Hair and Oppression, a Reflection on Black Identity

Hair and oppression BELatina Latinx
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Hair has been a present and determining symbol in the cultural identity of all civilizations. However, if we look closely at the practices of imperialism and colonization throughout history, we will soon see how it has been used as a tool of oppression.

The act of forcibly cutting or altering peoples’ hair has been a way of demonstrating power all over the world. For example, on reservations in the early 20th century, Native American men were forced to cut their hair long.

Similarly, in early attempts at the transatlantic slave trade, victims had their hair forcibly shaved off or were forced to wear their hair hidden under hats or cloths.

In fact, in some cases, domestic slaves were forced to wear wigs to resemble their master and his family. In others, the owners of white slaves sheared their heads.

Pride as a gesture of empowerment

The journey from colonial hair practices to the present day shows how diversity is cared for and celebrated.

Today, embracing our fluffy and curly textures allows us Black women to not only empower ourselves but to enjoy the flexibility of our hair and our cultural history.

From braids and Bantu knots to full afros, Black women today are embracing the styles of their ancestors in a sort of categorical rejection of oppression in all its forms.

But it hasn’t been easy

In 2019, a study conducted by Dove (the soap brand) revealed that Black women are “80% more likely” to change or alter their natural hair than white women “to meet social norms or expectations at work.”

For decades, the decision to use straightening techniques for Black women was often driven by a desire to assimilate.

New York University explained in a recent piece that “the social hierarchy that places Whiteness at the top and Blackness at the bottom makes logical the assumption of hair straightening as an attempt to associate oneself with Whiteness. However, it is erroneous to believe that hair straightening is a reflection of self-hatred and an attempt to be White in all cases.”

As the research study shows, the dismissal of hair straightening practices as acts of self-hatred hardly fits the true motives behind the action.

A reflection of femininity

Hair alteration is so ingrained in Black female identity, passed down from one generation to the next, that today for Black women, the practice of any type of alteration (whether braiding or straightening) has become part of their culture.

In popular culture, on the other hand, this narrative shift is observed. In Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” (2009), for example, a three-year-old girl is seen receiving the second straightening of her life. As shocking as the scene is (especially for those of us who know the potential pains to be endured when straightening is not applied properly), it is a reminder that the beauty of hair is ingrained in Black women from an early age.

Of course, the origins of hair straightening and the decision to embrace natural, protective hairstyles hardly begin at the same point. Still, today, for many Black women, they promote self-esteem in an intertwined way.

“A more nuanced picture of Black hair culture and the motivations for alteration informs our understanding of the unique and frequently overlooked identity struggles Black women face at the intersection of race and gender,” Chanel Donaldson writes in her piece for NYU. “Hair alteration takes place as a result of the combination of historical legacy, media images, economic security, personal choice, an adherence to cultural norms, and many other factors that were too numerous to quantify in this review.”

Now is the time for change

Today, despite our advances and achievements in hair acceptance and care, there is still a great need to defend and celebrate it. This is especially true for the approval of natural hair, in all its forms and presentations, in the corporate world and academia. 

Today, and despite anti-discrimination laws, Black men and women are forced to defend and fight for the presence of their hair in these arenas where the policing of Black hair continues. 

Hair discrimination remains prevalent in school and corporate dress codes, which often emphasize white hairstyles as “acceptable” while excluding Blacks who maintain traditional hairstyles. 

Alarmingly, these forms of discrimination are not limited to the working class. Even to elites, such as veteran Hollywood actress Gabrielle Union, who made headlines in 2019 after revealing that she was fired as a judge on the hit NBC reality show “America’s Got Talent” after the hairstyles she wore on the show were “too Black.”

Fortunately, recent efforts to ban hair discrimination preserve Black people’s right to wear their hair the way they want, especially when it comes to its naturally curly state. Bills like the 2019 CROWN Act, Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act, are becoming law. Elevating similar laws against hair discrimination, Senator Cory Booker stresses that “implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are deeply embedded in workplace norms and society at large. This is a violation of our civil rights, and it happens every day for Black people across the country.” 

With acts like this, advocates are ensuring the continued advancement of hair pride among Black communities and acceptance and open-mindedness in those outside them.