The Politics of the Natural Hair Movement

Creams, pomades, and butters packaged in brightly-colored bottles for “natural hair” now grace the shelves of beauty supply stores in various countries. Black women are spearheading the contemporary natural hair movement, commonly defined as one that encourages “women with African ancestry to celebrate and enjoy the natural characteristics of their kinky, curly, hair texture.” Historically, institutional racism has catalyzed natural hair movements, and consequently, institutions and the public politicize Black women’s hair. While the narrative of the modern natural hair movement is political, employing the notion of “quiet,” coined by Kevin Quashie, the natural hair movement should not oversaturate the discourse of the natural hair movement with politics and resistance, as that narrative erases the humanity of Black women.

Structural racism manifests hair discrimination in many countries, including the United States and South Africa. In the United States, hair discrimination stems from slavery. Beauty standards favored whiteness, thus any physicality of Blackness was undesirable. To differentiate Afro-textured hair from “white” hair, white people described enslaved peoples’ hair as “nappy, which”stems from the word “nap,” originally used to describe the tuft of cotton on the plant that grows before harvest. Therefore, the etymology of “nappy” is inherently derogatory towards Black women in the United States. Further, during apartheid, South African schools enforced the “pencil test” to exclude students with kinky hair from access to education; when a teacher put a pencil in a student’s hair, if the pencil fell through, the student would have more access to academic opportunities, whereas if the pencil stayed, the state would restrict academic opportunities for the student. Structural racism stigmatizes natural, Black hair, especially on Black women, thus hair is always a point of social and political contention. 

Shifting towards Civil Rights and Black Power movements throughout the 1960s-70s, Angela Davis spearheaded the first major “natural hair” movement. Davis, along with many other Black women, wore afros to protest white supremacy and advocate for Black liberation, especially for Black women, since hair discrimination largely impacts their livelihood. Radicalizing the political state of Black hair, Davis utilized her afro as a weapon to combat Black oppression. Davis pioneered and established the political discourse of Black hair movements throughout the world. 

In the early 2010s, Black women birthed a new, natural hair movement to celebrate and care for their natural hair through community, YouTube tutorials, and websites geared towards Black hair care. Black women also use momentum from the expanding movement to combat discriminatory practices. In 2014, many Black women in the United States army vocally opposed the U.S. Army’s list of acceptable hairstyles, which banned specific types of braids, cornrows, and small twists—hairstyles Black women usually wear for practicality. Restrictions also stated, “Any unkempt or matted braids or cornrows are considered dreadlocks and are not authorized.” This statute is a directly discriminates against Black women, and the natural hair movement supported Black women in the military protesting the injustice.

Since structural racism consistently puts Black hair into social strife, it is easy for Black women to subject their hair and the movement into an exclusive, political state. It is critical to recognize that Black women exist in anti-Black societies, therefore, any form of Black expression is inherently political. When the public limits Black expression—and in this case, wearing natural hair—to a form of constant resistance, Black women lose access to their humanity and autonomy. Kevin Quashie, an English professor and scholar, uses the term, “quiet” to illuminate that the public should include “the expressiveness of the inner life” in the discourse of Black life and existence. Quashie eloquently expresses this notion as he writes that Black people “are resistant in context, but not in essence.” The natural hair movement contextualizes the need for Quashie’s logic.

Since the natural hair movement expands throughout the world, it is hard to define. Dazed Magazine writer, Georgina Lawton, defines the movement as “a social media-led discourse comprised of black video tutorials, hair-care tips, and a cultural shift towards redefining the position of ‘natural’ black hair within the hegemony of Western beauty through empowerment and acceptance.” Yet, BBC writer, Emma Kasprzak writes the movement as embracing Black hair that is free from extensions, chemical treatments, and wigs. Lawton and Kasprzak’s definitions contradict each other, and Kasprzak’s definition raises the issue of exclusion. British hair blogger Valley Fontaine notes that many Black women in the movement, , criticize other women who wear weaves or chemically treat their hair. 

