Sarah’s World Beat: Women of Color and Natural Hair

 

natural hairWhat is it about natural hair for the person of color that causes families to distinguish between “good hair” and “bad hair?” Why is there even such a term as natural hair to describe the hair on top of a PoC’s head when how we refer to what’s on top of the head of a White person is simply hair? Why is natural hair cause for a potential employer to choose someone with less natural hair to hire, be counseled at work because of how one styles one’s own natural hair and the subject of endless debate in schools, the military and in the media?

What is the Big Deal About Natural Hair, People?

Few things cause such a stir more than how a woman of color wears her hair. It’s one of the first things we notice about her. It is more than a fashion statement. It says she’s willing to go against the grain and be who she is. It means she is unwilling to put a bunch of chemicals in her hair to conform to societal standards, which are Euro-centric.

A WoC who wears her hair natural is called anything from unkempt and making a statement to militant. Of course we can’t forget how often WoC are asked questions like, “is your hair real?” “Is that your natural hair?” “Can I touch your hair?” However, when a White woman wears her hair as it is meant to be worn—be it straight, wavy or curly—she gets compliments. Why is natural hair for the WoC (in particular) such a big deal? And how did we get here?

A few weeks ago I talked about the origins of glorifying European-centric beauty standards and unsurprisingly I got mixed reviews. Some WoC stand by their right to have long and flowing straight to wavy hair that mimics those of their White friends or what they see in television ads. Some refuse to put chemicals in their hair and don’t see it as “making a statement.” And most fall in between.

Which one is right?

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I recognize it’s that some WoC choose to straighten their hair because it’s not just about television ads but a matter of survival. White-owned / managed companies are not exactly down on WoC to begin with and choosing natural hairstyles versus relaxing it or in some manner making it look more White is preferred. I get it.

Look, I know no matter where I land on the topic of natural hair for the WoC, I am going to get my head caught in a meat grinder. After all, I am a Multiracial woman with, so-called, “good hair.” What the hell do I know about nappy, coily or kinky hair? From personal experience? Nothing. I have never had nappy, coily or kinky hair but my mom did. I watched her burn herself using lye-based chemical straighteners and I saw her hair falling out in clumps. She used to say to me, “Sarah, if I had your hair, I could rule the world.” What she meant was, “if I had your hair, I wouldn’t have to straighten mine and I wouldn’t have to listen to White folks give me grief over my Afro.”

My hair is curly but not coily. It’s curly but not kinky and my kitchen can get unruly, or as my mom used to call it, “a bird’s nest,” but a little leave-in conditioner or oil and it separates and springs back up. So yeah, my natural hair can be described as more manageable than my mother’s. It doesn’t mean I am blind or deaf to how society views women of color who choose to wear their natural hair, well, natural.

I Am a Fan of Natural Hair, So Stick My Head in That Meat Grinder, Folks!

I was in the pharmacy last month. I have been going there for six or so years. I know the owner and all the people who work there. Ana greeted me and took my prescription. She had something I’d never seen before: hair curly. It’s not as curly as mine, but it’s not as straight as she makes it before she comes to work each day. I commented on it. “Ana, I love your curly hair!”

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“You do? I can’t stand it! I didn’t have time to straighten it this morning.” Ana tells me.

“So don’t straighten it. Learn to fall in love with it,” I tell her.

“You know something?” Ana pulls out a photo of herself from ten years ago. “My hair used to be thick and now it’s very thin. I think it’s from all the blow drying and using the flat iron all the time.”

Ya think?

“Is it worth it?” I ask her.

“I don’t have your guts to wear my hair curly.” Ana replies.

“Guts? No, it’s that I took a stand decades ago not to give in to White beauty standards. My hair is my hair and I am not changing it to make other people more comfortable.” I paused, “I am a fan of natural hair. I am not going to change that.”

Ana gave me a quizzical look. Her hair was straight the next time I saw her.

