“If she’s not Black, she needs to stop believing the natural hair movement is for her, too.”
As POC, embracing our natural hair is difficult enough when society already tells us we’re not as beautiful as our European counterparts. It used to be so easy when it was an “us versus them,” or quite literally a “black and white” issue. But what happens when intersectionality comes into play and lines blur?
I’ll always remember the quote I learned in my high school English class by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” I’ve been a part of the Natural Hair Movement for about three years now and although my encounters with ignorance have been few and usually of that with people who don’t understand my heritage or hair texture, I witnessed an encounter that sparked a mix of emotions and a feeling of wanting to educate myself and others.
A few weeks ago, fellow blogger, curl enthusiast and friend StyleFeen had a few of her photos taken from her Instagram, placed on another persons Instagram page (who she didn’t even know and will remain nameless) and publicly bashed her for having curly hair and physically appearing “white” features.
During my trip to the Poconos I spoke to my group of amazing friends, some old, some new on the natural hair movement, their personal journeys and what they thought of the Instagram controversy.
What is the Natural Hair Movement?
Sometimes hair discrimination is subtle and comes in the form of micro-aggression stemming from underlying racism that seriously impacts our self-esteem. It can be even more hurtful when it is not coming from people outside of our culture, but rather internally.
Scouring the internet for one true definition the natural hair movement, I found the most common definition was, “a movement which encourages women of African descent to keep their natural afro-textured hair.”  This led me to think if I, along with many of my other Latina, middle-eastern or mixed sisters who may not physically fit the bill culturally appropriating? After all, 45% of the world population has naturally curly hair and even if we may not physically have the “typical” African-American features, does that mean we cannot embrace what has been given to us?
“I don’t see the natural hair movement as one movement for one group of people or for one cause, kind of like the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s,” says Perpetual Baffour, an African-American 24-year old living in DC. “Yeah, the general goal is to attain civil rights, individual freedoms and liberties, but there were factions in the movements. I think the Natural Hair Movement, what it will mean for someone who is majorly of European decent and has curly hair is going to have a different social meaning as someone who is of African decent. I don’t think it helps us to have one sweeping definition of what the Natural Hair Movement should look like for everyone. We’re still going to encounter different battles depending on what our hair texture is, our curl pattern, the depth of our complexion or other features on our face. It doesn’t help for us to focus on, ‘Well, you’re not in the same battle that I’m in, so you’re not a part of this movement.’ It also doesn’t help for us to try to minimize our experiences.”
As a Dominican woman, I see myself wholeheartedly as a part of the Natural Hair Movement. Most people assume I am racially mixed between black and white. Within Dominican culture, although mixed and diverse, there is racial divide. Typically, the more Eurocentric the features, the prettier you’re considered. Most people don’t wear their naturally curly hair over there; with my hair being called “rebelde” (translated to unruly). It’s typical to see young Dominican girls go to salons and chemically alter their hair at a young ages to be “beautiful.”
Latin America had the largest slavery population than all of the United States. Countries such as Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, etc. all have high concentration of Afro-Latinos that is embedded and permanently weaved into our culture and society, meaning most Latin-Americans you meet will be of African decent whether they look the part or not. I believe when we take the appropriate measures to understand our heritage, understand our backgrounds and cultures we see that outward appearance is the last thing that should put us in a category of being included in a movement.
I will never be able to understand the experience of an African-American woman with 4C, low porosity, low density hair. I just won’t. I can try to understand and sympathize but as much as I may want to I will never fully know the life she leads.
As she may never know mine. The struggle of identity, of having to always explain and answer to “What are you?” versus “Where are you from?” Of not fitting the bill of what a Latina should look or sound like, of having to explain Spanish is my first language or pointing out where my family is from on a map. Of having to always here, “Oh, wow, I thought you were black or mixed because you look black but sound white.”
Those experiences manifests into how I feel about my hair and what I for the longest time considered beautiful. The experience I had with my own hair and embracing my curls has been long, with many tears and many days of general confusion. I began relaxing my hair at the age of 10 or 11 after telling my mother I wanted to look like the other girls in school. Most had long, straight hair. Even when I stopped in 2014, I continued to straighten my hair every day until about a year ago. After properly educating myself, learning about product and embracing all of it’s imperfections, I’ve learned to not only love my hair but that I don’t have to choose between the two.
My experience is a completely different experience of that of my friends. I asked Candace Logan, a 24-year old African-American woman living in Philadelphia how she started on her natural hair journey. “For me, it was so hard because I’ve been getting perms for as long as I can remember. So, in college I’m not exactly sure what spurred it on but I decided this is the last perm I’m going to get and then I just figured it out as I went along. It was never some big or huge change…more subtle. This is healthier for my hair and esteem.”
For Hortencia Caires a.k.a StyleFeen, her hair journey led to self-discovery about her heritage. Finding her ancestral roots come from African slaves brought to Brazil, she now has an understanding of why her hair is the way it is and has come to “embrace her frizz.”
