Laura Marti – January 25, 2022
Feature Image: The Right Hairstyles | Instagram | @LYSSAMARIEXO
For most of my life I had never thought about shopping for Black beauty products and had no awareness of the frustration it could cause to Black women — I was clueless.
When I first connected with Lucretia Berry around 2015 as she was starting Brownicity, she had a meet-up with several women in our church who were interested in learning more about race. Lucretia talked with them about the beauty issues women of color face every day. She spoke about how hard it can be to find hair products for textured hair in the beauty aisle of big retail stores. Black hair products were often relegated to a little corner section, not clearly labeled, and with not much variety offered.
Lucretia’s stories about shopping for Black hair products revealed to me a privilege I have as a white woman, because shopping for my hair products is something I’ve never had a problem doing. Now when I go to these stores, the awareness I gained from her compels me to look more carefully and see how each store organizes their shelves to accommodate “beauty diversity.”
BLACK HAIR SHAMING
The awareness I gained from Lucretia’s stories opened my eyes to deeper issues around Black hair — especially the shame that is too often associated with Black hair. This 2018 New York Times piece recounts several stories of shaming, humiliation, and regulation of Black people’s hair that starts in school, and moves into the workplace, sports and many other arenas of life. This heartbreaking story in Louisiana in 2018, tells of an 11-yr-old girl who was sent home crying on the first day of school because she had hair extensions. Officials said her hair was not “natural” and did not fit school policy. The experience traumatized her. Though schools may say they want to be welcoming to all and celebrate diversity, hair policies like this make children of color feel inadequate, ashamed of who they are and how they look, simply because their hair doesn’t meet a standard of what is considered acceptable, let alone beautiful, to White administrators.
As I watched the 2021 Tokyo summer Olympics, I saw the swim cap become another instance of shaming — this time for Black swimmers. Because their hair did not fit in the traditional size swim cap, some Black swimmers opted for a larger cap, like this Soul Cap designed by a Black-owned British company to protect dreadlocks, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair. FINA, which oversees international swimming competitions, rejected the application for use of the Soul Cap, citing “no previous instance in which swimmers needed caps of such size and configuration.” Surprisingly, FINA said the Soul Cap “didn’t fit the natural form of the head.” [emphasis mine] They also stated that the cap could create an advantage by disrupting the flow of water.
FINA’s rejection of the Soul Cap is tied to assumptions about what is universal to all human hair. And their judgment has consequences for the assessment of Black athletes all over the world. Danielle Obe, the founding member of the Black Swimming Association, said in USA Today:
The ban has created a sense of exclusion for members of the black and minority ethnic community. If the (official swimming bodies) are talking about representation, they need to speak to the communities to find out what the barriers are that are preventing us from engaging. Hair is a significant issue for our community.
BRINGING JOY – THE BLACK HAIR EXPERIENCE
Seeing such marginalization of Black hair can be overwhelming and discouraging, and I feel powerless to know how to help bring change. That’s why I so much appreciate hearing about people who are countering the narrative, celebrating Black hair, and working to bring joy and pride! Here are a couple stories I came across this past year that reminded me of the creativity and resilience of the Black community in bringing attention to Black beauty.
👉🏾 Meet the founders of a pop-up Black hair museum called The Black Hair Experience. Created by Alisha Brooks and Elizabeth Austin-Davis, The Black Hair Experience creates a nostalgic experience to “celebrate the diversity and evolution of Black hair throughout the decades.” The space celebrates Black beauty and culture by encouraging visitors to pose and take photos. It’s an interactive selfie museum that combines a pop-up art exhibit and a series of Instagrammable spaces, all in the name of celebrating Black hair. There are currently exhibits in Atlanta, Dallas, and National Harbor, MD, with exhibits in other cities coming soon.
Co-creator Alisha Brooks says, “The journey of loving my hair has been a journey of highs and lows.” She shared how her mom permed her hair at a young age, and when she became an adult she decided to do a “big chop.” She said the cut helped her feel more like herself. When having twins, her hair thinned, and again she said she had to “re-establish and re-fall in love with my hair again.”
Co-creator Elizabeth Austin-Davis discussed how her experience at a historically Black college shaped her. “It wasn’t until I went to an HBCU and really started to understand how to take care of my hair and made the personal decision to go natural that I started to love my texture the way that it grows,” said Austin-Davis. In letting her natural hair grow, she said: “My goal was to feel confident about myself no matter how my hair looks.”
👉🏾 I also learned about celebrating Black hair from listening to this piece by Ayesha Rasco, NPR journalist, on the ‘It’s Been a Minute’ podcast (July 2021). As she walks us through her own hair journey, one thing Ayesha said really pierced right through me: “It hurts to have to defend something as intimate as the hair that grows out of your head.” She went on to say:
“The discrimination is insidious. It can mean losing your job, or Black swimmers banned from wearing caps that would cover their long braids or locs (right?!?), or Black actresses forced to do their own hair because Hollywood failed to see the value of their tightly coiled tresses. But, Black hair means so much more than that. It’s personal and beautiful and, yes, it’s joyful!”
Rascoe visited the Black Hair Experience museum as part of the podcast story, and instead of focusing on the struggles, she chose to focus on the joy of Black hair and how fun it can be! I just loved how she and Alisha Brooks laughed and had fun talking about all the different things you can do with Black hair and the many ways it can be worn.
Rascoe said she could feel the joy from visitors as they walked through the 20,000-square-foot exhibit. She said, “I saw Black women light up at the sight of a wall plastered with magazine covers, full of images of Black hair styled in sleek updos, slicked back ponytails with the bang swooped on the forehead, multilayered bobs and more.”
I believe we are all created in the image of God, so all hair is God-given, and all hair is beautiful! Black women and men, and Black girls and boys, should never be made to feel shame about their hair. They should never be made to feel inadequate or like they are being punished for the hair they were born with. Instead, from what I’ve learned, Black hair is not just hair – it’s an expression, a representation of culture and history, and a crown of beauty. Black hair should be celebrated! So I am committed to speaking up wherever I can to help move us toward inclusivity. I am committed to examining and checking my privilege as a White woman in regard to Black hair. And I am committed to not insulting (and not touching!) anyone’s hair, but rather recognizing and praising beautiful Black hair when I see it!
These Two Women Opened A Pop-Up Museum At National Harbor To Celebrate The Beauty Of Black Hair – DCist (WAMU, American University Radio | May 2021)
‘The Black Hair Experience’ Is About The Joy Of Black Hair — Including My Own (NPR | It’s Been a Minute Broadcast | July 2021)
Ban on ‘Soul Cap’ spotlights lack of diversity in swimming | (AP News | August 2021)
Tokyo Olympics: Soul Cap, designed for Afro swimmers, banned by FINA (USA Today | July 2021)
A Black Girl Was Sent Home From School for Not Having ‘Natural’ Hair (Insider | August 2018)
[My] Black [Hair] Is Beautiful. Keep your hands and back-handed… | by Marcus Donaldson | (Medium.com | September 2018)