As part of my further reading for International Women’s Month, I sat down all of yesterday to get into Emma Dabiri’s Don’t touch my hair.
As a read, it was beautiful, moving, and harrowing all at once. It is difficult to read things like that and not think that, “we as black people have so many issues”. But at the same time, it’s important to take away the positives of texts like this. And the overwhelmingly positive message of this text is that “black is beautiful”.
As a mixed-race woman growing up in Britain and remembering my time as a young girl in school, the text resonated with me because I rarely come across such an accurate, and unpretentious account of what it feels like to grow up as a mixed-race girl in British/ European schools. From Dabiri’s claim that she believed straight hair to be what she “rightfully deserved, right down to her experiences of being told that she was pretty despite being half black and that it was a shame that her hair was not equally as beautiful- it was all very relatable to me.
Her accounts of having “wept [herself] to sleep most nights” because of her belief that she had been deprived of her straight-hair birthright, have stayed with me the most because I remember doing the same thing- until my mum gave in and took me to get my hair relaxed. It’s not an experience unique to mixed-raced girls, but one that many women of African descent have had. The underlying issue here is that this misery over hair texture, usually, as it did for me, coincides with a dissatisfaction with who you are as a person. A lack of self-love brought on by society telling us that we are worth nothing. And Dabiri tells us that a big part of this self-love issue is hair. No matter how white you look, no matter how black you look, no matter how black your features are, it is your hair, and what you do with it, that remains the biggest signifier of your identity and your beauty – and if black hair is associated, with an inherent ugliness, and undesirability, the person who wears the hair must also be ugly and undesirable. Black women, in particular, have received this message for centuries, through social reactions, writing, and depictions of our natural hair. And by white standards, the longer and more downward direction that the hair takes, the more beautiful the carrier of that hair is. By contrast, if hair, like Afro-hair, does not conform to that ideal, the wearer can’t be deemed beautiful. This idea has been passed through countries that have experienced white colonialism and has trickled down through time. It can be identified in many of the Millennial Generation and Gen z, who are still grappling with the repercussions in places like schools and workplaces.
I think the issue here is that black peoples hair is seen very much as social rebellion because of what society has told us that Afro-textured hair and black people represent: coarseness, a waste of time toughness, ugliness, defiance of natural gravity laws, animalism and a liberation that is heavily frowned upon and gets translated, out of jealousy, as licentiousness. And by being proud of all these perceived ‘bad’ qualities is to flout the laws and boundaries of what is socially acceptable, and thus, free yourself from the control of the state, which is something that the powers-that-be absolutely cannot allow.
Dabiri stated in a BBC history podcast “Why Black Hair Matters” for some, hair is just hair and dedicating so much time to it is fruitless given the broader issues within our society. But in the same way that we actively discuss identity and loving yourself, particularly during International women’s month, it is so important to discuss hair and hair love. The other day I had a discussion with my friend Saskia, creator of sincerelysaskia.com, about whether she should dedicate time and money to doing her hair as opposed to doing something “productive”. I reminded her that doing her hair is productive and making yourself feel good is as productive, and enriching, as taking some me-time for your mental health because hair is part of what makes up The Self. In looking after your hair, you are looking after yourself.
Dabiri shows, quite powerfully, that in African cultures, hair is so much more than merely an aesthetic: it is a way of life and an entire subculture. As a result, the rituals of having your hair done and of spending time on your hair, are given more value in African societies because it is part of their blood memory. We should not be allowing ourselves to be made to feel bad about it. Which is why it is so vital that we learn to love our hair and teach our children, boys and girls, to love their hair also. In doing so we not only perpetuate a sense of self-love in ourselves and our children, but we also preserve a sense of love for the cultures, blood-lines, and heritage that has given us this hair.
I am aware that this is much easier said than done. Still, we should not be made to feel that what we have been born with, and what our ancestors placed such value on, should be swept away because of the value placed on black people, in a society which, though we are a part of it, has not embraced us or claimed us as one of its own. That means part of being a successful, strong black woman is loving your natural hair and all that it symbolises. If that means considering the big chop, considering getting braids or twists, considering growing your hair out, or starting locs, then so be it. Now, that does not mean put aside the wigs, the weaves, the extensions- that is not what I’m saying at all and don’t let anyone tell you that if you’re wearing one, you don’t love yourself or your hair,- BUT we’d also be lying if we said that it wasn’t an insecurity for some girls, or that some girls don’t have the patience or the know-how to do their natural hair. If you are a part of this group of some girls, like I was, maybe take time this month to begin to try to do your own hair more often and come up with a few ways to rock it, so on days when you don’t have a wig to hand, you can feel comfortable with your natural hair out.
Dabiri has so brilliantly shown that our hair is power. It is strength, and it is beauty. And what people, (like my third year Writing Multicultural Britain Lecturer at Roehampton University), don’t understand is that what you do with your hair even if it means only wrapping it up is so crucial to how you perceive yourself. Beginning my locs, and becoming absolutely comfortable and proud of my hair type and appearance, was the beginning of my self-love journey. And with every trip to the hair salon (big up Purely Natural ) and with every wash and twist day, I fall in love with my hair, and consequently with myself, a little bit more. And if you cannot love the biggest signifier of your race and heritage, it will forever be used against you. So do not let work, school, family, friends or anyone else tell you that your hair is not important – because it absolutely is.