We WoC are conditioned from a young age that as a rite of passage we’ll straighten out that natural hair of ours. When I was growing up, my mom wouldn’t let me straighten mine but as soon as all of my Black and Puerto Rican friends hit puberty with me, out came the relaxer for the Black girls and their blow dryer for the Puerto Rican girls.

What would have happened if more moms broke the cycle, like my mom did? My mother caught a lot of heat, but she wouldn’t cave in. What would have happened if moms took a stand and said, “No more! No longer will White people decided what’s best for our daughter’s natural hair!”?natural hair Our advice columnist Lisa Williamson Rosenberg wrote about the hair straightening tyrant: the paternal grandmother who saw it as a rite of passage and couldn’t wait to start straightening her Biracial granddaughter’s hair as soon as she was mature enough. The fact that the grandmother’s White daughter-in-law is ultimately in charge of her daughter’s hair is, apparently a non-issue for the grandmother. Her granddaughter is going to come of age and she must do what I did and all other WoC do.

How Do Other Women of Color Feel About Natural Hair?

Last month I created a survey and asked WoC to share their feelings about natural hair. Because there were 38 respondents, there’s no really easy way to display them. I’ll just go question-by-question and then ask you to weigh in and share your feelings.

  1. What is your racial background? 33 of the 38 respondents answered.

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2. Respondents (all WoC) ranged in age from 29 to 55.

Of the 38 respondents, all but four live in the United States. The other four live in Jamaica, Canada, The United Kingdom and Puerto Rico.

3. If you are monoracial, are you raising a child who’s Biracial or Multiracial?

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   4. How would you describe your hair or your daughter’s hair?

Here are a few responses:

Response number 1

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Response number 2

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Response number 3

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Response number 4

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Response number 5

     5. Do you feel pressure to relax your kinky / curly / coily / textured hair or your daughter’s hair?

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 6. Please describe where you are right now with your natural hair.

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7. Have you ever been turned down for a job because you wore / wear your hair natural?

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7. Did you grow up with that “good hair” / “bad hair” labeling?

Response number 1

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Response number 2

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Response number 3

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 If You are a Hair Dresser, Have Your Own Hair Care Products, Please Offer Suggestions to WoC so We Can Proudly Wear Our Natural Hair

Response number 1

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Response number 2

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Response number 3

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Response number 4

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For WoC Who Want to Wear Their Natural Hair but Don’t Know What Products to Use, I Have Some Tips

For kinky hair, such as co-founder Alex Barnett’s drop dead gorgeous wife, she recommends two products:

 

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Not Today Kinky Curly

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IC by Fantasia

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Products many Multiracial women use that contain Shea Butter

Shea Moisture

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Products I use and that are perfect for multiracial hair when Shea Butter is too heavy.

Maui Moisture

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What Do You Use for Your Natural Hair That You Love and Would Happily Recommend?

An advocate of WoC wearing natural hair, I am always going to recommend that over chemical straightening, blow dryers and flat irons. They are damaging to hair and they do nothing to remind us how beautiful we are in our natural state. Maybe you’ve been on the fence about whether to continue straightening your natural hair or you just don’t know any better.

I don’t want to piss women off, but I also want you to know I believe you are beautiful as you are, not as you see yourself being if only your hair were straight. I feel it glorifies the European-beauty standard and while it’s fine for women who are of European descent, if you are mixed with African of any kind, your hair isn’t meant to do what theirs does.

I would love hear your thoughts. If you want to bash me over the head, it’s fine, too.

I would like to thank the women who took my survey. I really appreciated your responses.

 

My name is Sarah and I am one of the founders of Multiracial Media. Not only am I multiracial (Black, Asian and White), but I’ve also lived in or spent long periods of time in several countries, throughout the United States and now my husband and I live on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. I see myself both in terms of my racial and ethnic identity as well as someone who appreciates the food, culture and customs of all nations—like a citizen of the world. Sarah’s World Beat column reflects this.

If you would like me to write about your culture or country, please drop me a line and suggest a topic.

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