It’s “just hair” … unless it’s Black hair.

Hair is a forever-big-deal for Black women, whether we like it or not, whether we spend time focusing on it or not. When I made the decision to cut my hair off in 1988, hardly anyone I spoke to about my plan was in favor of it. People were super comfortable telling me what a mistake it would be, how terrible I would look. “You’ll look like a man,” I was told. “You don’t have the face for it.” “You won’t be able to comb your hair.” “What will people think of you?” “Everyone will think you’re a lesbian.” “Everyone will think you’re angry.” “Men don’t like short hair.”

Ugh. Just a full-on mess. These responses weren’t just to short hair but very specifically to short, nappy hair. I was choosing to cut off my relaxed hair and be kinky-headed on purpose, out in the world. And kinky hair was not popular. Certainly not society’s hair of choice for Black women.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. When I went carried out my plan and cut my hair, people followed through on their ugliness. The older Black woman who worked reception at my night job stopped speaking to me. She literally never said a word to me for the rest of the time I worked there. A cab driver told me that, maybe if I got “fucked right,” I’d feel like a woman and start looking like one.

Yes, my short hair told that driver things he didn’t want to hear. Short hair told him I wasn’t interested in his gaze, in his male approval. And so he needed to threaten me with corrective rape to help me understand how unacceptable it was that I wasn’t presenting myself for his approval and consumption.

Because I had a short afro.

Whenever conversations come up about Black women’s hair, someone inevitably says, “But it’s just hair!”

It’s never been “just hair” for us. It if was “just hair,” enslaved women wouldn’t have been forced to hide their hair. It if was “just hair,” the US military wouldn’t have created (in twenty-fucking-fourteen) a set of guidelines for women’s hair that very explicitly outlawed hairstyles that were particular to Black women. It if was “just hair,” Black children wouldn’t have their hair hacked off by teachers, wouldn’t be expelled from school because of their hair growing in its natural form.

It if was “just hair,” we wouldn’t need the CROWN Act, the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act. A whole fucking law to tell employers they can’t discriminate against Black people — and, very specifically Black women — because of their hair. Starting in California, CROWN has become law in seven states between 2018 and 2020. And the Jett Hawkins Law in Illinois is very like CROWN.

In my state, CROWN exists as law. If it had been a law a few jobs ago, I might have had some recourse when my boss told me I didn’t seem like the right candidate for a leadership role at our agency because my hair was “too street.”

Notice I mentioned seven states and an adjacent law in Illinois. The CROWN Act isn’t national. In September of 2020 and then in March of 2021, the CROWN Act was introduced in the House and Senate. It has yet to pass.

And lest we imagine this hate-fueled crap is focused solely on women, don’t forget Nivea’s disgustingly racist ad for men’s skincare products.

There is no “just” when it comes to Black people’s hair.

There is a seriously robust natural hair movement that’s at least ten years strong. It hasn’t spelled the end of prejudice against kinky hair, but it’s connected to the passing of the CROWN Act, connected to the army’s decision to change its offensive hairstyle ban. It’s also why I wasn’t worried about cutting my hair yesterday. I knew I didn’t have to worry about how people at my job would react, wouldn’t have to worry about not finding hair care products and tools for my little afro. There will still be some negative reactions, but many fewer than there were 34 years ago. So that’s a whole lot of steps in the right direction.

I’m focused on my own reaction to my newly-minted afro more than I am to anyone else’s. And that’s exactly as it should be. So, how am I reacting? With pleasure. I got up this morning and washed my hair — needed to get the mystery products from the barbershop out and use the products I know and love. And then I dove in with a twist so I could start reacquainting myself with how to care for and style my short hair. I took out the twist before a Zoom tonight, and I’m happy with the result.


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14 thoughts on “It’s “just hair” … unless it’s Black hair.

  1. Shaista

    There’s no comment anyone makes here will change what you face. But hey, loved the spring in your step at the end! That’s all that really matters anyway. Sad that some of us need to fight real hard battles to reach the stage.

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    1. I’m giving this post a standing ovation. This history needs to be taught. If I were still teaching, I’d include the abuse of black people’s hair on the recommended topic list I provided students in my speech and Communication courses because white people need to learn this and hear testimonies such as yours. My son just married a black woman, and she has very short hair. They’re having a baby, too, and you can bet this grandma will do everything possible to protect both mama and baby against the pain you’ve described here.

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      1. Sending love to your growing family, Glenda. There will be bumps in the road, but as long as your daughter-in-law and your grandchildren love their hair — in whatever style or texture they choose to wear it — they will have an easier time dealing with mess. If I didn’t feel so strongly about my hair, I might have thought being “too street” was my problem and not my boss’s. It’s a journey, and they are lucky to have your support as they go.

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    2. Thanks for reading, Shaista! There are hard paths … truly, hair shouldn’t be one of them, but here we are. I am lucky, however, because I love my hair. That makes it easier to keep foolishness from impacting me too much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Shaista

        I agree. The only way forward is to be grateful for everything we have, love ourselves the way we are, and pass that on to our kids.

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  2. It is a sign of sorts that I read the title of this and audibly sighed. Because it’s a shame we as black women rarely can speak of the history of our hair without some level of trauma involved. How our parents and then we ourselves choose to our crowns is never a simple decision even among our own. It’s says a lot that something that should be as simple as our hair must be governed by law for others to keep their opinions, prejudices and hands out of it.

    It was interesting the read the contrasts in when you cut your hair thirty years ago and now. The natural hair movement has been a rising powerhouse since at least the 90s when I sported an afro for a few months. There’s still quite the road left to tread, but we’ve come a long way indeed.

    And you look MAHVEELUSH darling!

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  3. Hair length and style is a personal choice. Why people feel the need to comment other than, “I like your new style”, is beyond me. Does it give people a sense a control? Superiority? It is sad that so many black girls, women, and men, are criticized for what God gave them naturally. Crowns are to be worn proudly.

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    1. I love that last line, “Crowns are to be worn proudly.” Yes! Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes! It’s hard, but getting to the place where we feel comfortable with and love our hair and strong enough to stand up to those who would use our hair against us is powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Terje

    In Estonia there have been articles about black lives matter movement in US, the historical context, the stereotypes, the continuous discrimination, and the challenges to turn over white male dominance. I can’t recall any articles about hair, so your post was an eye opener to me. It boggles my mind that you need a law to respect natural hair. My hair is super thin and straight, so I can’t imagine the way you need to take care of your hair. I am glad you react with pleasure to reacquainting yourself with your short hair.

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    1. It’s crazy that we need a law to protect people from discrimination based on their hair … and it’s terrible that — when we know we need that law — we can’t get it to pass nationally. That’s how strong and insidious anti-Blackness is.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Back to YouTube University – if you want kin, you must plant kin …

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