On the Politics of Black Hair

Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is the author of the book Don't Touch My Hair (London: Allen Lane, 2019).


Dear Emma, do you think women of African descent who refuse to wear their hair natural is to do with self-hate or is it just a fashion trend? If so how can we quench this conundrum?

Great question. I have a book on black hair called A History of Hair coming out later this year, so believe me, this is a topic I think about a lot.

Now, there’s often a tendency to frame this topic in a way that’s a simple opposition of natural versus straight. In truth, the answer is far more complex.

Hairstyling is central to black cultures, be they in Africa or the diaspora. As a result, there is a huge breadth and diversity in the methods and styles that black women use.

The creativity and innovation of black hairstyling always staggers me: from simple or complex cornrowed styles – often impressive structural or engineering feats – to bantu knots, box braids, blow outs, twist outs, straight hair, wigs and weaves and extensions, black women have invented ways to alter their hair that seem alchemic, transforming ourselves from one day to the next.

As you can see, I included hair straightening and weaves. I did this intentionally because I locate both practices within the landscape of black hair creativity. Yet it would be mistaken not to consider the historical and aesthetic characteristics of both.

Relaxed (chemically straightened hair) is the most problematic because it is brutal, involving harsh chemicals. I had my hair “relaxed” – a cute word for a violent process, gotta love marketing – for more than 15 years.

Each time I would have it done, about every three months, I would be left with chemical burns. Even when they healed, my entire scalp would remain painful to the touch. The burns I didn’t mind. In fact, part of me would think, “Ah, that means the relaxer really took.” While the pain, I oddly never even connected to the chemicals. Delusion 101.

Hair straightening was invented in the United States and the first documented mention seems to be its use by Garrett Augustus Morgan, who in 1909 reportedly invented it by happenstance while trying to find a solution to ease the friction of sewing machines. Doesn’t sound too appealing right?

The person seen as the mother of commercial hair straightening, though, was Madame CJ Walker, who in the early part of the 19th century built a business empire of the back of her hair-straightening method.

But the world in which hair straightening flourished was only one generation out of slavery. Black people were segregated, and still legally seen as deeply inferior to whites.

Since slavery, when whites had sought to dehumanise black people to justify their enslavement, they’d said African hair was closer to the wool of animals than to the silky tresses of Europeans. There can be no doubt that the straightening of afro-textured hair emerges out of a world in which black people are forced to try to assimilate into a world designed to crush them.

Certainly when I dreamt of having straight hair growing up, it was because I never saw anyone with a hair texture like mine. There was a huge amount of stigma attached to it, compounded by the importance that standards of beauty and femininity at the time placed on having long straight (ideally, blonde) hair. I seriously believed that if I could just have straight hair, that all of my problems would be solved and it would confer immediate happiness.

Although things have become incrementally better, there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made. These issues are not the inventions of people who just want something to moan about, nor do they arise out of some sort of over-sensitivity.

Hardly a month goes by without a report of an incident in which a black pupil is excluded from school for having afro hair, braids or locs, and we hear similar stories from workplaces too. For those who might pipe up with “Well, a white person wouldn’t be allowed to go to school with braids either,” or some claptrap about “conforming to dress codes”, stop!

Black hair is different to Caucasian hair. It grows differently, behaves differently, and as such has different requirements. Change the damn dress code so it doesn’t exclude the physical features of a group of people who have been historically marginalised.

Typically, in West African cultures, women would rarely leave their hair out because to do so results in tangles, knots and moisture loss. Furthermore, because hair is often connected to spiritual well-being, it must be kept well oiled, groomed and maintained, which requires braiding or twisting or something of that nature, the very methods that Eurocentric institutions deem “inappropriate”.

This even happens in bloody Africa. In 2016, riots broke out in a Pretoria High School after 12-year-old girls refused to straighten their hair and insisted they be allowed to attend school with their hair as it naturally grows from their heads, which is clearly a preposterous ambition for a black child to have.

Can you imagine the outrage if all over the world little white girls were being told that they had to come to school with afro hair because that was the dress code!? Don’t worry, you can breathe easy, it’s unlikely to happen.

Weave is another thing we have to consider. Today many black women wear weave. In the past, it was usually straight or wavy hair, but we are increasingly seeing afro-textured weaves being worn too. Afro-textured hair comes in many different textures, so women may experiment with a new one, or even use weave or extensions of a similar or the same texture as their own, merely to add height, volume and/or length.

I feel differently about weave then I do relaxer, because it is not damaging in the same way, with the same health implications. In fact, natural hair is usually worn in a protective style underneath.

Now, in answer to your question about whether it is self-hate or fashion? It’s impossible to look at someone and make that judgment. I would totally wear a weave, although this remains theoretical, because since I stopped relaxing my hair years ago I have never bothered.

Nonetheless, I love the immediate and dramatic transformation that can be achieved via weave, and see weave and wigs as evidence of the creativity and innovation that distinguishes black hair culture. However, I would under. no. circumstances. ever. relax. my. hair. again.

The thing is, I now love and am confident with my natural hair – a process which took more than 30 years, so no shade to anyone who doesn’t feel the same way about their own, it’s bloody hard – and because of this, mixing it up with a weave every now and then is all good.

The problem exists when the weave or the relaxer is being used because the woman is ashamed of her hair. In the past, everything I did with my hair was to hide and disguise it, rather then to compliment or enhance it.

I think therein lies the difference between experimenting with fashion and evidencing insecurity or internalised racism.


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Author:

Emma Dabiri: Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is the author of the book Don't Touch My Hair (London: Allen Lane, 2019).

Reader responses

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Kara
at 31 January 2018 at 17:55

You may not get chemical burns from a weave, but it’s not without some human cost, particularly the human hair weaves from India – there is a wider discussion about this trade in human hair, the impoverished brown women who supply it, and the relatively better-off black women who buy it. Weaves also tend to be (and I know there are some afro weaves) straight hair – even if it’s a protective style, the choice to wear a straight European style is surely no more neutral than a woman who chooses to straighten. I straighten my hair four times a year. It does not burn – I go to an experienced professional and use a salon product. It’s long, healthy and shiny. I don’t think it’s for every type of hair, but I like it on me. However, I acknowledge that it’s expensive and involves chemicals (that said, I also use makeup, antiperspirant and western medicines when the need arises). I also know that in doing so I am choosing a straight European style, but I don’t quite get why this is somehow more loaded than if I chose to wear a straight weave. For me, (and I realise it’s not this case for everyone) it’s a style. I may shave my head one day, I may choose any of the array of styles that Emma highlights (and thanks for locating relaxed hair among those choices). I have chosen not to dye my hair as it’s going grey, precisely because I think I put enough chemicals on it. (oddly enough, next to relaxed hair, that’s my most ‘controversial’ decision in terms of unsolicited disapproval). This issue is one of several political choices I make about my body: yes to eyebrow threading (conforming to conventional beauty standards), no to shaving my armpits or legs (not conforming), yes to makeup sometimes but no to contouring ( I have European-style straight hair but won’t alter my facial features). I realise my choices are full of contradictions and I make no judgments on women who do the opposite to me, because we are all a bundle of contradictions (eg rejecting relaxed hair on grounds that it looks European and then using makeup, a chemical, to contour your face to slim your African nose and sharpen your features to an aquiline, European ideal).

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