Hair: Symbolism of racism

Implicit bias is the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control.

There’s an implicit bias against black people, we all know it. Yes; I know some people would like to argue and that’s fine because you’re fully entitled to your incorrect opinion. Yet I’ll generously prove to any of those doubtful by just scratching the surface of it and discussing hair. Yes, I said hair. ‘How’ may you ask? Well, let me enlighten you.

I’m a Hispanic girl. I grew up in the United States, in Arizona specifically (for anyone trying to understand the race demographics of Arizona here are the stats: 57.3% of the population is white, 29.5% is hispanic, 6.8% is black and the remaining consists of asian, mixed or other). I never had very many African-American friends because I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods. Being the little hispanic girl I was, I had never been fully aware of my black friend’s hair routines. All I knew was what everyone knew: black girls had curly hair that was frequently referred to as ‘nappy’, got sewn in weaves and wore wigs. Because it didn’t affect me, I saw nothing to further inquire about. That was until my mom remarried a Nigerian man and gave birth to a mixed baby girl. Then I became exposed to my little half-sister’s kinky hair and it’s contrast to mine. How her hair was 30x curlier, grew a bit slower, the different creams to maintain her hair, the conditioners, the hairstyles. Then the suggestions from relatives and family friends came in. ‘Straighten her hair, relax it, etc.’ I wondered why anyone would suggest such things. Her hair was curly and voluminous and beautiful so why tame it?

Then came a dreadful day upon us. My mom left my sister at a cousin’s house to babysit and we returned to my cousin just finishing straightening some of her hair. At 2 years old, my sister sat there with strands of her hair falling flat against her face. The sight was petrifying. How could my cousin look at her hair and smile? How could she be proud of what she did to my sister? She stripped my little sister of her curly hair, her barely tamable hair, her blackness for that whole day until my mom washed her hair again and it returned to normal. Never again did I want to see my sister’s hair stripped away of its natural beauty. That day my eyes opened to what they couldn’t see before.

I looked around and noticed none of the black girls I knew had their natural hair. None of them walked around school with their afros, kinks or coils. They all had it braided in extensions and flat hair so relaxed that the ends were crisps. Why, I would ask myself, why try and hide your beautiful hair? And I got my answer almost right away: because society wants them to.

Open a magazine, turn on a TV show, scroll through Instagram and tell me how many black girls you see as models, actresses or on your discover page. After that, now tell me how many of them rock their natural hair. I already know the answer is slim to none. The media does not encourage black girls showcasing their natural hair. I repeat: The media does not encourage black girls showcasing their natural hair. Why? Because it is so very different to society’s idea of beauty. And society’s idea of beauty is long flat hair, a tall slim body and light skin. What role models in the media did black girls have to encourage natural hair as they grew up? Please tell me because the shows I watched showed none. Please tell me because the books I read wrote none. Whilst on the other hand, I had an endless amount of role models whose hair was just as wavy as mine and whose skin was just as pale as mine.

Just as I was enlightened on the subject of black girl’s hair, my mom moved to Lagos, Nigeria (long story but the short answer is business opportunities and being closer to my stepdad’s family). Which meant I moved. So there I was; the only hispanic girl in my class, in a British curriculum school, with my long ponytail and straightened bangs. Surrounding me, were black girls all with tamed hair. A majority of the girls had braided hair, a couple weaves in tight little buns, others had relaxed hair. I was confused as to why so many black girls, in Nigeria, in Africa, did not have their natural hair. I mean, surely, the societal expectations of the white man in America could not have affected them, right?

Wrong. The white British principal and the even whiter British vice-principal made it their number one priority to constantly remind girls to keep their hair ‘neat’. By ‘neat’, they meant to keep it as caucasian as possible. Keep your hair braided, keep it in a low ponytail or bun, keep stray hair from coming undone and keep your fraying edges from showing. It was an unbelievable sight to see African girls in Africa get told that their afro is not neat. It made me imagine a European colonizer arriving at an African country in colonial times and saying ‘Your hair is not neat.’ How audacious is that? Yet a girl who spent 8 hours of her Saturday getting micro braids was considered ‘neat’. She was considered to be the tidy one because her hair wasn’t in its natural form.

That’s where implicit bias makes its first appearance. People looked at black girls with their natural hair as untidy, unkempt, not neat. They didn’t see beyond that. You don’t have to be the smartest yet you’re considered sharp because your hair isn’t natural, because you’re more white and less black.

As if that weren’t enough to prove the underlying issue of racism within the school; I experienced it firsthand. During homeroom one morning, a teacher walked into the class and it was a surprise inspection of student’s appearances. She observed our uniforms, our sock colors (boys wore black, girls wore white), the boys’ hairstyles, then onto girls’ hairstyles. She picked about 5 girls to come to the front of the class. For each of them, she gave all the rules and regulations they were breaking by their hairstyles. One of the apparent rules broken was that long braids were supposed to be in a low bun and not into a ponytail. That was the first I’d heard of the rule. My immediate reaction was to ask if I had to do the same because my ponytail was halfway down my back. Before I could even raise my hand, a girl asked about my hair as well. For a second, I thought she’d thrown me under the bus. I questioned why she didn’t just mind her own business and let me question it for myself. Then I realized she didn’t do it to throw me under the bus, she did it because she already knew the answer. The teacher responded that my ponytail was my natural hair so my ponytail was fine but that their unnatural hair needed to be in buns. The teacher then looked at me to reassure me that because my hair was the kind of hair it was, I could have my ponytail. She basically told me that because my hair texture was how it was, I could do what other girls couldn’t do. And my hair texture isn’t attainable by a black girl. My hair is thin and frail and falls flat. Only white girls have my hair. Which means, only white girls had the privilege of doing as we wanted with our hair because we’re white yet black girls could not because they’re black.

Why is that so? What white person tried to identify neat hair and said ‘Well because my hair lacks volume and can be easily manipulated, it means my hair is tidy. And because black girls’ hair is not so, they have untidy hair.’? It’s a double standard that must be abolished because it’s shaped the opinions of so many people. There’s a negative implicit bias people have when they see a black girl with natural hair compared to their opinion of a white girl natural hair. This is an opinion that affects black girls from their childhoods to their workplace experiences. A white girl doesn’t have to worry about getting her hair fixed a week before a job interview. Yet everyone expects a black girl to have a long, flowing weave whilst walking into the same interview and if not, that could easily be a reason she’s denied the job regardless of her qualifications.

If you would like to deny that black women are treated differently in the workforce, here’s exhibit 1: Meteorologist Fired After Defending Her ‘Ethnic’ Hair

And exhibit 2: Server Forced to Alter Hair

This is not the world I want my sister growing up in. This is not the world she deserves to grow up in. This is not the world any black girl deserves to grow up in.


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