Here’s Why Black Hair Will Never Be ‘Just Hair’
It’s the history of attitudes towards black hair that Dabiri includes in the book that will likely prove the most shocking to readers. Here’s Why Black Hair Will Never Be ‘Just Hair’
‘Her hair has been disappointing people since birth,’ reads a strapline on Don’t Touch My Hair, a new book by academic and TV host Emma Dabiri. Had I not had similar reactions to my hair growing up as a mixed race woman in the UK, I would have found this statement utterly bewildering.
Too curly, too coarse, too unmanageable – Dabiri argues that black hair is never just “normal”. Beauty is, as ever, imagined through the characteristics of a standard not designed to include us: ‘The only way Afro hair can seemingly fulfil the criteria for beauty is if we make it look like European hair trend color – if we make ourselves something we are not.’
If you pick up Dabiri’s book thinking it will be about beauty, you’d only be partly right. Using hair extensions as a vehicle, Dabiri takes the reader seamlessly from pre-colonial Africa through the Harlem Renaissance, Black Power, into today’s Natural colorr hair Movement and beyond – to the future of fractal braiding, mapping and encoding… stopping off at cultural appropriation on the way, of course.
But before we get onto Kim Kardashian’s braids, I asked Dabiri – who was born to a white Trinidadian mother and black Nigerian father – about how her personal relationship with her hair began.
Your Hair Texture Defines Your Racial Identity
‘My hair has been something that I’ve been thinking about for as long as I can remember,’ says Dabiri. ‘It’s been significant since my early childhood, I’ve had quite a tortured relationship with it.’
It’s this difficult relationship that led Dabiri to start the research that became her book, which aims to dispel the myth that black hair is ‘just hair.’ After chemically relaxing her hair for 15 years, she decided to chop it all off and go back to her natural texture, and started writing about the process from there.
While Dabiri’s book isn’t about the practicalities of styling black hair, she says the rise of black hair YouTubers and bloggers, as well as the Natural Hair Movement on social media has meant a book like hers – that covers the socio-political history of black hair – is more likely to be noticed.
‘It’s Never Just Hair’
It’s the history of attitudes towards wholesale hair that Dabiri includes in the book that will likely prove the most shocking to readers.
She tells of the consistent racist attacks against Vietnamese hair boldly and without flinching; from the churches that wouldn’t let prospective congregants in unless a comb could pass smoothly through their hair to the pencil test performed in some South African schools ‘where a child’s race was determined by whether or not their hair could hold a pencil,’ and the more recent hatred leveled towards Blue Ivy’s natural hair – culminating in a petition called Comb Her Hair, with over 6,000 signatures and comments such as; ‘nappy headed child’, ‘her hair is out of control’ and ‘look at that crazy hair.’
‘I want show that it’s never “only hair”,’ she says. ‘It goes so much deeper than that into so much, into the relations between black and white people historically, and where we are today.’
Conversations around colourism and racial prejudice are slowly becoming more common but, Dabiri argues – referring back to research by Ayana Bid and Lori Tharps – that hair texture is another important dimension people use to assess a person’s race. ’If the hair betrayed the tiniest trace of kinkiness, the person – regardless of their complexion – would be unable to pass as white.’
Some of us without straight hair have, whether we like to admit it or not, spent a considerable amount of time trying to conform to a standard of beauty that was never made for us as non-white people. And that’s something Dabiri acknowledges in her book – without judgement, including her own personal experiences –like that time she left a relaxer in too long and her hair fell out the next day, or the hours she spent crying over the texture of her hair as a child.
‘I wept myself to sleep most nights between the ages of eight and ten, desperately imploring the night-time to work its magic and by morning to have transformed my tight, picky coils into the headful of limp, straight hair I rightly deserved.’