This article was first published on www.different-strands.com. This post was in response to the many questions received by the blogger from her non-black friends.  By Phoebe Mwanza.

Dear Non-Black friend,

Some of you have been asking why my friends and I have started a hair blog. It’s just hair right? Why blog about it – aren’t there more important things going on in the world? Well, no and yes. No, it’s not just hair! It never has been!

Black[1] hair has a very sad history of which I will summarise. Centuries ago during the trans-atlantic slavery, black people were indoctrinated with the belief that they were ugly. Their dark skin was ugly. Their ‘ruly’, “unkempt” afro-textured hair was ugly. Black hair was seen as something that needed to be “fixed” or “tamed”. Not only were they constantly reminded of this verbally but it was instilled in other ways. For example, the black women who had a lighter skin tone and straightened hair were given the more prestigious jobs working in the house as opposed to working outside in the plantation fields. This was because they appeared “neater” and “cleaner” so therefore ‘more presentable’ to their masters. Lighter-skinned, straight-haired slaves also commanded higher prices at auction than darker, more kinky[2]haired ones. This internalised the idea that black people with very dark skin and kinky hair were less attractive and worth less into our consciousness.

diff1

 black slaves on plantation fields…

Naturally, these ideas and beliefs were passed on from one generation to the next. Black slaves spent up to 18 hours a day working on plantation fields and so did not get a spare moment for personal grooming, including tending to their hair. When slavery was abolished, the indoctrination continued in other ways. Black people who had straight hair were given jobs over those who did not. It’s easy to judge now but imagine if you had a family and you had spent months and months looking for a job and the only thing keeping you away from it was a hair straightener to make you more competitive? What would you do? So the standards of beauty encountered by black people were the privilege associated with fair skin and straight hair in contrast to the negativity and disadvantage associated with people who had dark skin and kinky hair. So black people got accustomed to and adjusted themselves to the Western standards of beauty to survive – literally.

During the civil rights movement 1960s, the words  ‘black is beautiful’ emerged more frequently and there was a movement away from western ideas and standards on beauty for a while, but that lasted a very short period in the 600-year history of blacks in the Americas and Europe. We continued to ‘straighten’ ourselves. So you are sitting there and asking me what does this have to do with you? You were born in Africa. Well yes, but the same principles and ideologies were imported into Africa during colonialism and again our hair and skin color were under attack. I have recently shared my story on www.different-strands.com regarding how I felt about my hair. Unfortunately many black people still believe these ideas, whether its consciously or subconsciously.

diff2Civil rights activist Angela Davis rocking her fro..

So what does that mean for me and other people in similar situations? Well it means there is a generation of black women who have always had their hair chemically straightened and do not know how to take care of their natural hair. This is why the blog Different Strands exists. To provide a forum for people to come together and share different hairstyles, hair care techniques, their love-hate relationship with their hair and all other things natural hair related.  The blog is meant to be a support and educational tool for the people who choose to rock the hair that is naturally theirs, because believe it or not – I am still more likely to encounter a black woman with straight hair or extensions than one without. So on the surface it may appear to be yet another beauty blog but it’s a little bit more than that. Its an appreciation of the perfection that we already are naturally and a rejection of the lies we have been told for so long.

Another reason that the blog exists is because it needs to. I am an African living in Australia. If you have looked around recently, there aren’t many of us. If I am not making my own hair products for my natural hair in the kitchen, I have to get them from overseas or pay a huge markup  at that shop in Newtown or Parramatta. I can’t just go to Coles or Woolies. The blog allows every naturalista to share information on where to easily (and cheaply) get products in Australia and recipes for natural hair products for those DIY chicks like myself.

And finally, have you perused a Vogue, Madison, OK or Harper’s Bazaar magazine lately?  Flip through it from cover to cover. How many black people are in that magazine? How many of them are wearing their natural hair out?  Oh, you spotted Beyoncé did you? Well my hair does not naturally grow out looking like Beyoncé’s hair, and neither does Beyoncé’s. It is more likely to grow out looking like her sister’s hair, Solange Knowles.

 

diff3Beyonce Knowles…

amfAR Milano 2012 - ArrivalsSolange Knowles..

So keep flipping through that magazine until you get to the make up pages. Yes, make up tips – for light skin – of which I do not possess. If I took on board most of those tips, I would look like a circus clown. Finally, let’s turn to the hair section. I am seeing that you are getting my point now. Yes – no tips on how to take care of my Afro hair. So that’s why the blog exists. Mainstream media is not very diverse. It does not cater for people like me.

So like I said before – it’s not just hair. The effects of slavery and colonialism have made black hair a big deal. The legacy of these practices in many areas have been long lasting. Blogs like Different Strands encourage black women to love their different strands. Hopefully one day you will be more likely to meet a black girl wearing her Afro hair out. Hopefully one day you get to a stage where seeing an Afro will not cause you to stare because it will be the norm. That’s why the blog exists.

