As a black woman and as someone who wasn’t raised as a black person, I have a strange relationship to my hair and how it is seen. I am mixed-raced. The family I grew up with was mostly light skinned and white-passing Puerto Ricans. There are black Latinos in my family but, when my Afro-Latino grandfather isn’t around, I am the darkest person in my immediate family. I’ve been raised in the “anti-Black, but not racist” way that a lot of people, particularly Hispanics, are. My family have been upholding the “we don’t hate black people but black jokes are funny and we aren’t ‘ghetto’ like them” mentality for as long as I can remember. I was raised in a way that frowned upon being “ethnic” or “urban” in any shape or form.
What many people don’t understand about black hair is that the styling and caring for it is still very culturally linked in ways that not many other races and ethnicities can claim to today. Many of these techniques are specific to black hair. Black hair is often texturally different than the hair found in most other races or ethnicities. Notably, black hair has become important to personal identity and culture and it is demonized and mocked by western society. I knew none of this growing up. All I knew is that black hair was not pretty, and I had black hair.
I was not raised with other black people. I was not raised in a black household. I was barely raised in a Latino household. I was raised to be as white as possible because that is what is socially acceptable. I’ve had my hair relaxed for nearly all of my life. I grew up not knowing what bantu knots were or how to properly condition my hair or even how to style it. At twenty-two I’m still trying to figure that out, if I’m being honest.
Recently, my mother told me that she has enforced the straightening of mine and my sister’s hair because of her experiences with her younger sister when they were kids. My aunt is black and has black features. She used to keep her hair natural and short, meaning she has an afro. Apparently, people used to make fun of her all the time and my mom always came to her rescue. My mom said she didn’t want that for her kids. She didn’t want us to be ridiculed for our hair, so she tried to eradicate it, so to speak, by relaxing our hair.
As I grew up, I did my own research, became more socially aware, learned about pro-Black movements, like the natural hair movement. I am a supporter of the natural hair movement. I strongly feel that black people have the right to wear their hair in its natural state in the same way that people of every other race and ethnicity gets to do. After years of trying to unlearn internalized anti-Blackness, I did not take my mom’s anecdote lightly. Instead of trying to instill a sense of pride over a feature that many have deemed ugly, she tried to convince us that it was. I believed it for years. Still, I straighten my hair. I like it straight now instead of keeping it straight out of shame and embarrassment. My younger sister, however, does not.
She is also mixed, but she is light skinned. She’s a relatively darker skinned Puerto Rican. But, she has black features and mixed hair which she has embraced and dons a head full of thick, coarse, beautiful curls. This was to the dismay of our mother who likes to make remarks on how ethnic she looks. My sister has also had a bit of trouble at school over how ethnic she now looks, with people doing everything from making remarks to touching her hair without her permission and exclaiming things about how it’s softer than it looks. She doesn’t care, she is proud of her natural curls as she should be. She has gotten so many compliments on how beautiful her hair is from friends, strangers, and my black aunt who was made fun of for having an afro. This has started silent war. My mom wants us to look euro-centrically presentable while my younger sister wants us to embrace our curls and act like we weren’t raised not knowing what bantu knots were or the miracles of coconut oil.
I’ve become a strange middle ground between the two of them. I defend my sister and her hair every time our mother says something that proves she thinks natural black hair is a joke. Every time our mother laments on how unprofessional black hair is and turns a blind eye to my sister’s tears when she is meant to feel ugly, I stand by my sister’s side. But, I can’t help but feel like my mother is right. Black hair is seen as a joke. It is seen as unprofessional. She isn’t wrong when she looked at me and my sister and said that I, with my straight hair, am more likely to be hired than my sister with her kinky curls that my mother can’t take seriously. Still, I know that mentality is wrong in ways that my mother could never understand. She doesn’t see how the demonization of this feature is racist or how it can make one feel unsafe.
I’ve recently come across a bit of backlash to the straightening of black hair–not just from the more passionate people living the natural hair movement (which is understandable), but from white people who can’t understand why wearing dreads, cornrows, and box braids is appropriation while there are black girls out there who straighten their hair or get straight weaves. Straight hair is not exclusive to a particular race. There are many races and ethnicities with straight hair. Straight hair is not exclusive to whiteness. In this society having long, straight hair is the most attractive and professional hairstyle on a woman because white people have deemed it so. There is an emphasis on “taming” black hair as its natural appearance does not align with the eurocentric ideals of beauty. There’s been the development of hair products–relaxers, texturizers–to make black hair more manageable, more “white” in appearance. There is definitely a standard that black people are expected to live up to with their physical appearance in order to be accepted.
White people fail to realize that the same styles they take for aesthetic, the people they have taken it from are ostracized for wearing them naturally. Black hair cannot and should not be used as a costume while black people are forbidden from having it at the risk of being “thuggish”, “urban”, “dirty,” or “unprofessional”. There has been no cultural sharing of hair styling. There has only been the imposition of eurocentric features and the taking of black ones. There is no exchange happening, though a lot of people like to pretend that there is to excuse their anti-blackness. Part of the appeal, if not the appeal, of relaxers and more euro-appropriate weaves is the dominance and acceptance of the “white” look. People do not realize that white people can switch back and forth between the two. They can be the socially accepted ideal of beauty, wear black hair styles and look fashionable and cool, and then take it off and still be the ideal of beauty. There is no “taking it off” for black people.
The mission behind the natural hair movement is celebrating black beauty that is not distorted by white standards. That identity should be celebrated. After all the time spent trying to destroy the black identity, black hair should be celebrated–by black people.
One thing that I’ve come to terms with in my journey in understanding my blackness is the black identity is not one, singular thing. The outlook on black hair directly stems from the demonization of black people, our look and identities. This said, there are standards for what black people are meant to look and act like from western society and even from within the black community. I feel that the appreciation of the diversity of black people is one of the many reasons for the pro-Black movement. I am starting to come to terms with the fact that I am not my hair. I am not less black because I choose to straighten my hair, but I am not more deserving of respect because I do. The worth of a black person should not be based on how well they comply with white standards.
The natural hair movement is specific to the celebration of a feature that the western world does not necessarily find beautiful. It’s been a bit of a conundrum trying to understand my blackness given my familial context, and I’m still in a weird place. Instead of being ashamed of how I style my hair and what I look like to other black people, I’m finding it more productive to redefine what being black means to me. The natural hair movement is a vital component to the pro-Black movement and I still feel that we should celebrate all form of black hair: natural or not.
I’ve stopped worrying about how white and reputable my hair is. I straighten my hair for me. I straighten but no longer relax my hair. I like my soft, straight hair as much as my sister loves her kinky, curly hair. My black identity is different from hers, which may be different from yours, which will be different from another’s. Yes, I straighten my hair to the dismay of many black people, but I believe in supporting the complexity of black lives in whatever package they come in.