Why You Should Care About Hair

I organise an antiracism group with students from my school and someone wanted to bring up The Halo Code for our next meet. The Halo Code, it turned out, is an "Alliance of organisations and individuals working to create a future without hair discrimination." So we agreed to talk about this, and hair discrimination in general. Feeling rather out of my depth when this idea was suggested, I went away and researched hair discrimination, having previously given it so little thought. One of the main benefits of the antiracism meetings and conversations is to expose and challenge my occasional embarrassing ignorance, and to keep learning more.

I found the posts on Halo Code's Instagram page really illuminating. Did you know that afro-textured hair and hairstyles have always been an important symbol of "wealth, identity, family, heritage, age, tribe, religion and social rank". Here is a really informative, eye-opening video on hair and hair discrimination through the ages:

What was surprising, although perhaps it should not have been, was learning about the association of afro-textured hair with the hierarchy of enslavement. Those with afro hair regularly had their heads shaved. Because of the strict caste system that separated black slaves by skin colour and hair texture, lighter-skinned slaves who had straighter hair, who were lighter-skinned because of non-consensual sex by their owners, fetched a higher price in slave auctions.

Post-slavery, derogatory attitudes towards natural black hair continued. Black people would use harsh chemicals and hot combs to tame their hair so as to assimilate to the Westernised standard, deemed as civil and respectable. These racist beauty standards are still present today. I remember reading an essay in the Good Immigrant about the plethora of skin-whitening products available in India and have since found this BBC article on the same subject. On the source of this discrimination, it says:

Colonialism has had an impact, with lots of the invasions "done by people who were usually lighter skin, like the British", says Dr Ritumbra Manuvie, who teaches human rights law and has researched discrimination in South Asia.

If People of Colour are expected to abide by westernised beauty standards, whether it be hair texture, skin colour or body shape, and are judged if they cannot or will not conform to these arbitrarily constructed ideals, that is racism, through and through.

As Emma Dabiri writes in her book, Don't Touch My Hair:

The deeply entrenched idea of 'managing' black women's hair is a powerful metaphor for societal control over our bodies at both micro and macro levels.

As she also points out, in a chapter about black self-confidence, Du Bois:

Wrote about the danger in seeing oneself through the eyes of the colonizer.

As the aforementioned colonizers (whether we like it or not), we have a responsibility to help marginalized groups see themselves through their own lenses; to not prescribe and impose an ideal, westernised version upon everyone else, and to reflect upon our white-centering behaviours.

Still prevalent now...

Focussing on hair discrimination again, I would like to draw your attention to a study conducted by the Perception Institute. In August 2016, the Perception Institute set out to explore whether Americans generally show bias – implicit or explicit – toward natural hair worn by black women, and whether black women share this bias. It really is worth looking at the survey here but the most important take-away point for me was the astonishing conclusion that:

On average, white women show explicit bias toward black women’s textured hair. They rate it as less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.

There are lots of personal accounts online of how black people are discriminated against because of their hair. Examples such as work and school come up a lot. Interestingly (if that's the right word), according to one of my students, she was unable to get hair products for her hair in lockdown because, although supermarkets were open, they didn't sell hair products for black hair. All the other shops were closed. When managers or school leaders expect hair to look a certain way because the 'naturalista' way is messy, unpresentable, less professional etc., and when black hair products are hard to get hold of, and the perception of black hair from the public is still negative, what we see is an abundance of societal microaggressions. And it is yet another barrier for black people to navigate.

Let us not judge a black person's hair. Or ask them awkward, annoying questions about it, as if their hair is a fun, novel thing to be made into an anecdote. Let us not assume we know how easy or difficult it is to style. Let us not forget its historical and cultural contexts.

Ultimately, let us not be judgemental, intolerant, ignorant or presumptuous. White people: we have no idea. Let us, instead, accept black hair, celebrate it even. White people don't get to choose what is beautiful. White people, more often than not, need to shut the hell up. Let black people, and all other People of Colour, do their hair, and live their lives, however they damn well please.

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