By policing how Black women wear their hair, adherents of the movement counteract the celebration of Black (natural) hair and continue to over-politicize Blackness. Structural racism scrutinizes the existence of Black hair, and many Black women conceal their natural hair to combat hair discrimination in the work place, whereas other women wear extensions for personal expression. Black hair is not only a political statement; it is a personal statement. When proponents of the movement criticize Black women’s hairstyles, they further the structural racism that also controls and inhibits Black womens’ personal autonomy. The natural hair movement should celebrate Black hair, but it should not dictate how Black women wear it. 

Ulitmately, the natural hair movement should aim to align its values with Quashie’s idea of “quiet.” Politics and resistance should not dominate the narrative of the modern natural hair movement because this dominant narrative would stifle the expression of Black women. The movement should not mimic the same oppressive, institutional systems that it challenges. To celebrate Black hair is to celebrate Blackness, which is diverse and human; therefore, the natural hair movement should celebrate all forms of Black natural hair. 

Works Cited

Chigumadzi, Panashe. “White Schools vs. Black Hair in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/10/06/opinion/white-schools-vs-black-hair-in-post-apartheid-south-africa.html.

Edwards, Chime. “The Impact of The ‘Fro In The Civil Rights Movement.” Essence, Essence, 10 Feb. 2015, www.essence.com/holidays/black-history-month/impact-fro-civil-rights-movement/.

Fontaine, Valley. “Valley Fontaine.” Muck Rack, muckrack.com/valley-fontaine.

Kasprzak, Emma. “Black Natural Hair: Why Women Are Returning to Their Roots.” BBC News, BBC, 6 May 2017, www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-39195836.

Kenneth. “The Natural Hair Movement: A Historical Perspective.” Curl Centric® | Rewrite the Rules of Natural Hair Care, 26 May 2019, www.curlcentric.com/natural-hair-movement/.

Lawton, Georgina. “The Problems with the Natural Hair Movement.” Dazed, 9 May 2016, www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/30536/1/the-problems-with-the-natural-hair-movement.

McGregor, Jena. “More States Are Trying to Protect Black Employees Who Want to Wear Natural Hairstyles at Work.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Sept. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/09/19/more-states-are-trying-protect-black-employees-who-want-wear-natural-hairstyles-work/.

“Natural Hair Advocates Take on the US Army.” BBC News, BBC, 6 June 2014, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27626509.

“Researchers@Brown.” Quashie, Kevin, vivo.brown.edu/display/kquashi1#Publications.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of the Natural Hair Movement”

  1. Your Blog does a wonderful job highlighting the ways in which the natural hair of Black women have been regarded by the rest of society over time. It demonstrates how Black women are greatly scrutinized for the ways in which they choose to style their hair. I like your inclusion of Professor Kevin Quashie’s text, as it recognizes the humanity and interiority of Black women — a characteristic that would be disregarded if the hair of Black women were only recognized as resistive to the social force of racism. In highlighting the ways in which the hair of Black women have been scrutinized over time, elucidates the continuity in the criticism of Black women and how ingrained they have become. Thus, the Natural Hair Movement can be used as a way to voice and celebrate Black women.

  2. Shaunjaney, what an insightful piece! You truly taught me some things! The South African pencil test is something I had never been exposed to before, as were the hair regulations of the U.S. military. So thank you for citing and highlighting these important, disturbing incidents! I really appreciate how you extended your analysis to a global perspective, because as a Black American, it can be very easy to remain focused on exclusively American issues. However, all violence against Black women, regardless of location, is necessary to combat, in order to obtain liberation. I also really appreciate how you reference Quashie and incorporate the natural hair movement as something deserving of the “quiet.” I think it’s so important to caution on the over politicization of Black women’s hair and to emphasize that a truly uninhibited natural hair movement, is one where Black women can wear their hair in whatever way they choose, weaves and relaxers included. Overall, such an attentive, thought provoking piece. Great job!

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