Why Are Black Women Punished for Having Natural Hair?

Human Rights

Another bad hair day has been averted since Vanessa VanDyke, a 12-year-old Florida girl, has been welcomed back into the private school that briefly considered expelling her if she didn't cut or straighten her to avoid being a "distraction".

The white version of life in America, entrenched as the default for nearly every cultural interaction, once again came crashing against the black woman's quest to define what it means to be beautiful when Vanessa was asked to change her long, flowy, modified 'fro. Burned by the proverbial hot comb, Faith Christian Academy officials backed off, calling the expulsion talk a "misunderstanding".

In case you missed it, black women are in the throes of a beauty renaissance, embracing a variety of hair grooming methods, such as weaves, wigs, braids, twists and dreadlocks to present their best selves. As a black woman with dreadlocks, I have a strong point of view about some of these methods and the materials/cost they require. But I applaud these women's efforts to look and feel confident by donning a uniform that promotes freedom of movement and pride of self.

Big business has noticed, steadily following homegrown natural hair products businesses such as Miss Jessie's and Carol's Daughter into the $684m black hair care market. State licensing agencies are paying attention, often with hackneyed attempts to force a cottage industry of braiders and loctitians (people who groom dreadlocks), to go to beauty school and get a license in a branch of the business (chemicals) they don't work or even believe in.

We keep having natural hair blowouts.

  • Ashley Davis was fired after she refused to adhere to a company policy issued two weeks after she started work at Tower Loan in St Louis. The policy banned her neatly groomed locks in addition to styles like braids and mullets.
  • Tiana Parker, 8, was asked by ill-informed, unevolved black administrators in August to conform to her charter school's grooming policy by cutting off her well-groomed dreadlocks or be kicked out—causing her to go home and cry.
  • Lorain Horizon Science Academy in Ohio rescinded its ban on several looks found on any black girl's menu of styling options: "Afro-puffs and small twisted braids, with or without rubberbands are NOT permitted."

For anyone who believed Barack Obama's 2008 watershed election would usher in a post-racial society just needs to look at some decidedly most-racial results. Now, black people are simply supposed to be in on the joke. Consider: Julianne Hough Halloween blackface tribute to "Orange Is the New Black". Or, think about how black women are so invisible and inconsequential that "Saturday Night Live" can thrive without having one on its show at any given point. Then again, the ghost of Christopher Hitchens would tell you women of any race aren't funny, so that explains that.

Wanna know what's distracting? The white-girl hair flip.

From media images to the language of what is beautiful and right, long and straight is the standard, which is why the first thing some women do when they become radicalized is to cut off their hair to stand away from the pack. Black folks, themselves, don't quite know where to begin, as social codes that determine what looks good and acceptable change as quickly as the next Black Twitter post. We embrace then agonize over phrases like "good hair" versus "bad hair". I almost did an intervention on a young Chicago bus driver who insisted my locks are lovely because I have the "right" kind of hair whereas hers was just "useless". We have internalized a European beauty standard that forces so many of us to feel incomplete unless we have Rapunzel-length locks that likely come from an East Indian woman who left her hair lying on the floor as tribute to her gods.

Let me educate you about the reality of natural hair. Natural hair is green. Natural styles reduce the amount of chemicals that go into our bodies and our environment. Natural styles free women up to move freely, to swim, to exercise – something black women need to do more of for health reasons.

Today, Tiana is earning straight As at her new public school, according to her mother Miranda Parker:

Her hair was her choice. We assured her we think she's beautiful. So she just kind of feels good about herself.

The story of the black woman in America is still being written. We haven't even been voting long or really enjoying what it means to be fully enfranchised, if you really think about it. Our beauty narrative is somewhere between first draft and final product.

So know this: any female who deigns to determine what feels and looks good for herself is a reckoning force. When she shines, we all shine.

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