Getting the Hang of Hair, Part 2
by Billie Wade, guest blogger
(May 2021) — The hair of Black people is malleable into an endless array of styles. So, we have the flexibility of sculpting our hair to fit our mood, a special occasion, a particular outfit, or for easy care. Hairstyling is an art form that plays a significant role in the identity and self-expression of Black people. Our hair shows our pride in our race and our zest for life. Black hairstyles are limited only by the imagination and creativity of the wearer or the wearer’s stylist. Black Americans spend upward of two and a half billion dollars—according to an August 2018 article by CNBC—to color, bleach, cut, grow, curl, straighten, shampoo, condition, tame, let loose, and arrange our hair.
Black-hair biases and prejudice are very real, as we saw last month, in “Getting the Hang of Hair: Part 1.” In slave times White women whacked off the hair of their Black female servants because it White men became “confused” about which women were free. Our hair and how we manage and care for it is suspect as dirty, unkempt, distracting, faddish, and audacious—and a source of pride of which we are to be denied.
I previously wore my hair dyed a deep auburn, in short spikes. None of my White coworkers said a word. When I returned to hot-comb-straightened hair, they profusely complimented my new style. Apparently, they did not like the spikes coming out of the natural base. On one occasion, my stylist did not have the color I wanted, so she used a substitute—which she swore would “look really cute” on me. What a hideous result! The only comment came from a White coworker who said, with all the earnestness she could muster, “Billie, your hair is purple.” My White coworkers deemed my hair acceptable when I conformed to their expectations.
I have worn my hair short and natural for the past twenty-one years after numerous failed attempts to find suitable styles and stylists. Ironically, my hair stylist of the past twenty-one years is White. An instructor asked her beauty school class, “Who wants to learn how to cut Black hair?” She raised her hand. She always confers with me before cutting and follows my directions. I tip her very well.
Black women are implored, to conform to White dictates, so we have tried everything to create “hair that moves.” Braids, dreadlocks—aka dreads—weaves, extensions, and “cold” perms allow Black people to experience hair that moves in a befitting style. Since the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and seventies, Black people have become freer and more expressive with our hairstyles. As we saw last month we are routinely punished for our insolence.
Even Black people debate about hairstyles, especially those who support assimilation. They believe we must do everything we can to conform to White demands and standards. From my vantage point, this approach does not work. Emulation attempts are doomed self-attacks on one’s intrinsic humanity. No matter what we do to our hair, our skin color remains under assault. Other Black people defend the liberation of the full range of articulation of who we are collectively and individually.
White people scrutinize Black people for evidence of the tiniest violation of whatever rule they are “interpreting” at the moment, any signs of behavior which does not please them, which is often. They set us up to fail by creating lose-lose circumstances. The underlying intentionality of control and annihilation is based in unfounded hatred that results in the myriad tendrils of racism. We are a proud, quiet, gentle people but not according to the stereotypes. We have never asked for more than equal opportunity.
I, along with other people, long for the day when all people are free to live and to be and to showcase their hair.