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.
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