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,

Edwards, Chime. “The Impact of The ‘Fro In The Civil Rights Movement.” Essence, Essence, 10 Feb. 2015,

Fontaine, Valley. “Valley Fontaine.” Muck Rack,

Kasprzak, Emma. “Black Natural Hair: Why Women Are Returning to Their Roots.” BBC News, BBC, 6 May 2017,

Kenneth. “The Natural Hair Movement: A Historical Perspective.” Curl Centric® | Rewrite the Rules of Natural Hair Care, 26 May 2019,

Lawton, Georgina. “The Problems with the Natural Hair Movement.” Dazed, 9 May 2016,

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,

“Natural Hair Advocates Take on the US Army.” BBC News, BBC, 6 June 2014,

“Researchers@Brown.” Quashie, Kevin,

“Want a Big Mac?”: How Food Marketing Fuels Systemic Racism

Rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes disproportionately impact Black adults compared to their white counterparts in the United States, and ads from food companies like McDonald’s and Taco Bell directly target Black households—a connection that can’t be overlooked. Forms of systemic racism, like housing inequality and food apartheid, directly contribute to the high rates of health-related issues among Black people, however, mass media, specifically food marketing, plays a significant role as well. Food marketing perpetuates food apartheid among predominantly, low-income Black neighborhoods because it informs and normalizes systemic anti-Black racism through media and modern culture .

Mass media–TV shows, commercials, and movies—informs the public about Black communities, and although the media educates the public, it perpetuates racial tropes and stereotypes. Through over and underrepresentation of Black people, mass media impacts not only how the public perceives Black people, but how they perceive themselves. Overrepresentation manifests into the ways in which Black people are represented and the spaces in which they are represented. For example, The Opportunity Agenda conducted studies that demonstrate that Black males are often overrepresented with depictions of violence, poverty, and crime in the media. The media’s constant association of Blackness with violence and poverty plagues some Black communities while neglecting the structural racism embedded in those stereotypes.

Similarly, junk and fast food companies cement the systematic issue of food apartheid because they overtly target Black hosueholds and oversaturate their advertising with Black and Hispanic people. Compared to their white counterparts, Black youth were twice as likely to view junk food ads on television in 2017. Brands like McDonald’s, Hershey, PepsiCo, and Kellogs allocate 86% of ad spending on Black-targeted advertising, and nearly all of the people on Sprite’s Instagram profile are Black hip-hop artists and athletes. Sprite incorporates Black culture in its advertising to clearly attract Black customers, but the company doesn’t face the repercussions for causing health risks that impact Black communities.

 Furthermore, by almost exclusively advertising towards African-Americans, fast food companies stimulate a seemingly inherent desire and expectation to consume the company’s product. Youth are very susceptible to advertising and mass media, therefore, when junk food advertising targets Black youth, they are more likely to consume junk food and develop poor eating habits in the future. Ann-Derrick Gaillot, a writer for The Outline, raises the possibility that they prefer Sprite because the company invests money into appealing to African-Americans, which illuminates how junk food companies subtly normalize their products with Black culture. It is evident that junk and fast food companies manifest poor health among Black people because nearly half (46.8%) of African-American adults are obese.

Moreover, healthy food companies indirectly sustain food apartheid because they lack a diverse target market, and Black people and families are not represented in their advertisements. Healthy food advertisements, including products like nuts, juice, and water, represent 1% of ad spending on Black television, and within that narrow margin, healthy food companies fail to include Black people in those advertisements, hence encouraging the notion that it isn’t normal for Black people to consume healthy, nutritious foods. Kirsten Allen, a writer for the Huffington Post, writes that some Black communities consider healthy foods to be “white people food.” Healthy food companies rarely interact with Black households, therefore healthy food companies indirectly engender an expected behavior that Black people don’t eat healthy foods. 

Healthy and junk food companies’ marketing tactics and locations bolster food apartheid in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods. Fast food restaurants populate in Black neighborhoods far more than healthy food stores and restaurants. Ashante M. Reese, a professor of anthropology and sociology, stated, “The fact that predominantly black neighborhoods, on average, have fewer stores and poorer quality [food] compared to their white counterparts means something.” Reese’s point is a result of food companies practicing anti-Blackness in their advertising. Companies like McDonald’s and Sprite aim to generate profit at the expense of Black people, whereas healthy food companies, like Vita and Smart Water, aim to generate profit by excluding Black communities from their target market and advertisements. As these companies practice anti-Blackness in their marketing, they manifest food apartheid. relative to healthy foods in stores or establishments that sell healthy foods. 

