The Politics of Black Hair

Author: Kelly Musyoka

Hair plays a significant role in society because it is an identity marker. Unfortunately, in Western society non-Western ethnic groups are disproportionately marginalised for their appearance. There has been a globalisation of beauty standards with a European hegemony over them. Especially in terms of hair texture and skin complexion, people of African descent are shamed into conforming to European beauty standards. This globalisation of beauty standards is made evident in the fact that the sale of skin-lightening creams has become a profitable business, estimated to yield 4.8 billion dollars globally in 2017. Many of these creams are imported to Europe both legally and illegally from Asia and Africa. Additionally, the global industry of hair relaxers is estimated to be worth 967 million dollars in the year 2023. Its biggest markets are Europe and the United States of America. 

The penalisation of black hair has historical origins in colonial times. As Europeans colonised the African continent, one of the forms of oppression that was exercised is regulating their dress code and hairstyles, which took away their identity. Moreover, on the plantations people with a darker complexion and kinky hair were made to feel inferior. Enslaved people with a lighter skin complexion and straighter hair, or simply put enslaved people that looked more like their white masters, enjoyed privileges that others did not. They were promoted to house slaves, while enslaved people with a darker complexion were forced to work on the field, which entailed more strenuous work. From that moment on, straight hair became political and equaled economic and social prosperity. Thus, kinky hair was usually covered or slicked back with grease in an effort to conform to the white beauty standard. In the 18th century, it even became state law for women of colour to cover their hair with a head wrap. This law was named the Tignon Laws and was in effect in the state of Louisiana in the United States. Their natural hair, in particular that of black women, was seen as an issue to be dealt with. Their hair texture and the various hairstyles they carried it in fascinated European men, which endangered the status quo. And so, the Tignon Laws came into effect to restore the social order and further oppress women of colour. 

The notion that straight hair and a lighter skin complexion was superior seeped into the consciousness of black people, was internalised and even reproduced. Some churches and organisations owned by people of African descent even tested the darkness of a person’s skin and the texture of their hair before entry with various tests, including the brown paper bag test. This test was executed by holding a brown paper bag next to a person’s skin. If their complexion was darker than the paper bag, they did not pass the test. Fair-skinned people with straight hair were preferred and allowed entry, while people with a dark complexion and kinky hair were denied entry. So, even within the black community there was discrimination based on skin colour and hair texture. This highlights the fact that oppression is a complex and dynamic social relation. 

In contemporary society, this belief is still being reproduced in the media through representation on television and in movies. Throughout the years, more and more ethnicities have achieved representation in the media, including people of African descent. However, it seems that women of colour are only deserving of representation if they have straight hair and a lighter skin tone. Withal, there have been many recorded incidents where employees and students have been discriminated against on the basis of their hairstyle. It is a well recorded fact that people with natural, kinky hair are often discriminated against not only in the workplace, but also in educational institutions. Many articles outline how wearing kinky hair, braids or dreadlocks might cost you your job, because it does not comply with ‘company policy’. Even children with kinky hair have been suspended or sent home from school because of their hairstyles. 

Historically, people of African descent have been made to feel inferior to people of European descent through the imposition of the European beauty standard as the universal beauty standard. This has been ingrained into the psyche of people of colour and reproduced not only by people of European descent, but also within their own communities and through the use of media. People in positions of power have also reinforced the idea that European features are superior by excluding people that do not conform to these standards from places of work, education and the media. Although matters are changing due to the media and the emergence of movies such as Black Panther, the changes are slow. Are they sufficient and radical enough to change a deep-rooted perception?

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*DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BAISmag or BASIS.*

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