netherlands one of the first things I looked for was a shop that sold black hair products. I knew at some point, the day was going to come when I would need to take down my braids and take care of my hair in a way I had never done or had to, that didn’t damage it until I could get my hair braided again. After some exploring around the city, I found some shops that sold amazing hair products! Then came the issue of the price! The uniqueness and versatility of black hair means it needs extra care, which means, first of all, knowing your hair type, whether it works best with oil-based or water-based products, how damaged it is (for example chemical damage), buying several different products and combs, and of course the most important thing, a satin or silk-lined bonnet, amongst a host of other things. After finding the right products and setting yourself back about a hundred euros or so, and finally finding a day to fully dedicate to your hair, the actual process begins! The song ‘Peng black girls’ by ENNY was the pep talk and song of appreciation I needed to fully embrace my hair in its natural state. After years of songs, movies, and books describing long, straight and shiny hair or soft, bouncy curly hair, I felt like my hair and experience were finally recognised, appreciated, and adored. Not only did it make me feel seen and heard but it also gave me the confidence to wear my natural hair out in public, something that not many people understand is a real struggle for many black girls. For the first time, I enjoyed taking care of my hair, trying different styles, and embracing myself as a ‘peng’ black girl. The way a black woman wears her hair says a lot about her, not necessarily because she has assigned a meaning behind it or because she wants to make a statement about it, but because society has assigned meaning to it. Whether you have box braids, curly hair, a wig, an afro, cornrows, Bantu knots or straightened hair, everyone is going to view you differently. For years now, black women embracing their natural hair, especially by wearing it in afros, was seen as a political statement, a rejection of white/western beauty standards. Nowadays it’s not necessarily a political statement, but it is still seen as a rejection of euro-centric beauty standards. Unfortunately, even though we have moved past wide-scale discrimination that forced black women to wear wigs and weaves or put dangerous chemicals in their hair to straighten it to even get a chance to qualify for certain jobs, what we are left with instead is covert discrimination. Society still only accepts certain types of black hairstyles regardless of the laws put in place to prevent this, laws that are often unenforced or don’t fully address the issue. Centuries of forced assimilation, discrimination, name-calling and policing of black women’s hair has left many feeling like they can’t embrace their hair as it is, that their hair is unprofessional, ugly and needs to be tamed or changed. One of the biggest debates around black women’s hair and hairstyles is whether women of other races wearing the same hairstyles is cultural appropriation. This is a topic that has debaters on both sides of the argument with valid arguments, arguments that I find very tiring and emotional because I believe the reason it’s such a contentious issue is that one side is looking at it from a personal and emotional perspective and the other side views as “just hair”. This is an issue that requires more nuance and understanding than can be given in a single article from one perspective. What I do believe everyone should consider when arguing that its just hair, that discrimination is no longer tolerated and that they understand the struggles and the history behind the hairstyles:
Is what part they are playing to stop the stigma of black women wearing these hairstyles not only in social settings but also in formal settings such as schools and workplaces, what part they are playing to stand up for their friends and colleagues who are discriminated against
Whether they are helping spread awareness of the struggles black women have faced and are facing for example the lack of qualified hairstylists in the film industry that forces many black actresses to either hire stylists at their own cost or do their own hair on set unlike their co-stars who are always catered for,
Whether they are having conversations with their friends and family who still view black hair and hairstyles as unprofessional or ugly, whether they are actively engaging in conversations that help to end this discrimination,
Whether they are truly knowledgeable on the reasons why black women consider it cultural appropriation, the history behind the discriminatory laws put in place,
And finally, if they’ve truly taken the time to understand and to listen to what black women are saying without trying to argue or dismiss their feelings and experiences, why they feel this way and why for them it’s not just hair.
