Growing up as a mixed girl in a small city in Alberta, I was almost always the only mixed or black girl in the room. This meant that I was the only one with big, kinky, curly hair. As a young girl my hair was constantly being touched without my permission: by random people at the grocery store, my classmates at school, and by people I did not know every time I left my house. When I straightened my hair, I was praised for how much better I looked, how I finally looked “normal”, and told that I looked much more put together. As a child, I felt alone in this experience. However, touching of my curls without consent and being told that I looked better with straight hair is a universal experience of black and mixed girls growing up in primarily white spaces. A study conducted by Dove in the UK found that half of black and mixed women with afro textured hair have faced discrimination because of their hair. The issue of race-based hair discrimination is one that dates back hundreds of years, beginning with colonialism.
Black hair is often perceived as something that needs to be tamed. Both historically and currently, natural hair is referred to as nappy, compared to a sheep’s wool, and compared to many other unflattering things. I have been told countless times by countless people that my hair makes me look like a sheep and reminds them of wool, as they reach out to touch it without my permission. Being compared to a farm animal, then petted like one, is not a compliment. So why is it an acceptable thing to do to black women wearing their natural hair? While it may not be done with malicious intent, it still upholds the notion that the way my hair grows out of my head makes me look less human. Comparing natural hair to wool may seem harmless, and even like a compliment, but it is a statement that is deeply rooted in racism, as black people’s natural hair has been used as a means of dehumanization for centuries. Statements such as that uphold a Eurocentric beauty standard, and put pressure on black women to alter their hair to fit in better.
In pre-colonial Africa, how someone wore their curls had significant meaning. Curls and coils were worn in intricate braids and styles to convey social status, tribe, and culture. After being enslaved, many black women had to shave their heads or cover their hair, which was one of many ways slaves were stripped of their culture. In Louisiana in the 1700s, black women who were “free” began wearing their curls in elaborate hairstyles once again. This was quickly ended with the Tignon Laws, which banned “free” black women from wearing their hair out in public. It had to be covered with a scarf (also known as a tignon), so black women would not pull the attention of white men, and to show that they were not equal to white women. Tignon Laws did not last very long, as black women would wear expensive and ornate fabrics in intricate styles, which were still attention grabbing and defeated the purpose of the laws. This was only the beginning of discrimination based on hair texture. Post-slavery, black people were still not equals in society. Black people with more Eurocentric features, such as looser curls, were much more readily admitted to primarily white spaces and had a much easier time advancing in society. Black features, including hair, were mocked in minstrel shows. This put pressure on black women to straighten their hair with tools such as the hot comb and chemical relaxers to better fit in. The pressure to conform to white beauty standards to be more accepted is still felt today.
Currently there are no laws in Canada or the United States that ban black women from wearing their natural hair. There are laws that ban race based discrimination, however these laws often fail to include race based discrimination of hair. Wearing natural hair and other traditionally black hairstyles such as box braids, dreadlocks, and cornrows often come with negative connotations. Black people who choose to wear these styles are often perceived as lazy, more likely to use drugs, and overall less fit to be a professional than their peers with straight hair. The lack of legal protection when it comes to hair leaves a grey zone, which employers and schools use to discriminate against black women. There are countless examples of black women being sent home from work and school due to their hair. In workplaces, natural hair and other traditionally black hairstyles are often seen as unprofessional. In schools, they are viewed as too distracting. In the Unites States, some states have adopted the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which makes it illegal for schools and employers to discriminate against black hair. In Canada, no such law has been created, but seeing as hair discrimination happens here too, it is clear that we need one.
We as a society need to evaluate why we pass the judgements we do and think about the history behind many of our ways of thinking. Discrimination against black hair is one of many practices that is normalized in our society despite its deeply racist roots. Wearing your hair the way that it grows out of your head should not take courage to do. Everyone should be able to let their hair grow without fear of facing discrimination at school and at work because of it. We also need to think about smaller, seemingly harmless practices, such as feeling a black woman’s curls or comparing them to a sheep, and ask why we continue to tolerate such behavior. To link things back to the title of this post: to me, my hair is not “just hair” because of the history behind it. It has taken me, and so many other black and mixed women, years of struggle against societal pressures to learn to love our hair.
Hi! My name is Tiana, and I'm a third year Immunology and Infection major. This is my first year working with WEW, and I'm super excited to be working with such an amazing group to spread awareness about important issues. When I'm not studying or writing I enjoy baking, reading, and doing sudoku puzzles.