“I told myself, f**k it, I’m going to have healthy hair whether I like it or not. At the time I was transitioning, I cut my hair completely short and told myself very minimal flat ironing. Because I didn’t learn the first time, I straightened, damaged my hair and had to cut it all off again. It wasn’t until I got a hair cut that I started to embrace my hair.” When asking Hortencia on how she felt about being called out for having physically European features while being Latina she stated, “There’s a lot of ignorant people out there. They think I’m white, I’m culturally appropriating, that my hair is a wig and that I’m capitalizing off the Natural Hair Movement which is understandable because in the POC community a lot of things get taken away from them and they don’t get the credit. I don’t think what I’m doing is stealing or claiming a movement to be my own; I’m creating a space where I embrace my hair and hoping others do the same.”
This leads to the question of whether the Natural Hair Movement and Black Hair Movement are mutually exclusive and if women who do not physically fit the mold are allowed to try to embrace their hair no matter the texture, curl or coil.
“I understand both sides of the argument,” says Stanariel, 25 of Atlanta, Georgia. “Being an African-American woman when you walk into stores all you see are natural hair products with everything but black woman on them. The women are typically mixed or Latina; our hair doesn’t look like that. A lot of the bloggers you see as well are usually mixed with something or are Latina. So it’s one of those things where we know it’s not primarily made for just us but the women who make them are African American and you want to see someone who looks like you recognized. But I understand where StyleFeen is coming from as well. Her journey is different from mine and because her hair is different it shouldn’t take away from [anyone else’s] experience. However, I think there will always be some tension.”
Ultimately, the Natural Hair Movement is about inclusivity. We already have so many hurdles to go through when it comes to embracing our own hair, our place in society and how we define beauty standards, even in the workplace.
Does Our Hair Hold Us Back Professionally?
It took me a long time to get really comfortable with my natural hair at the office. Let me say, my co-workers love my hair and make me feel so comfortable in my own skin. That being said, I work with many clients who if you go based on cultural norms don’t have a lot of interaction with people who look like me all the time.
The first time I entered a client meeting with my hair out I was so nervous and guess what? No one in the room paid the slightest attention. So it made me think who was really uncomfortable with my natural hair, me or them?
“It’s kind of an internal versus external thing when it comes to my job in particular because being in higher education you’re typically around people who have more liberal views,” says Tiffany Jordan, an Assistant Director of Admissions at an Ivy League university. “Me wearing my hair in the office doing my day-to-day job is perfectly fine. There’s an external aspect of my job as well in which I travel and have to be advocate for a big university and I straighten my hair. Because when I am in, let’s say, rural Indiana with all of these [white] people who many not have had many encounters with black people to begin with, it’s almost a way of minimizing the difference. Because you’re trying to build a relationship and trust and if I’m a representative and if I feel different to you, does that discourage you to continue from wanting to explore that relationship. It’s a reality of where the state of our country is.”
Stanariel, who works in finance feels there is a similarity to that of Tiffany’s experience. “It’s frowned upon in corporate America. It definitely hinders me, it’s one of those unspoken things you just don’t do. Even with my braids I wear them in a high bun. I’m one of two black people in my office.” So how do we combat this? “Top-down; the more CEO’s, CFO’s and COO’s we see at the top those of us at the lower end of the totem pole feel they can do it, too.”
Jobs vary and the level of conservatism does, too. “Being an actress with natural hair is something I struggle with, it’s so crazy how often it shows up even with headshots and how we get casted,” says Kalyne Coleman, a 25-year-old actress living in New York City. “I also have a side job as at a predominately white hair salon. When I have my fro more people have become more comfortable reaching out and separating that gap.”
This leads to the ultimate question, is it us or is it “them?” With the controversy at hand, social media has plays a huge role in the Natural Hair Movement and the way WOC see themselves defined in society. For most, it has created a safe and inclusive space where women can come together and embrace who they are freely. “It has helped me grow and feel accepted enough in society to do whatever I want,” says Muhga E. CEO and founder of NaturAll Club and one of Forbes’ 2017 30 Under 30. “I think people shouldn’t be afraid to put themselves out there because in general, most people are accepting.”
Hortencia found it as motivation to keep going. “Let’s get a reality check, nobody on social media is perfect. You take 500 selfies and pick the best one, don’t be fooled by that. I think it starts with you. I can sit here and turn blue to the face saying, “embrace your hair,” but you have to be the one to do it. In your experience of self-discovery and self love you start embracing who you are. Find people that have the texture you have that you can talk to about your struggles. There’s room for loving and embracing yourself. Natural hair may not be for you and that’s okay as long as you love what you’re doing.”
We all have to learn to love our hair just the way it is and not make others feel bad about it because they don’t understand or particularly have the same struggles we do. There may not be a right solution, but I believe as women, particularly women of color, we have it hard enough without trying to tear each other down. Moreover, we are not all going to fit the bill. If the Natural Hair Movement really is for women of African decent, are we really going to ask everyone with curly or coily hair what part of Africa did their family descend from? We should appreciate and respect the movement’s roots as they are inherent in the foundation of it. However, like many of the girls who have spoken in this article said, it’s not about exclusivity. It starts with us.
Thank you so much to everyone who participated and spoke with me on this topic and many more!! If I wasn’t able to use your quotes this article I will the next one. Thank you so much!