Like many young black girls who were subjected to the subliminal messaging that taught us we should envy our white peers’ silky straight locks, I grew up having a love-hate relationship with my natural hair.
By the age of five, I was already well accustomed to being sat down in a chair next to the stove and having my thick locks raked and “pressed” with a straightening comb. I remember how anxious I felt as my cousin pressed down hard on my roots, knowing full well that one tiny slip of her hand could lead to a permanent burn mark on my face, ear or neck.
In high school, I began using chemical products that guaranteed to relax my roots and give me the flowing, shiny hair that rivaled the white women I saw in glamorous shampoo ads. But when I started college, I faced a whole new set of pressures: I joined black student organizations where chemically processed hair was seen as a throwback to the era of white suppression. In order to be a card-carrying progressive, you had to embrace your natural hair.
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I know my story isn’t all that unique. A February 2017 study found that black women feel more anxiety about their hair and are twice as likely in comparison to white women to feel pressure to straighten it in their workplace. And the study found that many people “show implicit bias against black women’s textured hair.”
As long as black women have existed in America, we have been put down for our skin color, our bodies and our natural hair. In the 18th Century, British colonists deemed African hair as closer to sheep wool than human hair, setting the precedent that white hair is preferable — or “good,” a racially charged notion in and of itself. After the emancipation of slavery, many black Americans sought to straighten their hair to fit in. Madame C.J. Walker, the first black female millionaire, made her fortune selling products meant to straighten black hair as a way to help black women get ahead in society by fitting in aesthetically.
There’s no disputing the fact that disdain for black hair persists today. In 2015, Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic said that the dreadlocks Zendaya rocked at the Oscars must have smelled of “patchouli” and “weed.” Earlier this year, when Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters of California criticized President Donald Trump’s policies, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said that he wasn’t listening to her because he was instead “looking at the James Brown wig.” Even football player Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem before games to protest the oppression of people of color in the United States, faced criticism for his afro: fellow player Michael Vick said last month that Kaepernick “cut his hair” and “try to be presentable” if he wants to get signed with another NFL squad.
But the hatred of black hair goes beyond ignorant comments. In fact, embracing natural hair can lead some women and men to lose their jobs or face punishment at school. In March 2014, the U.S. Army issued a new policy that banned traditional black hairstyles, including cornrows, twists and dreadlocks. The regulations even described these styles “unkempt” and “matted.” After months of backlash and a letter from the Congressional Black Caucus, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reviewed and subsequently rolled back the policy.
In April of this year, administrators at a high school in Massachusetts reprimanded and threatened to suspend 16-year-old twin sisters Mya and Deanna Cook for having braided hair extensions. The school banned extensions, calling the hairstyle “distracting.” The school later suspended its dress code after charges of discrimination, according to NPR. A month later, 17-year-old Jenesis Johnson alleged that a school administrator told her that she couldn’t wear her hair in an afro in school because it was “extreme and faddish and out of control.” Last year, a school in Kentucky attempted to ban dreadlocks, cornrows and twists — but eventually reversed course after many called the policy racist. Research shows that policing young black girls — and their hair— can have detrimental consequences and reinforce negative stereotypes. As Dorinda J. Carter, an assistant dean of equity outreach initiatives at Michigan State University, said to NPR, “What does a headdress have to do with learning and success?”
White women aren’t punished or marginalized because of how they wear their hair. Black women and men shouldn’t be penalized either. We shouldn’t have to organize events or gatherings to find acceptance. We shouldn’t have to cut our hair to be accepted in the White House, the schoolhouse, the football field or the corporate boardroom.
As someone who has survived the rigors of Harvard Law School, the stress that comes with being a litigator for a Wall Street law firm and the unrelenting pressure of working as TV legal analyst and host, I know from personal experience that the way you wear your hair has nothing to do with your success.
We shouldn’t feel compelled to conform to a grooming standard that mandates we suppress our cultural roots and identity. Instead, we should expect and demand to be judged by our performance and the strength of our ideas.
While the world hasn’t caught up to yet, we shouldn’t wait for archaic — and damaging — stereotypes to go out of fashion. My advice? Be true to yourself. If you want to sport a ten-inch afro, braids, frontlaced weaves or custom wigs, do so proudly. You’re not defined by the size or texture of your hair, but rather your commitment to excellence.
Areva Martin, Esq. is a Los Angeles-based attorney.