The Black Diamond: It’s not “just hair”

Black women still face discrimination for natural and traditional hairstyles

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Nick Archambault/Daily Collegian (2022)

By Christmaelle Vernet, Collegian Columnist

The topic of hair could never be left out in a discussion about Black womanhood. Hair is such an impactful part of a Black woman’s identity — some of my first memories include getting my hair done in braids with colorful barrettes at the ends every Sunday. As I got older and became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed very few people looked like me, much less had my hair texture.

Starting in fourth grade and throughout middle school, I felt immense pressure to straighten my hair, and once high school came around, I did. I relaxed my hair regularly during my sophomore year, and anyone who has relaxed their hair before knows how painful it is. The chemicals you apply to your scalp causing a burning sensation, and it’s extremely damaging to textured hair.

Now that I am in college, I prefer to wear protective styles, which include box braids, faux locs and passion twists. I remember feeling such pride the first time I got box braids because it was essentially another form of creative expression for me, a way to reject the standards I felt forced to meet for so long.

The conversation of whether non-Black women should be allowed to wear Black hairstyles became a recurring source of controversy beginning in the early 2000s through the 2010s. The first occasion I remember this occurring was when Kim Kardashian wore Fulani braids (a style that originated in West Africa) to the 2018 MTV Movie and TV awards. While she did face backlash, she also received a fair amount of support from people who were confused as to why so many Black women were so upset about it. Just a few years prior, Zendaya wore locs to the Academy Awards and had a racist and offensive remark made towards her by former fashion commentator and reporter, Giuliana Rancic, who joked that the hairstyle made the actress look as if she “smells like patchouli oil or weed.” I bring this comparison up to address why Black women feel the need to “gatekeep” certain hairstyles.

The insults “hoodrats,” “rachet” or “ghetto” are often levied against Black women for wearing their hair in Afro-centric styles. When it comes to non-Black women wearing those same styles it is often seen as “trendy.” That is why there is an incentive to “gatekeep” these hairstyles, or protect them for Black women. Something used against us and demonized for so long is now widely accepted because non-Black women began taking an interest in it.

Even in professional or corporate settings, Black hair is seen as “less professional.” Just this summer, the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act), a bill created in 2019 to combat hair discrimination in work or educational settings, was passed in Massachusetts. This bill has yet to pass in several states, meaning that in so many areas of our country, Black women can be fired, reported and sent home just for how they choose to wear their hair. In Massachusetts, two Black girls were punished by their charter school for wearing hair extensions back in 2017, and while signing this bill into law is a great place to start, there is still so much work to be done to eliminate hair discrimination on all fronts.

That is why saying that it is “just hair” is a massive display of ignorance. When that sentiment is expressed, years of culture and history are ignored and erased. Hair is of huge cultural significance for Black women, and in my personal experience, it’s helped me gain confidence and feel connected to my roots. No one is claiming to have invented braids as a whole, but box braids, Fulani braids, faux locs, passion twists and many more hairstyles all originated from the African diaspora. No one should face being unfairly profiled, stereotyped or discriminated against just for how they choose to do their hair.

Christmaelle Vernet can be reached at [email protected]