FEATURE

Natural Hair – Rebellious, Defiant, Kinky

By Lungol Wekina

  Illustration by Indianah Johns

Illustration by Indianah Johns

Afro-textured hair is common in populations of predominantly African and Oceanic descent and is characterised by its natural arrangement of coils and curls of various tightnesses. Black hair has been subject to widespread criticism and fascination for centuries, and its history is rife with persecution, harassment, and discrimination. In recent years, Black women in particular have been embracing their curls in a radical movement celebrating their natural, kinky hair and rejecting the oppressive nature of Eurocentric beauty standards. But to understand the significance of kinky hair, and wearing it in its natural form, it is important to examine the intersection of racism, white supremacy, colonialism, and toxic standards of beauty.

Black bodies have been, and continue to be, policed and exploited, dating back to the first waves of early colonisation. Their physical characteristics and cultural practices were weaponised against them to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of incompetence and inferiority, fuelling white supremacy around the world. These racist attacks manipulated and engineered the way Black people were perceived so insidiously that they still inform many racial biases that exist today, centuries later.

 

Everything about Black people that distanced them from whiteness became symbolic of their alleged inferiority - their skin colour, their languages, their traditions. And their hair. Kinky hair, named for its significant divergence from straight and wavy Eurocentric hair textures, became a powerful tool in the marginalisation of Black individuals. It became equated with filth, poverty, and shame. The pervasive attacks on Afro-textured hair conditioned Black individuals to see their natural hair as flawed and undesirable, and further emphasised whiteness as the ultimate standard of beauty.

 

This led to the widespread practice of Black people, specifically Black women, altering their hair in an attempt to better align with the Eurocentric beauty standards that were aggressively forced upon them. This was traditionally done through applying relaxers, getting perms, or wearing wigs. These practices were incredibly common across Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and other areas populated by people with Afro-textured hair, and are still very popular today. The popularity of the process of “straightening” kinky hair, regardless of geographical location, is indicative of how widespread and pervasive anti-blackness is. Colonisation itself was rooted strongly in perpetuating and disseminating white supremacy and the dehumanisation of indigenous populations. It shows that from countries like the United States, where Black people are a minority, to Ghana, where they are the overwhelming majority, anti-blackness has been so deeply ingrained within the consciousness of the global public that the act of a Black person wearing their hair naturally and unapologetically is considered revolutionary.

 

On the surface, this may appear to be a superficial concern irrelevant to the discourse surrounding racism, but the othering of Afro-textured hair has severe ramifications for Black people, regardless of whether or not they choose to wear their hair naturally. Wanting to alter one’s appearance to closely resemble that of someone else is not inherently problematic. There are Black people that genuinely do want to straighten their hair for their own individual reasons. This is a matter of preference, not race. However, it becomes problematic when the modification of one’s appearance becomes an expectation rather than a choice. This expectation is rooted in the marginalisation of Black people and the exclusion of Black bodies and features not just in terms of what is beautiful, but in terms of what is acceptable. This creates a toxic culture in which Black people are required to emulate a foreign standard of beauty to gain access to professional and academic spaces and to be treated with basic decency and respect.

 

Emulating Eurocentric beauty standards as a Black person comes at a cost. “Straightening” Afro-textured hair is an unsustainable practice that results in long-term, permanent hair damage and premature hair loss. Other practices use harmful chemicals that cause adverse side effects following prolonged exposure to them. Many Black people are pressured to align themselves as closely as possible to white, Eurocentric beauty standards for survival, often at the expense of their own health and safety. As dramatic as that may sound, there has been a pattern of systemic discrimination against Black people all over the world denying them access to employment and education for the simple crime of wearing their hair naturally.

 

In Bentleigh East, Victoria last year, South Sudanese twins Grace and Tahbisa of Bentleigh Secondary College were told to remove their braids because it was apparently not representative of their school. Despite arguing that their hairstyle was culturally significant and helped them to keep their hair neat and healthy, their school refused to reconsider their decision, citing their strict uniform policy as their defence. Caleb Ernst faced similar backlash after his school, St Joseph’s College, demanded that he shave his dreadlocks. He fought back, explaining that locs were the easiest way for him to look after his hair and provided an avenue for him to reconnect with his Nigerian heritage. Unconvinced, his school suspended him and expressed that his “extreme” hairstyle would not be tolerated on campus because it violated their uniform policies. Ernst transferred schools following the inability of his school to come to an agreement with his family and the adverse effects his suspension had on his academic performance.

 

Uniform policies have been a frequent rationalisation for the unfair treatment of Black students with kinky hair. Although uniform policies have to comply with anti-discrimination laws here in Australia, the key issue seems to be that these policies are written with only one type of student in mind – a white student. This further perpetuates the false narrative that whiteness is the default, and that everyone else needs to emulate it. It completely disregards the fact that different hair textures have different needs, and it ignores the nuance of hair diversity by assuming that one set of uniform rules can apply equally to everyone.

 

This discrimination expands beyond academic settings. Many Black people, including Akua Agyemfra and Tiffany Bryan, have lost their jobs as a result of their choice to wear their natural hair. Agyemfra, a server in Toronto, was fired after an assistant manager told her that all employees must wear their hair down or straight, and that her bun was unacceptable. Even after demonstrating that her hair doesn’t fall downwards naturally, she was still sent home. Bryan was subjected to constant harassment targeting her hair, and was pressured by her employers to fashion her afro into more Eurocentric hairstyles. Despite finally acquiescing, Bryan was terminated from her post as a security guard in New York City because her natural hair was deemed inappropriate.

 


The Natural Hair Movement is a not new – it has been seen in the 19th century following the abolition of slavery in the United States, the early 20th century saw the rejection of white beauty standards in Rastafarianism, and the Black Panthers of the American Civil Rights era openly and unapologetically reclaimed their own standards of beauty. Natural Hair today is more than just a fashion choice – it is a political statement. It defiantly proclaims that beauty can be found in what is natural and what is normal. It is the bold embrace of one’s inherent beauty in the face of a world and a system that tries to deny its existence. It is the radical self-acceptance and self-love that rejects the pressures of conformity in the face of institutional and systemic racism. It is the fearless choice to challenge the Eurocentric beauty standards that glorify a singular race at the expense of everyone else. Kinky is the new normal.

  Illustration by Indianah Johns

Illustration by Indianah Johns