Here’s a second post by Josh McLennon to mark Black History Month, this time looking into our perceptions about afro-textured hair and what they mean for Black people in Western society today. This is particularly valuable reading for allies and would-be allies.
As a member of Kilburn & Strode’s Diversity Forum, I will be writing five articles that will launch throughout October to celebrate Black History Month. The articles form part of the educational sharing series, with the aim of insight and education. This is article number two.
You could be forgiven for asking “Why is afro-textured hair any different to other types of hair?” On the surface, it is no different, and there is no doubt that it ought to be no different. Hair grows (or used to grow!) from pretty much all of our heads, and, of course, none of us have any choice about how naturally curly that hair is.
Centuries of the transatlantic slave trade and subsequent colonisation of the African continent brought a distinctly anti-African edge to European and Western culture. What I have found surprising is just how little has changed in terms of the way we collectively view, and value, afro-textured hair in our society.
I believe that how a person decides to wear or style their hair should be a personal decision: an opportunity to express oneself, or not, however they like. This article explores the history of afro-textured hair, and how the way it is viewed can influence the choices that people with this specific type of hair, like me, make.
Before we explore the history of afro-textured hair, it is worth mentioning why I’m using the term “afro-textured hair” in the first place. The terms “afro-textured hair”, “afro hair”, “African hair” and “Black hair” are often used interchangeably, in addition to many others that you may have heard of. I prefer afro-textured hair as I find it to be a broader term, encompassing the hair of people who may not identify as being Black (eg someone who is only partially of African heritage), and it also makes clear that it covers more than “the Afro” haircut. “Natural” hair in the context of this article is that which has not been altered by chemicals or heat.
A brief history of afro-textured hair and its perception in the West
Before European colonisation, hairstyles of people on the African continent were rich in meaning and steeped in history. Whole communities would work together to incorporate intricate designs, symbolising ideas such as wealth, heritage, religion, social rank, and somehow even fractal mathematics into the hair of their kin. These hairstyles were developed over millennia. Even today, people of certain tribes wear natural hairstyles which represent how old they are, whether they are married, and even whether they have entered adulthood (link here). I’ve learnt that types of braiding which are popular throughout the modern African diaspora, such as cornrows (Wikipedia link here), are in fact thousands of years old.
From the 16th Century onwards, over twelve million of these communities’ members, including my ancestors, were stolen from their homes and sold on to Western European slave traders who would then shave their heads before shipping them to the Americas. The purpose of shaving the heads of the newly enslaved people was to humiliate them, and also to shear their ties with their culture and homeland. As you may already be aware, slave traders would deliberately separate members of the same tribe to limit the transmission of African culture, including language and history, to the New World.
Over the course of centuries, as discussed here, enslaved people with features thought to be more “European”, including hair, were given preferential treatment by slave owners. Many plantations across the Americas divided their enslaved workers into two broad categories: “field slaves” who would generally have darker skin and more “African” features; and “house slaves” who would generally have lighter skin and more “European” features. Both groups would be working under the threat of death. A perverse consequence of this system was that, for all enslaved people, European ideals of beauty were directly linked to their struggle for survival and a more bearable life. With “perks” being the difference between life and death, it is no wonder that enslaved people adopted this preference for their hair to have a more European appearance. Often, they would give their afro-textured hair this look by straightening their curls with heated utensils or using oily homemade concoctions to slick them down. Many people today chemically “relax” their afro-textured hair which involves altering the structure of their curls using a strong alkali. Methods to remove curls from hair ultimately damage its structure and can render it weak and brittle.
The bias against afro-textured hair did not end with the abolition of slavery. In fact, two recent studies from Yale and Duke Universities in the US show that the bias against afro-textured hair is still going strong.
How afro-textured hair is perceived today: US
Academic Johanna Lukate, in her eye-opening TEDx talk at Cambridge University here, discusses the Yale study which found that people, regardless of race or gender, consistently view natural afro-textured hair as unprofessional and unattractive. These findings were reiterated by a Duke University study (link here) which found this year that “Black women with natural hairstyles were consistently perceived to be less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for a job interview than Black women with straightened hairstyles and White women with either curly or straight hairstyles.” This is particularly relevant for law firms as the biases were found to be even more pronounced in industries with conservative dress norms. Yikes.
