Black hair and hairstyles are empowering and a form of resistance, but only white people “rocking” our hairstyles are considered beautiful.
Malcolm X once said that the most disrespected person in America is the black woman. One way to analyze the black woman’s experience in America is through her hair. People are astonished and confused by the texture, the aesthetic and the way we “tame” it — as if it were some fantastical being, as opposed to hair that’s simply different from yours. Yet people still feel the need to reach out with a finger, even though they are afraid of the power it evokes; so bewildered that they want to copy it. Why is it that black features are considered beautiful but black women are not? From the naps in our hair, the plump in our lips to the junk in our trunks, black features are fetishized and appropriated. When Miley Cyrus wore dreads to the VMAs, she was considered chic, but when Zendaya Coleman wore dreads on the red carpet she was told it looked like she smelled of “weed and patchouli oil.” When white people appropriate black features it is considered astonishing and beautiful, but when black people naturally flaunt it or style it, it is not appreciated in the same way.
Ever since grade school, I have been teased about my hair or defined by it through other people’s ignorance. Classmates would go as far as to pay me a dollar a day to “boing” my curls. In my head back then, I was like, “Ayyee, I’m making money!” But looking back, I knew I was uncomfortable about the offer because I was being made into an object that could be bought. I was made into an animal that could be pet. I didn’t realize how much I was being disrespected because this fetishization was school-wide. This is what I thought made me memorable, made me special and important to people — but I hated my hair. I lived in Oakland but went to Berkeley schools, which were predominantly white. No one else looked like me. None of those idiot boys that I liked wanted me back, and it was subconsciously about the societal implications that my hair evoked. It was the survival of the prettiest and I was last in line.
“How many combs have you broken?”
“Is that real hair, or is that like one of those weaves or something?”
“You kind of look like a wet poodle.”
“There is no way you could have woken up like that.”
No matter how much people tell me they love it now, I will always feel as if I don’t want to rock my natural hair because of the social constructs that convinced me that whiteness is beautiful and blackness is other.
These insecurities came from internalizing people’s ignorance and twisted fascinations with nappy hair throughout my life. This rejection is solely a snippet of what I went through. I learned that the only treatment for this phenomenon is self-love, understanding and confidence.
I’m in college now. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with my hair, I’ve come to see it as a political statement — nappy hair confuses the restricted mind regarding the things we can do with it, the way we style it and the culture we put into it. And yes, maybe sometimes I did not just “wake up like this,” but there are hairstyles that I can do to make myself “wake up like this” every day. For example, braids. The list of possibilities are endless: box braids, faux locks, Nubian twists, Hawaiian twists, cornrows. Black people have been rockin’ braids since forever; we did not just start wearing them because someone else wore them and made them “trendy.” Black-girl braids are a powerful, chic and healthy break for our psyches as the multitude of teasing subsides with the change in style and tastes.
I am not the first to speak about this issue, but we can’t forget its relevance or importance to our campus. There is a lot of work to be done, and it will take time, but that does not mean this divide cannot be mended. I don’t know what white students can do about this aside from try to deconstruct it, create respect for it and educate themselves about cultural appropriation. Ask before you decide to touch our hair. Think about what you say before you say it. As for black women, we should be strong, be confident and have conviction in our own beauty, and what we are wearing on our heads. This is what resistance looks like.
Coming back to Occidental from Winter Break, I noticed so many black femmes on campus with braids, and it was beautiful. Braids are about reclaiming and embracing our black beauty. These braids symbolize blackness in its purest, most loving form — they are cultural markers from our ancestors. Angela Davis said that braids are the “symbolic ropes that hold us together.” Ropes signify the good and the bad, from double-dutch to the lynching and whipping of our ancestors. The authenticity of these braids can only be rocked by black women — anyone can wear them, but only blackness can give them power.
Sophia Brown is a first year undeclared major. She can be reached at email@example.com.