Unless you have been living on the moon for the past few years, you know that the rate of black women returning to their natural hair has been increasing exponentially. Relaxer sales have declined 34% between 2009 and 2014, and are expected to continue to fall. Black women are opting, again, for their natural hair.
Our Hairitage is a Beauty Standard
Despite what mainstream media pushes out to the world, black women are every bit as beautiful as white women. The standard of beauty right now in our country is stick thin, blond hair, and blue eyes. The problem with this image is that it’s fake. The images we are constantly barraged with are altered. So much so that some celebrities are including in their agreements that their images are not to be modified. They want to be shown as they are. It’s a standard that not even white women can attain. And if they can, it’s not without some emotional and/or physical damage. Hair is one of the most multi-faceted characteristics of black women. It can be curly or straight with the addition of water or heat. We actually don’t need chemicals to straighten our hair. It’s resilient and versatile. It’s thick and lush. And when nurtured properly can grow just as long as a white woman’s hair.
Some Hair History
So what happened to make us move away from our natural hair? This has its roots in slavery. Our hair was used to shame and separate us. Those with “nappy” hair were savages, while those with the smooth or “good” hair were seen as better. When the slave master raped women slaves, the children tended to be lighter with a different grade of hair. Some masters allowed their slave-children to live, or at least work, in the house and were potentially taught to read. This was intentional to cause division amongst the slaves. It worked.
During and after slavery, lighter skin blacks would straighten their hair in an attempt to pass. Darker skin women were not able to hide their blackness and typically just wore their hair up, braided or covered. Our hair always offended white people. Then along came chemical hair relaxer. Though Madam CJ Walker is often credited with the creation of the chemical relaxer, it was Garrett Augustus Morgan in 1877. He was an inventor and liked to experiment. He found that the chemicals used in the sewing and cloth production process also straightened kinky hair. He founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. Then in 1971 Dark and Lovely commercially launched lye relaxers. But right before this in the 60’s was the Civil Rights movement. Black women were embracing their locks in the form of afros, plaits, twists, and braids. As a result of the movement, black women were making their way to corporate America. They were told in order to assimilate the natural hair had to go. It wasn’t neat. Thus began the age of the creamy crack. It was simpler than pressing hair with a hot comb every week. It allowed us to be accepted in white America.
Black women who refused to straighten their hair were fired or weren’t allowed to advance at work. And as more black women entered the professional workforce they silently began to give up their natural hair. Eventually, by the 90’s it was just an expectation that a young girl would get her hair pressed or get a kiddie perm. Then when she was old enough would get a relaxer. There was some outcry in 1979 when Bo Derek, a white actress, appeared in a movie with braids and beads. The fashion world went nuts. She was proclaimed a standard of beauty after appropriating it from us.
Around 2009 the number of black women going natural began to rise. Potentially it was tied to the election of our first black President and having a black woman as FLOTUS. There was also a rise in natural hair care lines and tools. Groups of women began to gather and share hair care tips. Then social media happened. Black women started posting pictures of their big chops, beautiful hair styles, and hair care secrets. With the explosion of blogging, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter naturals were getting the word out. Other black women started to feel less alone. Many black women also began questioning the potential damage they were doing to their bodies. There have been no long-term studies to show what happens with the prolonged use of chemical relaxers.
Initially, many of the natural hair care lines were black-owned. But as the trend built and showed no signs of letting up, big corporations such as L’Oreal got in the game. Never let it be said that black dollars don’t matter. Black women have gone natural for various reasons. They were tired of straightening their hair, it was trendy and they wanted to be on trend, or they just wanted to remember what their hair looked like. When I went natural in 2013 it was because I was removing as many toxins from my home as possible. Then I realized, I was still relaxing my hair. My hair also seemed so lifeless. And I didn’t remember what my hair looked like. My hair had been straightened by heat or chemical for as long as I could remember. I transitioned all the way. I will tell you, I was terrified that first day I went in to work with my hair on full natural.
Hair At Work
Even though our natural hair has officially become part of the mainstream, the debate (and silent war) of natural hair at work rages on. We know when something becomes mainstream when it gets appropriated by our white female counterparts. In his spring 2015 show, Marc Jacob’s models wore what were referred to as mini buns. These were actually Bantu knots. A style black women have worn since, um, forever in Africa. The Kardashians love to rock corn rows which were lauded as the hot new hair style last year, even though we’ve been rocking corn rows since, um, forever. Even though our natural locks are mainstream, at work and school, our hair is still seen as offensive. Young girls are restricted from wearing their natural, even in braids or twists, at school. Black women are still being told their hair isn’t neat.
Here’s an experiment for which I cannot take credit. Go to Google and search for professional hair styles. Now search for unprofessional hair styles. What did you notice? Images of white women completely dominated the professional hair styles, while black women completely dominated the unprofessional. Nevermind that the hair was up, neat, and styled. If it wasn’t straight it was considered unkempt. How do we navigate a world that celebrates our features on white women, but on us, it’s offensive?
Keep On Keeping On – continue to do you. You know what’s professional and what isn’t. If you don’t, ask someone else with natural hair that you believe would give you good guidance. If you’re told to alter your hair, you have to decide for yourself if losing your job is worth it. Many have decided that they prefer to be themselves than to be compressed into mainstream’s idea of beauty.
Compromise – if no one else, white or otherwise, comes to work with purple hair, then neither should you. A good way to compromise may be wearing your natural hair in a bun. No, it won’t be good enough for some, but it’s good enough for the military. Leave the big beautiful twist outs for the weekend or after work.
Be Prepared – there will be people who just don’t know how to act. They will be bothered or fascinated. Have a solid understanding of the dress code and be prepared to demonstrate that you are adhering to the code. Find out if there is a middle ground. More conservative companies and/or managers have a narrow view of what professional dress looks like across the board. If you like to wear your hair out, offer to put it in a bun or top knot. Have the crucial conversation to understand what specifically bothers them and if it can be addressed short of straightening your hair.
Teach – people at work may be unaware of the bias they have toward your hair. I know. It’s exhausting. We shouldn’t still be in the position of having to explain our hair. Or why we don’t want people touching it. But, if you’re willing, this could be an opportunity for a teachable moment. Have the person do the Google search. Show them that what they are perceiving as unprofessional may be an implicit bias. That is, they have potentially been biased against your hair without knowing it.
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