“There fundamentally has to be a level of awareness that the natural hair bias exists. If you don’t know that it exists, you can’t know its influence on your decision-making processes,” says Dr Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, one of the co-authors of the Duke University study. “When a Black woman chooses to straighten her hair, it should be a personal preference, not a burden to conform to a set of criteria for which there could be adverse consequences.”
Surely things are a little better in the UK?
How afro-textured hair is perceived today: UK
Enter: Emma Dabiri, author of the seminal book “Don’t Touch My Hair” published earlier this year. Her article here details several instances of children as young as 5 (!) being punished by schools for wearing totally normal, natural, afro-textured hairstyles. A number of these instances have led to legal cases being brought against these schools by families of the children, backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. One girl (link here) found that the only styles her school found acceptable for her afro-textured hair were too expensive, too time consuming, and damaged her hair. Her classmates, on the other hand, “can have their hair all the way down to their hips, as long as they want.” The issue Emma Dabiri has with school policies in the UK is that they “effectively [ban] every style and necessary protective method for the maintenance and upkeep of afro hair.”
It is these stories which have forced me to reflect on my own experiences of how my hair was treated at school. I sported relatively short dreadlocks, less than two inches long, for about a year or so. I was frequently told to cut my hair for contravening school policy or risk punishment. While resisting initially, as any teenager might, I eventually agreed with the school that my hair was probably a bit too long and cut them off. However, looking back, my hair was half the length of many other boys’ hair who were not deemed to be in breach. This did not register with me at the time.
In the UK’s world of work, things are much the same. Journalist Jessica Morgan, in her article here, presents a series of informative interviews with a number of Black women on their experiences of hair discrimination in the workplace. It beggars belief that women are still being told at interview to chemically straighten their hair and being offered jobs on the condition of removing their braids. Philip Richardson, head of employment law at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, suggests that employers must not adopt universal dress codes “if the effect of that dress code would put those with a protected characteristic at a particular disadvantage.”
The Equality Act 2010
This leads us to the UK’s Equality Act 2010, which is meant to protect certain characteristics from discrimination. Protected characteristics under its provisions for race include colour and ethnic or national origin. Despite it being an indicator of ancestry and race, it is unclear whether discrimination against certain types of hair is actually covered by the Act. For Emma Dabiri, “this reveals the cultural bias at play in the law, and demonstrates a blind spot that ignores one of the defining features of blackness.” Her petition here to amend the Equality Act 2010 to explicitly protect afro-textured hair has gathered almost 70,000 signatures at the time of writing (October 2020). A similar petition by Zina Alfa here has gathered over 80,000. Clearly there is some appetite in the UK for the Government to clarify the law and unambiguously ban hair discrimination.
The “Natural Hair Movement”
Did you know that Black women in the UK spend on average six times as much on hair care as White women? I didn’t. Even though the UK’s Black hair industry is worth an estimated £88 million each year, journalist Elena Chabo finds it surprising just how slow large hair-care companies have been to engage with this market (link here). I sympathise with her mixed feelings about Pantene’s recent development of products specifically for women with natural afro-textured hair. While increased choice is great for consumers, it seems likely that the entrance of large corporations to this market will devastate the Black-owned businesses which have traditionally catered to our needs.
While the stance of society at large towards natural afro-textured hair appears to be changing, so too are the views of those who have afro-textured hair themselves. The Natural Hair Movement is a fantastic example of this. With its roots in 1960s America, the movement has spread to include many other communities of the African diaspora in recent years. It builds on ideas discussed in this article, and, for the most part, represents a conscious rejection of European beauty standards and a recognition of authentic, natural beauty (link here). This BBC News article here looks at some of the reasons why a number of Black women are choosing to embrace their natural hair. Of course, some decide to do so simply because it is stylish.
And there you have it, a whistle-stop history of afro-textured hair.
- How people decide to wear their hair is a personal decision.
- Respect how people decide to wear their hair.
- Be more aware of how you judge people with regard to their appearance in a professional environment.
BONUS: Want to learn more? Support independent bookshops by picking up Emma Dabiri’s fantastic book “Don’t Touch My Hair” at this link here.