I was in the elevator in the Arts building recently when a non-Black woman with straight hair asked me many questions about my hair in the short time it took for me to get from the 3rd to 1st floor. My hair was in an afro. After the awkward and short responses, one of the questions that stuck with me was, “Is your hair hard to take care of?” Instead of the typical article geared toward non-Black people on why they shouldn’t be bothering Black people on their hair, I want to speak directly to Black students at UBCO. Is our hair actually hard to take care of, and if so, why?
When you first look at the question you’re probably going to say “of course, it is! What are you saying?,” and I would agree to some extent. My hair has been natural for over 5 years now and I’ve gone through the trouble of a big chop, trying to define my curls, realising Cantu is not good for my hair and enduring weekly wash days. I wear my hair exclusively in its natural state, with no protective styles. So yes. Every. Week. It’s not just the physical labour though. The mental and emotional labour of transitioning from straight to curly hair was nothing to sneeze at after being on the “creamy crack”? (hair relaxer or perm) from the ages of 4 to 17. The transition came with the expectations of what curly hair should and shouldn’t be. Expectations as a product of texturism that has long been engrained in Black communities globally because of white supremacy. This informs my next, more nuanced question: Is Black hair hard to deal with, or is it a combination of capitalism, racism, and respectability politics?
I think most of the reason why we think our hair is hard to handle is because of the social circumstances we have been forced into. The first issue I brushed up on in my “natural hair journey”… i.e. the journey of not pasting burning chemicals all over my hair and scalp… was the large amount of conflicting information. Oils, grease, heat, protective styles, butters, creams, edge control and more. I remember being told that I needed/didn’t need all of these things all at once by different people who just wanted to sell me a product. As the years went by I discovered for myself that a 10-hour wash day was not necessary to maintain my hair in optimal condition. I needed not even a quarter of the products advertised to me from Black-owned companies turned white-owned conglomerates who sometimes put questionable ingredients inside their products.
But what is “optimal condition”? For me, it means healthy ends, thickness throughout the hair, and consistent shrinkage along the strand. Unfortunately, there’s another wave of people clinging to respectability politics coming in. According to Margot Dazey, “Respectability politics […] is the process by which privileged members of marginalized groups comply with dominant social norms to advance their group’s condition.” I’ve seen this mindset very often on social media, where type 4 hair, hair that is undefined, or not oversaturated with product is demonized for not being acceptable enough to wear in the public eye. I’ve even seen people comment negatively on others’ dreadlocks if they are not tightly retwisted at all times, even if that damages the shaft of the loc over time. I find this mindset to be completely counterintuitive and rooted in white supremacy. Why can’t Blackness in any form that it manifests itself be acceptable? Why is it important to appear a certain way for the white gaze? Are we putting on a show? For who?
Of course, there are consequences for embracing our natural hair as it grows out of our scalps. Whether it is legal or not, the consequences have always come in the form of overt and covert violence, systemic racism, discrimination in the workplace, healthcare, school, church, and just about any social institution you can think of. But my point is that our hair is not hard to “deal with” because of its nature. Natural hair care has been made difficult because of the social circumstances which cause care to become inaccessible, conflicting, and consequential. It is important that many of us reframe the way in which we conceptualize our relationships with our hair and come to realize that a lot of the things we think we have to do are ultimately constructed and unnecessary. All hair is good hair. Period.