Black women's hair isn't just their crowning glory, it's a political statement
By Bruce Ward
November 26, 2009
Amina Mire wears her hair in a natural style that reflects her
African heritage, but once in a while she changes her look.
Her students always notice, says Mire, an assistant professor of
sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.
"Sometimes I blowdry my hair (straight), just for fun. And my younger
students, who are mostly white, they don't like it. They like my hair
Afro or funky. They notice. They'll say, 'We want your hair the natural way.'"
For black women, it seems a hairstyle is never simply a grooming
choice. It's also a self-esteem and identity issue.
"Black hair is not like Britney Spears' (hair)," Mire says. "It has a
different context and meaning (than white women's hair). Black women
look certain ways because to look otherwise has a certain meaning."
The documentary Good Hair produced by black actor Chris Rock, which
opens today in Ottawa, examines the politics of hair for
African-American women. But it's a topic that also resonates with
Canadian black women.
Since July, Governor General Michaëlle Jean has most often worn her
hair in a modified natural style, one that recalls the afro look she
sported years ago as host of CBC's The Passionate Eye. It's a change
from the straightened style she has favoured for most of her tenure.
That makes her unlike most famous American black women. Oprah
Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Rihanna and Beyoncé all appear in public
with straightened hair, although Beyoncé recently wore hers in long wavy curls.
Some black women see straightening their hair as a way to be more
acceptable to the white mainstream, a way to look "professional" or
to blend in at work. By comparison, a natural look is perceived as
radical or revolutionary, one that harkens back to the famous 1960s
photo of Angela Davis wearing an outsize afro and carrying an AK-47 rifle.
"Hair is probably the most touchy issue among the African-Americans
ever," says Mire. "It's hot, like it's radioactive. Black women in
the U.S. spend probably 20 per cent of their income on their hair.
Michelle Obama will straighten her hair, and will keep that hair
straight, until she's out of the White House."
Rock's documentary also looks at the time and money African-American
females spend on their hair. It's a multi-billion dollar industry. In
2008, U.S. sales of home hair relaxers alone totalled $46.5 million
(excluding Walmart), according to Mintel, a market research firm.
Black women spend up to 10 times more than any other group on home hair care.
They do this, even though they can choose from many natural
hairstyles: dreadlocked, "natural," curly, faded, braided, twisted,
straightened, permed, crimped and cornrowed, among others.
"One of the things you will find with black women's hair is that it's
very versatile," says Jacqueline Beckles, a lawyer at Justice Canada.
"We can change it on a weekly basis, and we do. We enjoy it.
"For most black women, it's an accessory, largely. We will change the
style, we will change the look, we will change the texture of it
even, because we have that ability now with the new technologies."
White women with naturally curly hair can make these same choices.
But, unlike her white sister, a black woman's hairstyle is often
perceived as a political or social statement, even when no such
message is intended. "It becomes more than a grooming choice because
of society," says Beckles.
"White people may be more comfortable with a black person with
straight hair. Black people may perceive that same person as
artificial. I think everyone has their own filters and experiences
that they will use to interpret different situations and judge people
"Personally, I think the Chris Rock movie needs to be seen through a
Canadian filter. The American experience is different from the
Canadian experience. I myself have experienced a range of different
attitudes with respect to my appearance. (But) I don't think we would
go as far as saying that we might have the same overt issues as they
would in America."
For one thing, young Canadians are more accepting of cultural
diversity, Beckles says.
"I think the older generation is used to a certain status quo and
when that gets changed they are uncomfortable, whereas the younger
generation have more of a variety of experiences and influences. So
they're more comfortable with, dare I say, black people in their
As for celebrities who don't straighten their hair, Beckles says, "I
think the perception of militancy is still there when you get a Jill
Scott or an Angie Stone with their afros, or natural hair like India Arie."
Arie's first album came out the same year as Alicia Keys' first
album, she notes, and both were the same type of neo-soul, R&B music.
"In terms of artistry, they were both phenomenal, but India Arie had
natural hair, Alicia Keys had straightened hair. Who swept the
Grammys? Who got the public renown? Alicia Keys.
"That's just one element; it's not to say the votes were in favour of
her hair. But you look at the distinctions and even Arie's music was
more political, more 'this is who I am, that's not going to change.'
You know, 'Accept me the way I am, love me the way I am. Or don't.'
"That's just it. That's the reality of black women every day. The
days that we don't care or we just want to be left alone, or we just
want to be who we are, are the days when we're perceived as being
militant because we're not trying fit into the mainstream. I think
that in itself is problematic."
Then there are practical issues, such as Ottawa's extreme climate
hot, humid summers and frigid winters which is hard on black
women's hair and requires them to balance style with practicality,
says Sarah Onyango, who works in community radio and TV and also runs
the information website www.blackottawa411.com.
"Here in the Ottawa Valley, we have the extra challenge: How do we
care for our very delicate hair? Black hair is very fragile; people
don't appreciate that enough," says Onyango.
"Our hair doesn't respond well to frigid weather at all. It gets
really dry. So you have to spend more time if you're going to keep it
natural or straighten it, moisturizing it or going to the hairdresser
for treatments. Or you're going to be smart and braid it up."
And summer's not much better. "Our hair doesn't fare very well in
moisture," says Onyango. "When it's humid in summer, women with
straightened hair have a really hard time because your hair frizzes back up."
As for choosing a hairstyle itself, that's challenging too.
"There a lot of different things," Onyango says. "There's where you
work and how conservative the people are, and also if there are other
black people in the workplace.
"If you're the one black person in your workplace, you'll go one of
two ways. You'll go, 'Well I'm the only one so I can lock my hair, I
can braid it, whatever. It's just me, and I'll be a nice little
exotic element in the workplace as long as I keep it reasonable,
not purple braids and all kinds of weird stuff.'
"Or, 'Uh-oh I'm the only black person in the workplace. I've got to
really blend in.' It's one of the two."