The cycle is clear: fast and junk food companies excessively target Black households, and  create a normalized culture for Black people to eat unhealthy food, which leads to an overbearing amount of these establishments in low-income neighborhoods, ultimately instilling poor eating habits into low-income, Black households. So, what are the solutions to dissolve the relationship between food apartheid and food marketing?

First, diversity is essential for food marketing; food companies should aim to balance who they target, who they represent, and how they represent people in their advertisements. Restaurants and all food companies should represent Black people in their advertising to normalize and promote healthy eating, and in those depictions, Black people shouldn’t be confined to a racial trope. Also, junk and fast food companies shouldn’t oversaturate Black household televisions with their advertisements because they further the expectation that Black people only eat junk and fast food. 

Second, cities should encourage and provide access for healthy eating in predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods. Ideally, food companies need to shift how they utilize race in advertising, but food marketing isn’t a systemic issue. Thus, cities should intervene in low-income neighborhoods to alleviate the structurally racist issue of food apartheid. The New York City Department of Health incorporated 27 farmer’s markets throughout the Bronx, and the markets accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. Allowing EBT cards as a form of payment enables access to healthy, nutritious foods for low-income and impoverished families. 

Ultimately, combating food marketing and structural issues like access will help dismantle food apartheid in low-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Food marketing isn’t a systemic issue, but it fuels structural racism, and food companies need to recognize their responsibility in food apartheid in order to eradicate it.

Works Cited

Aiken, Kristen. “’White People Food’ Is Creating An Unattainable Picture Of Health.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 17 Sept. 2018,

“Black Americans.” Black Americans & Heart Disease – Facts & Statistics,

Byrne, Christine. “It’s Great That We Talk About ‘Food Deserts’ – But It Might Be Time To Stop.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 4 July 2019,

Cruz, Lenika. “’Dinnertimin’ and ‘No Tipping’: How Advertisers Targeted Black Consumers in the 1970s.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 June 2015,

Gaillot, Ann-Derrick. “There’s Sprite at the Cookout.” The Outline, The Outline, 16 Apr. 2018,

Holleran, Max. “How Fast Food Chains Supersized Inequality.” The New Republic, 2 Aug. 2017,

“Improving Media Coverage and Public Perceptions of African-American Men and Boys.” The Opportunity Agenda, 2011,

Lawson, Kimberly. “Why Seeing Yourself Represented on Screen Is So Important.” Vice, 20 Feb. 2018,

Nittle, Nadra. “People of Color Have the Highest Obesity Rates in the US. Food Marketing Is Part of the Problem.” Vox, Vox, 28 Sept. 2018,

“Nutrition: Farmers Markets.” Nutrition: Farmers Markets – NYC Health,

Wetsman, Nicole. “Junk Food Ads Disproportionally Target Black and Hispanic Kids over White Kids.” Popular Science, Popular Science, 6 June 2019,

Blackness in Social Media & Meme Culture

The power of Black culture is rooted in its creativity and constant evolution. Although the innovation of Black culture predates colonialism, certain aspects of it stem from attempting to overcome the oppressive system of white supremacy. These very aspects are linked to Black performance, the manifestation of Blackness. A powerful form of Black performance is Black expressive culture—African-American Vernacular English, comedy, and mannerisms, to be specific—because it is a medium through which Black folk can simultaneously appreciate each other and mock the very systems that oppress them. As pop culture infiltrates social media, however, Black expressive culture is overtly exploited in memes, which misconstrues the role of Black performance and perpetuates the long-standing stereotype that the only value of Black folk is to entertain.

GIFS and pictures of Black people—often Black women—dominate social media feeds, subtly bolstering misogynoir through the digital world. Physical and verbal expression provide comedic relief and silent communication within communities of Black people; when videos and pictures go viral, however, that very comedic relief over-represents the presence of Black folk in social media. Photos of Conceited, a rapper, holding a red solo cup and pursing his lip; Tanisha, from the show Bad Girls Club; and Beyonce, Rihanna, and Viola Davis are widespread photos that are often considered the staple for memes (Jackson). It’s important to note that Black women are often the faces in these photos, in which the stereotypes of the Loud, Angry, and Sassy Black Woman are abundant.

