To Have Black Hair in America
by Taylor Synclair Goethe | published Oct. 9th, 2018
Sixth grader Faith Fennidy was expelled on her first day of school for wearing braided extensions. This is not an isolated incident; black children all across the country are kicked out of school every year for their hairstyles. It’s a painful tradition of black hairstyles being seen as unfit in school. Worse, it's rationalized to disrupt their learning.
Fennidy wore what is known as a protective hairstyle, which tucks the ends of hair away to prevent breakage while also promoting healthy growth. Protective hairstyles are most beneficial to kinky hair textures, which are more likely to tangle and break ends. Most braids, along with weaves and locs, are strongly rooted in Black culture because it’s been a proven way to protect our natural hair. However, many private schools and jobs ban these styles entirely.
“The majority of students going to private schools aren’t POC so their rules aren’t built for us. It’s a system built this way over time and is accepted,” said Tomicka Wagstaff, the assistant vice president for Academic Access and Success.
The History of Hair Discrimination
Controlling the presentation of black people’s hair goes back to slavery. The Tignon Laws was a ban set in place in 1786 in Louisiana by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró that prevented any black woman of African ancestry, free or enslaved, from showing their hair in public.
“The regulation was meant as a means to regulate the style of dress and appearance for people of color. Black women’s features often attracted male white, French and Spanish suitors and their beauty was a perceived threat to white women,” Farida Dawkins, a journalist for Face 2 Face Africa, wrote.
The Tignon Laws have long been overturned, but the social effects still have bearing on our culture today. In short, black women’s natural hair is still seen as “unfit” for public viewing. According to USA Today, it wasn’t until 2014 that all branches of the military changed their hair regulations to be more inclusive of black hairstyles. Yet, it is still at the discretion of private employers and schools whether traditional black hairstyles are acceptable.
Lawsuits against employers for hair discrimination have even reached the Supreme Court. In 2010, Chastity Jones was offered a job at Catastrophe Management Systems (CMS) with the precondition she must cut off her dreadlocks. Jones sued under the pretext of racial discrimination. Unfortunately the Supreme Court justices refused to even review the case. Due to their lack of action, discriminatory hair policies remain legal.
The Impact of Hair Discrimination
I have 4C hair. According to the hair texture chart, my hair type is the kinkiest texture there is. As far as America’s beauty standards are concerned, I do not have “good hair.” My mother decided to keep my hair healthy rather than conform to racialized notions of beauty. So, for much of my childhood I wore my hair in cornrows and was bullied for having short, nappy hair. I was told I had a head full of tarantula legs. I felt so ugly all the time that I asked my parents not to buy my school photos.
Black people's hair textures are as diverse as our skin. Wagstaff said that the term “good hair” refers to hair that is straight and flowy. The standard is replicated all over media from movies, to magazines and television shows. Wagstaff explained that she felt like an outsider among her grandmother, mother and aunts, all who fit the “good hair” model while she in turn had short, kinky hair.
“I wanted my hair permed at an early age,” Wagstaff said. “I wondered, 'What can I do to make my hair do what theirs does?'"
Contrary to protective hairstyles, many methods to straighten kinky hair lead to breakage and could result in permanent damage. Hot combs, perms and relaxers all will straighten kinky hair, but can also cause burns. The most potent are relaxers: creams that chemically straighten hair. The active agents are usually alkali or ammonium thioglycolate, which can result in serious acid burns, bald patches, scars and infections if improperly used. A famous scene in the Chris Rock documentary "Good Hair"shows an entire soda can being dissolved in a relaxer-based solution. JoVonna Victor, the assistant director for McNair scholars, said she had her first relaxer at five years old.
Black Hair is Black Pride
Black hair is inherently political because the history of racial discrimination is woven into the history of hair discrimination. This also why the afro is the symbol of Black liberation because to fully accept our blackness, we must fully accept our hair. I didn’t wear an afro to school until I was 16 and never cut my hair beyond a trim until I was in my second year of college. The process of loving myself as a black woman correlates with loving my hair, no matter how it looks, because it is a part of me. However, we are still raised with the same negative messaging that kinky hair is ugly.
“I remember when I brought my daughter to Disneyland for the first time. [There were] two lines to see princesses, Tiana and Rapunzel. The line for Princess Tiana was shorter, but my daughter didn’t want to see her. She said, ‘She’s just black and has her hair up,’” Victor said. “My heart was shattered. How can you not see her as beautiful?”
Victor counters negative messaging by leading by example — with self love. One day her daughter came to her wearing one of her headwraps and said, “Mama, look how pretty I am!” That’s the confidence she wants to instill: you’re pretty no matter what.
I graduated high school as an honors student. A part of the privilege is visiting the elementary schools in our robes so the children can see what a high school graduate looks like. I decided to stomach my insecurities and wear my afro. I can’t describe the pride I felt when black girls saw me being honored while wearing an afro. The short glances I exchanged with each of them as I made my way down the halls was a thousand times more gratifying than receiving my diploma.
"I can’t describe the pride I felt when black girls saw me being honored while wearing an afro."
Victor often tells her daughter, "You don’t want your hair to be flat. Your curls are reaching towards God.”