Afro Hair – The Petting Microagression

by Adeola Ohgee @ao1982_

 

As black women, we have a very close relationship with our hair. Our hair is more than just keratin, it’s a badge of pride and honour because of the history behind it. Let's celebrate World Afro Day on 15th September with the global The Big Hair Assembly.

In the late 1700s to the 1800s, there was a law – the Tignon Laws. This law demanded that women of colour cover their hair with fabric cloth. This law was introduced to curtail the growing influence of the free black population and keep the social order of the time. It was believed that black women were exhibiting unacceptable behaviours, which included the hairstyles they wore. These hairstyles drew the attention of white men. Black women were, apparently, wearing their hair in such lovely ways; adding jewels and feathers to their high hairdos and walking around with such beauty and pride, that it was obscuring their status. This disrupted the social stability of white women. Therefore, the law was introduced to minimise a black woman’s beauty. In many societies, white women would cut off a black woman’s hair, as they felt that her hair ‘confused white men’.

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Without the fancy hairstyles of black women, white women believed that black hair, in its natural state, was ugly. White was the epitome of beauty, the straight hair and the fair skin. So, the further a person was from fitting with that ideal, the more unattractive they were deemed to be.

Slavery was abolished in the 19th century. As black women were free, they felt pressure to fit in with the European ideals and therefore adapted their hairstyles.

'Black people felt compelled to smoothen their hair and texture to fit in easier, and to move in society better and in camouflage almost,' says exhibition producer Aaryn Lynch.

'I’ve nicknamed the post-emancipation era ‘the great oppression’ because that’s when black people had to go through really intensive methods to smooth their hair. “Men and women would put their hair in a hot chemical mixture that would almost burn their scalp, so they could comb it back and make it look more European and silky.' Chemically straightening hair was often called relaxing the hair, a problematic term. Or perming the hair, as it was permanently straightened – until the new growth came through and you’d have to apply more chemicals to the new growth.

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During the civil rights movement, black people began wearing their Afros and it was seen as a political statement and a form of rebellion. Black people felt a sense of pride and as they protested against racial segregation and oppression, the eye-catching style took off – an assertion of black identity in contrast to previous trends inspired by mainstream white fashions. Unfortunately, that’s all the Afro was, a political statement and a form of rebellion. When in fact, an Afro is the natural state of a black person’s hair. However, because black women have adapted to the European beauty ideals for so long, the Afro and the Afro hairstyles are seen as against the ‘norm’.

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It was only when I was in my early 30s that I knew what my natural hair texture was like. There is a range of natural hair types. My hair is probably a 4a with some parts that are 4b and it is also very thin. I have always known that it was thin but I never knew the texture of it. I never knew the texture because my mum relaxed/permed my hair when I was really young. While I was in school, most of the black girls also had relaxed/permed hair. It was believed to be ‘easier to manage’ and it also ‘looked nicer’ – because it was straight. Obviously, these were unconscious ideas that were ingrained within us as a result of white supremacy.

This Morning presenter, Eamonn Holmes, told Dr Zoe Williams that her hair reminded him ‘of an alpaca’. He continued with, 'You just want to pet it.' Dr Zoe Williams laughed along and jovially responded with, 'Don’t touch my hair!'.Black women have been faced with several micro-aggressions regarding their hair and the way to navigate it and to avoid being referred to as angry, is to laugh along. However, Dr Zoe William’s reference to the very well-known phrase ‘don’t touch my hair’ is an indication that she didn’t receive Eamonn Holmes’ comment well.

According to a study conducted earlier this year, it was found that black people experience ‘racial trauma’ because of frequent afro hair discrimination. At least 93% of Black people with Afro hair in the UK have experienced microaggressions related to their hair, and 52% say discrimination against their hair has negatively affected their self-esteem or mental health. So, describing a Black woman’s hair as animal fur and saying that you would like to ‘pet’ it, contributes to this damaging trend of ‘othering’ by treating Afro hair as a fascination. It is also very offensive.

Many people may fail to understand why comments about black hair can be so damaging, considering hair being superficial. But Afro hair is, unfortunately, political. Black people are punished and excluded from certain spaces because of the way their hair grows naturally on their heads.

‘Hair is a sensitive topic for black and mixed-race women as a lot of us still struggle with how to manage it, along with a lack of diversity in products in mainstream stores – so it’s like twisting the knife.’ says Keisha East, natural hair blogger and influencer.

Keshia adds that black women already feel pressure to conform to European beauty standards, particularly in professional spaces. ‘It can be really damaging to our self-esteem,’ she adds. ‘Quite frankly, negative conversations around our hair can be exhausting, as we already face so many other challenges.’

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There is a culture of it being okay to be ignorant towards black hair. However, why are so many ignorant towards our hair? It’s because we either straighten it, to fit in with social norms or wear extensions as a form of protection and/or to hide it away because we know that our hair is not seen as acceptable in a professional setting.

We often find that white people have a desire to touch our hair because it’s ‘different’ and they’re curious. However, this is a huge invasion of our privacy and, considering that black women are underrepresented in the media and the representation usually being where we fit the European beauty ideals, touching our hair and the fascination with of our hair, is a symptom of unconscious bias informed by white supremacy. In the context of the history of black people’s bodies and looks being objectified, dehumanised and marginalised, the impulse for white people to touch black women’s hair sends the message that our bodies are there as objects to be touched and looked at.

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I’ve never looked at a white person’s straight hair and been shocked by it or found it amazing. I’m also used to seeing it, as it’s what the media and society has told me is the ‘norm’ and therefore, beautiful. However, a black person’s hair isn’t seen the same way. The way a black person’s hair grows out of the head is seen as something of an amazement, a form of rebellion or unprofessional.

There has been the rebuttal, 'My hair is curly and people always want to touch it, and I’m white.' Right! That’s the point being made. People want to touch your curly hair because it’s seen as an anomaly. It’s not seen as ‘normal’ hair, hence people being fascinated by it. Also a white person’s curly hair is probably a 3b at most. Black people have curly hair (mainly type 4 hair), it’s our normal but not the norm.

This needs to change.

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