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), another form of Black performance, is the language and dialect that creates a verbal space, in which various communities of Black folk can live and connect. Black queer and trans folk and Black women are the pioneers for AAVE because as Mikelle Street, eloquently says, “As black gay people, we are so othered at the essence of our being that it has demanded a new language to interact with the world.” (Street). AAVE was created by Black people for Black people; however, AAVE has become a large component of the overrepresentation in social media, and the language is used without understanding its historical and cultural context.

Despite the power AAVE holds for Black folk in the United States, it is used for memes and entertainment on social media, which creates a limiting space for Black folk to exist in. The richness of Black performance is understanding that no form of it represents all people of the African Diaspora, or to be more specific, all African-Americans in the United States. AAVE is a mode of communication for many Black folk but not for all. Therefore, when AAVE is employed by non-black people on social media it is used with two different understandings. First, it must represent the means of communication for all Black people, and second, it is exclusively on social media, therefore the language has no substantial value as a means of genuine communication.

Although meme culture is exploitative of Black creativity and thought, it is also a way in which Black folk connect, learn, and laugh with each other. From hairstyles to music, Black culture is often the foundation of cultural movements in the United States, and the culture of memes relies on Black folk as well. Phrases like “period,” “plug,” “bae,” “finesse,” and many other terms are commonly used in contemporary slang, but all of these sayings are rooted in the AAVE and Black culture. The use of these terms is impossible to confine only for the use of Black people, understanding how Black culture fundamentally shapes pop culture, however, AAVE should be understood as historically Black and recognized as a legitimate language, not one whose use only serves as entertainment.

Despite the naturally exploitative nature of meme culture, Black folk create spaces across all social media platforms to connect, create, laugh, and uplift each other. With the rise of Black Twitter and Black Tumblr, Black folk can freely express themselves and their heritage with comedic relief, a full circle back to the historical use of Black performance. Memes, many of which start in these new, Black online spaces, aren’t exploited in the same way that they are when they’re widespread and available for all to see. As pop culture shifts into a larger online presence, Black folk evolve the spaces in which they can create and collaborate.

The presence of Blackness in meme culture and social media, in general, has fostered good for Black communities through discussion, promotions, and collaboration. Black folk continue to face issues that affect the uniformity of the race, like misogynoir and homophobia. With the use of memes and online discussions, Black people find a way in which they can discuss these issues with each other. Online discussion and collaboration often result in activism. Many marches and protests regarding justice for Black people are organized and planned through social media. The inception of the Black Lives Matter movement began with a Facebook post. Further, Black folk on social media have contributed to the awareness of Black-owned businesses. Many Black-owned businesses promote each other, which increases Black capital. Blackness, online and in meme culture, fosters creativity, politically, economically, and socially.

Ultimately, Black performance and culture have evolved with the rise of social media; however, it is crucial to assess how social media and memes impact Black folk and their perception. Memes often promote the racist stereotypes of Black folk, which create a narrow and negative perception of Black people. Photos and GIFS of Black folk often go viral, which reflects the naturally exploitative nature of memes. By creating spaces for each other, however, allows Black folk to prosper on social media and relish and learn about their own cultures. Black folk in memes have helped understand the role of heritage, childhood, and the overarching idea of culture, and although the way in which Black culture is exploited online is devastating, Black creativity always fosters a space for Black folk to live and grow.

Works Cited

Cox, Tony. “A Short History of Black Comedy.” NPR. NPR, February 26, 2007.

Gabbara, Princess. “Cornrows and Sisterlocks and Their Long History.” EBONY, December 17, 2018.

Jackson, Laur M. “The Blackness of Meme Movement.” Model View Culture, March 28, 2016.

Jackson, Lauren Michele. “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in GIFs.” Teen Vogue. Teen Vogue, August 3, 2017.

Jones, Ellen E. “Why Are Memes of Black People Reacting So Popular Online?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, July 8, 2018.

Nichelle, Jae. “‘I’m Is Talking Right’: How the Stigma around Black Language Holds Us Back from Liberation.” AFROPUNK, January 17, 2018.