Black women’s hair is fragile and requires extra care, essentially it needs to be protected. The hairstyles we get aren’t just so we feel and look stylish, but are also for practical reasons to ensure we don’t damage our hair. Black hair is prone to tangles and knots, therefore it needs to be brushed regularly to avoid this, it’s not very practical or easy to do so every day, as this can cause hair loss and depending on the length and thickness, lots of time. So we get hairstyles that require minimal effort, keep our hair protected, and also make sure our hair continues to grow. Such styles include braids, locs, cornrows, wigs, weaves, twists, etc., depending on the length of your hair, its thickness, the desired style and the person doing your hair, it might take anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day. Most of these styles are meant to be kept for extended periods of time, from anywhere between a few weeks to a couple of months, during this time washing your hair is done minimally to not ruin the hairstyle but also because black women’s hair doesn’t require frequent washing as compared to others hair. So when we get compliments on it we are genuinely happy and appreciative that you’ve noticed the effort we’ve put into it! After years of hating our hair, trying to change it and struggling to accept it in all its beauty and versatility, black women have finally found the strength to love their hair! So many women have started accepting their hair as it is, wearing it naturally and proudly. A few years ago, seeing a youtube video or Instagram post about loving or even just taking care of our hair was rare, but now there is an influx of black women who are leading the way for other black women to learn about, love, care for and embrace their natural hair. It has been such an uplifting and comforting experience to see so many black women creating this space for themselves and changing the narrative on what is beautiful and acceptable both in and out of formal spaces. Curiosity and fascination are natural human feelings, it’s what has led us to discover new species, come up with cures for deadly diseases and connect with those far from us, however, curiosity isn't something that’s always appreciated when it makes others feel less than or like objects on display. Some non-black people are fascinated or interested in black hair, to the point that many, not all but enough, have even taken to touching and petting black women’s hair! Whilst this might seem like a compliment to some, I feel that it’s no different than seeing an unfamiliar species of dog and wanting to feel its fur. Many people, both black and non-black, have defended this act by saying that it's just curiosity or appreciation but my feelings on it are that it is that type of fascination and curiosity that led to human zoos that put black people and other POC (people of colour) in cages and displays to sate the curiosity of the “civilized” world. Admittedly, this might be hard for some to understand or fathom, but given the dark history of exploitation that black women, in particular, have faced (the story of Sarah Baartman comes to mind) and the fact this kind of behaviour is only done to a specific group of people, it is hard not to take offence. After saying all of this, I am by no means telling anyone or trying to scare anyone to not compliment or ask black women questions about their hair, On the contrary, I believe it is important to have some knowledge about black people’s hair, especially in the context of professional or formal spaces, as it helps change discriminatory policies and rules. Knowledge is how we will break the barriers of ignorance and discrimination, if ever in doubt about how to compliment a black woman or how to ask a question about her hair always consider how you would feel receiving this compliment or question about your hair, body or face. For a long time, black women were the butt of the joke for wearing weaves and wigs, for spending lots of money buying Brazilian, Peruvian or Indian hair, but there was no acknowledgement of the struggles and reproach they faced to assimilate into spaces dominated or heavily influenced by eurocentric beauty standards. Only recently were black hairstyles such as afros, locs and braids accepted as professional styles, and so is it any wonder that black women have had to spend so much money and time getting their hair straightened, relaxed, wearing weaves and wigs? Taking into account the fact that black women are paid less than both white men and women, it shows further how black women are disadvantaged because they are more often than not forced to change their looks to fit into what is deemed as professional/acceptable. This is another aspect of our struggles that are often never addressed or taken into account when debating whether it is appropriate for other women to wear certain hairstyles and even why we wear certain hairstyles. The way you compliment a black woman’s hair and the intentions of your questions play a big factor in how a black woman might respond, it’s important to consider not only intention but impact as well. Giving backhanded compliments like, “your hair looks wild like a bird’s nest” or “your hair looks good for a black girl” or even worse “is that a wig or a weave, it doesn’t look like your real hair?” make it very hard for black women to entertain such questions or feel like educating people about it! I love receiving compliments about my hair, especially when I’ve put in lots of effort to get a certain look, but I implore anyone who wants to complement a black woman or man for that fact, to ask yourself a few simple questions:
If this is the same way you would compliment a person of a different race or,
If the relationship you have with this particular person is close enough to ask personal questions such as if they are wearing a wig or extensions or,
If the information you are asking can’t be found on the internet after a simple google search or,
If the question you have might be offensive, racist or reinforcing negative and harmful stereotypes.
This article is about my self-reflection, my thoughts on a sometimes controversial and painful conversation and hopefully an educational and informative insight into something not many people know about. Therefore, to leave this on a bit of a brighter note, don’t be afraid to compliment black people on their hair or be afraid to ask questions, you might just brighten someone’s day! However, always be mindful of how you do so and don’t forget, don't touch our hair! by Rumbidzai L. Mudzongo