It took me around 17 years to fall in love with my hair. Not quite convinced by my mother’s afro-centric affirmations, and swayed by the pervasiveness of anti-blackness – which carries with it unrelenting disdain towards the most identifiably disparate aspects of being black: the darkness of skin, the coarseness of hair – the idea of embracing my coarse, zig-zag kinks seemed entirely unachievable as a child.
It’s a feeling that most black people, and women in particular, will have been exposed to at some point in their lives. Whether or not it stems from home, or society’s seeming refusal to accommodate one of the most visible parts of African heritage, the notion that your proximity to whiteness dictates your worth is almost unavoidable.
The widespread resurgence of the natural hair movement just under a decade ago has helped to ease these internal and external prejudices in recent years. But, even within the deepest corners of the natural hair community, biases towards looser, softer and longer hair – so-called “good hair” – persist.
New research – the Perception Institute’s “Good Hair” study – sought to expose exactly that. With 3,475 participants, the US-based research centre explored women’s attitudes towards “textured hair” (natural afro-textured hair) and “smooth hair” (straighter, less textured hair). “Black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair,” they said in their key findings, “and this perception is substantiated by white women’s devaluation of natural hairstyles.”
Do you harbour biases, when it comes to hair? You can test yourself. Using a word and image association exercise of sorts, the Hair Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures your prejudice. The test has already found that the majority of participants, regardless of race, show implicit bias against black women’s textured hair. It also notes that “1 in 5 black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work – twice as many as white women”.
I resolved to embrace my natural roots a few months shy of my 18th birthday. I'd watched my older sister begin to flaunt hers as the natural hair movement gained traction in 2009, with the rise of beauty blogs and YouTube tutorials. I never looked back
I’m not surprised by the findings. I know all too well how tactless people can be when it comes to hair, in non-black majority environments. “How many times a week do you wash your hair?” they ask. “Can I touch it?”
And it’s a global problem. Aversion to afro-textured hair spans nations, from the afro hair ban in South Africa’s Pretoria High School for Girls to the pervasion of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry – with the likes of Chanel, Marc Jacobs and other big designers using and, on some occasions, taking credit for distinctly black hairstyles, often without the involvement of black models.
The mere mention of cultural appropriation can be enough to prompt a furore – especially among those who don’t understand or experience the relentless micro-aggressions lobbed at black women – but it is endlessly important. Pop culture has cherry-picked the most unique aspects of black culture, yet remains markedly less drawn to the very people who shape it. And it speaks volumes about the way society perceives blackness. The marketability of blackness has long been explored, with more recent analyses of the phenomenon manifesting among mainstream singers like Solange Knowles with her recent single, Don’t Touch My Hair, from her third album, A Seat At the Table, as well as Amandla Stenberg’s widely circulated 2015 video, Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows.
While it is encouraging that black participants in the Good Hair study tended to view textured hair in a more positive light than their white counterparts – “Black women in the natural hair community have significantly more positive attitudes toward textured hair than other women, including black women in the national sample”, according to the survey – generational differences were also shown to have an impact on the way that participants regarded natural hair.
I resolved to embrace my natural roots a few months shy of my 18th birthday. I'd watched my older sister begin to flaunt hers as the natural hair movement gained traction in 2009, with the rise of beauty blogs and YouTube tutorials. I never looked back from there. But how would I, now in my twenties, fare with taking the IAT test myself? I was acutely aware that I, too, may have some unexplored biases towards the tresses that I have had to learn to love.
Thankfully, and despite being aware of some of the criticism that IAT exercises have garnered over the years where accuracy is concerned, I was found to have a strong preference for textured hair. That’s me. But what about everyone else? In such a regressive political climate, I worry that the cycle of absorbing bias against black hair, and later un-learning, will carry on. I hope I’m wrong.