I vividly remember my first perm. I was 8 years old and sat anxiously in the bathroom of my grandmother’s home. I didn’t know what a perm was but I assumed it was a normal standard of beauty that all little 8 year old girls had to go through. I can refer back to the very moment of ripping open the box and excitedly popping in the “Just For Me” theme song cassette tape. Just before the tape got to the infamous chorus, the skin of my scalp began to burn from the chemical infused into this product. In a fountain of tears, I screamed to my Grandmother “It’s burning!”. She calmly explained “The burning means it’s working.” I believed her. After all, she was my grandmother and I could never image her making up some false statement just to keep me at ease. Once the product was rinsed out of my hair, I looked in the mirror and immediately fell in love with the luscious locks that fell down my back; despite the fact I had scabs covering a quarter of my head. Needless to say, I was officially introduced to the creamy crack and it’s been an addiction ever since.
I’m a firm believer that hair isn’t a representation of who you are. I’d like to argue that it’s an interchangeable accessory that compliments your image. So why has it been such a pressing issue for people of color? Before I dive into the controversial issue of “black hair”, I urge my readers that have had the unfortunate experience of watching Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” to immediately ignore the poor dissemination that rooted from that film.
American and Westernized beliefs have etched negative connotations into the idea and concept of common hairstyles worn by black men, women and children. The afro is associated with Black Panther movements and rebellious behavior as well as dreadlocks that mimic the idea of Rastafarian beliefs. I’ve had many friends who have felt the need to braid their hair or get extensions before attending an interview at a corporate level institution. When asked why they would change their image for an employer she stated, “My natural afro is intimidating to employers. They see me as a threat to their structured, big business. In Corporate America, an afro means radical behavior, truancy, violence and above all – black power.” We can see parallel examples of similar discrimination with men who have dreadlocks. A friend of mine who is employed by a very large banking institution informed me that he is not to wear his dreadlocks outside of his ponytail when in this corporate environment. He explains that it’s not a corporate rule, rather he knows better than to make his counterparts question the very authenticity that is his hair.
Authenticity is such an important aspect in understanding the politics of hair. Extensions, weaves, afro’s and dreads are all having to go through this awkward stage of “acceptance”. When I use the term “acceptance”, I’m not referring to one’s self –acceptance of their hair. Rather, I am speaking in terms of society’s acceptance of authenticity. The need and desire to touch or feel one’s hair to determine texture, girth, height, color, scent, etc. I have many friends who have complained about complete strangers walking up to them and feeling compelled to touch their hair without consent. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Can you imagine standing in line for the grocery store and having someone boldly rest their hands in your hair? It happens. And it’s unfortunate that it happens more than we can imagine.
What is the politics of black hair? How has the idea been politicized to the point that it is constantly being questioned or persecuted in public environments? Let’s place this concept in juxtaposition with people who are not of color that wear dreadlocks. These people are usually perceived as eccentric, artistic, in touch with their inner psyche, love child, hippies and hipsters. Why aren’t these people perceived as rebellious individuals who mimic the moral integrity of violent Rastafarians? From very early on, we’re forced into thinking that our hair will be the deciding factor to our success. Do we remember the unnecessary hype surrounding Michelle Obama’s recently trimmed bangs? BANGS! The same form of hair that hangs over millions of peoples foreheads. We can’t forget Beyonce’s new short cut that sent social media into an uproar. What about our good friend Rihanna who tends to stop all society functions when seen in public with a new hairstyle. Hillary Rodham Clinton said it best “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”