So here are a few tips from your black friend on how to deal with your other black friend who is natural headed:

1. Do not use the N-word, nappy, like ever. Just like the other N-word, it will get you in a bit of trouble. Nappy has been used to describe black hair in a derogatory way over the years. However, just like the other N-word, I get a pass to use this word. That’s just the way it works folks. Other words to avoid are kinky, hard, unkempt, steel wool, frizzy….

2. If you see a black person with their natural hair out, don’t ever ask “Did you (forget to) do your hair today?” or “What’s wrong (happened) with your hair today? Don’t ask this question please. She probably did. She probably spent a few hours preparing her hair to get this style. She probably tried out a new style that didn’t work. She probably just washed it this morning and just came into work and that’s how it looks. My point is she probably did her hair today and by asking her you are indirectly confirming her that her natural hair really does appear unkempt and that maybe she should just take the plunge and straighten it again so it looks “neat”. I know that’s not what you meant to do. But because of the history associated with our hair those are the connotations. Its just like when someone says something midly racist or something that you think is a joke to another person. It’s not because that they said that one racist thing that the other person gets pissed off. It’s because they have heard it all their life and you are just adding salt to an already open wound.

3. Please do not touch our hair – without our permission. Why would anyone plunge their fingers into someone’s hair anyway? That’s just not normal behavior. If you have assessed us as being close enough, then you can go ahead and ask. I will probably say yes because I understand your curiosity. If on that day I say no, please don’t take it personally.  It may because a) I don’t feel like being petted like an animal at the zoo that day b) you are the 10th person to ask me if they can touch my hair that day and I just can’t indulge anymore c) I am into personal space d) I have had an oil treatment and don’t want your hair in there getting all greasy e) I spent some time getting my hair done and you touching it will ruin my hairstyle. Whatever my response, don’t take it personally.

diff5whatever the reaction…do not take it personally

4. Please don’t stare at our hair. Well there is that stare that says “wow that’s amazing” and there is the other that says “wtf”. We know the difference and we prefer the former. On that note, please compliment. It confirms that we made the right choice – that black hair really is beautiful after all. Since I started wearing my hair out naturally, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received a lot of compliments. But I have also been stared at, pointed at, laughed at (whilst someone was pointing towards my hair) and had photos “secretly” taken of me – and this is supposed to be 2013!

5. Hair changes. Yes she has a different style every other day. Our hair can shrink up to 90 percent of its length when wet. So I can have short hair in the morning and long hair in the afternoon – no hair extensions required. I can also have twists, bantu knots, cornrows, braids, straight extensions, kinky extensions and wigs done and I do – often. So just sit back, enjoy and compliment, but don’t ask too many questions.

 

diff7the diversity of black hair..

It takes a certain kind of person to go against the grain and wear her hair out naturally when the rest of the wold is not. So if your partner decides to go natural, support her. If you are an employer conducting an interview and someone with an Afro walks in – be open minded, because you have just met someone a little bit special!

So you asked me before, aren’t there more important things going on in the world? Isn’t it also important to do a little something to help a group of people that have been denigrated for so long to slowly start loving the way they were created? To say to them, you are perfect just the way you are?

Yours sincerely,

Your black friend!


[1] I am using the word black here to include people of African origin and of African descent.

[2] Kinky is another word used to describe afro-textured hair.

 ____________________________________

phoebe-bio-pic

Phoebe Mwanza is a child of the world. Born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe, she has called Australia home for the last 11 years. During the day she works as a lawyer, but during her spare time she is the President of the ACT Chapter of the African Professionals of Australia and a natural hair blogger! Read more on www.different-strands.com. For this and other similar articles, like Different Strands on Facebook to receive updates on new articles and tips on how to care for your natural hair.

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2 Responses

  1. Cristalexi

    You have raised a very important issue because it goes to the root of human existence – freedom of choice. Ever since I noticed a few years back that nearly all black women straightened their hair I was very confused and then felt extremely sad upon the realisation that a group of people are being oppressed in such a way in this day and age that they have to hide their true beauty. Since that first realisation, now every time I see a black woman wearing her hair in some incredibly beautiful natural style (no straightening and definitely not unkempt) I feel like punching the air and shouting “yes” but I have to restrain myself. In fact, except for this one black guy that I see when I cycle to work in the morning I have never seen a black person with unkempt afro hair although I’ve seen plenty of white people with unkempt straight hair.

    Reply
  2. Carla jamelle

    A very thought provoking piece and highly informative. This article makes me proud to be natural and addresses so many thoughts that I experience everyday.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    Peace and Blessings
    Carlajamelle

    Reply

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