Politics Staff Writer: Sarah Punjwani
“Women of other ethnicities, their hair falls by nature. It drops, it drapes and hangs loosely. But a Black Woman’s hair rises by nature, It blossoms against the current of life.” - Charles C.M. Kellom
It has never been ‘Just Hair;’, states young Tik-Toker @rynnstar. Weeks ago, Rynn’s Tik-Tok video about the history of the culture surrounded by Black women’s hair went viral and was met by positive remarks from the black and ally community. In this video, she addresses the history of Black women’s hair dating back to the 1500s around the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. “Did you know that African mothers would sometimes use cornrows and other braided styles in order to hide rice and grains in their children’s hair,” almost anything valuable such as pieces of gold and seeds that would ensure survival in the New World was braided into the African hair claims Rynn. Essentially, this is true. What started off as an art and bonding experience to build family relationships and identify individual African tribes soon became a stigma frowned upon by Eurocentric beauty standards. So with this immense and rich history of African hair, how is it that Black Women’s hair continuously faces discrimination, from costing African women job opportunities to being pulled out of class for their hair being too “distracting”?
Let’s start with the origin of African braiding, which can be traced back to nearly 5000 years ago. “From classic cornrows and simple three-strand braids to Dutch braids and more, this symbolic style has been a sign of societal status, ethnicity, religion, and more,” states Maya Allen assistant editor at Byrdie news. The origin of these braids started in Africa with the Himba people of Namibia. Braiding styles were specifically distinctive to identify one person’s tribe from another. In fact, much more than this, these braids also identified marital status, age, wealth, and religion. African braiding soon became a form of social art as braiding techniques passed down from generation to generation, Grandmother to grandchild as a form of family bonding. However, upon the arrival to the New World slave owners forcibly shaved the heads of enslaved Africans to prevent the spread of lice but furthermore, to erase their culture. This soon began the long line of hair texture-based discrimination.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century when enslaved people were no longer being imported from Africa that African American women began wearing their hair more freely. However, leading to the abolition of slavery in the United States the concept of “good hair” for black women arose. Enjoying Sundays off from work, Black women took the day to style their hair and wore their hair up the rest of the week. The prioritization of straight hair soon impacted the black community as braids were taken out and natural relaxers such as butter, kerosene, and bacon grease were used on African hair to style it. Not only were natural relaxers created and marketed towards black women, but in some states, laws were also put in place forcing Black women to cover their hair with tignon in public outings putting in place hair texture-based discrimination policies targeted towards afro-textured hair.
Due to the forced assimilation of Black women’s hair, whether it be covering their hair up or chemically straightening, companies began profiting off chemical relaxers for Black women. One of the most successful of these entrepreneurs being Madam C.J. Walker. Walker became the first female self-made millionaire in America creating relaxers that would straighten afro-textured hair. Her success was seen by millions of people as a wealthy self-made Black millionaire in America. However, hair texture-based discrimination continued as a Eurocentric vision of society spread in America. As a result, this soon began the rise of the Black Pride movement of the 1960s and 70s as the Afro soon became a prominent “resistant” hairstyle in the Black community.
Nevertheless, many Black women fell victim to the hair texture-based discrimination policies during this resistance. In 1970, Beverly Jenkins an Afro wearing Black woman was denied a promotion at the workplace due to her style of hair being “unprofessional.” This ultimately led to the supreme court case Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance stating that Afros were protected under Title VII as part of the civil rights act. The federal case soon became a major advantage for Black girls and women as it became unjust under the law to remove, demote, or discriminate against Black people wearing their natural hair.
Moving on towards more modern times, today we see a wide variety of Black artists, celebrities, and professional workers styling their natural hair whether it be in braids and extensions or simply rocking their natural afro! The popularity of natural hair and resistance of Eurocentric beauty standards led to a greater understanding of discriminative dress code policies. African American students were continuously regulated on the styling of their hair and because of this California became the first state to enact the Crown Act in July 2019, stating that schools and workplaces cannot by any means discriminate against natural hair. Though we see these laws as a step in the right direction, there is still more to be done about hair based discrimination. In a recent article by The Guardian, the site calls out google for its bluntly racist search results. “Google unprofessional hairstyles for work as see what appears.” By searching “unprofessional” hairstyles the search page is filled with Black people wearing their natural or braided hair. Google has still not yet responded to these allegations, however, people are becoming more and more aware of the bigotry as social media platforms such as Twitter and Tik-Tok inform users of hair texture-based discrimination, a prejudice that has taken place of over 5000 years and counting. So to reiterate, NO IT’S NOT JUST HAIR! It is an art, a cultural practice passed on from its roots in Africa to the entire world. The wearing of African natural hair became a statement in America to reject Eurocentric beauty standards. It is a practice that constantly gets appropriated by those who are not black from celebrities like the Kardashians to everyday people (POCs included). It’s time we give agency to Black voices in the matter of hair-based discrimination and support Black-owned salons and barbers, because like Rynn states It’s Not Just Hair!