The Whitewashing of the Natural Hair Movement

The Whitewashing of the Natural Hair Movement

By Ryan Ricks

Before we begin, I would like to say this article is based almost entirely on my experience, specifically as a mixed woman with 3C/4A hair, who only just started wearing their hair as such about four years ago. I am not trying to say that my experience is the same as the experience as a black person with 4B or 4C hair, nor do I want to say that, because that would take away from their experience as well as contribute to the false and damaging narrative that all black people are the same.

Additionally, please read the notes on the bottom for more information and topics that I could not fit into this article.

Now that we all understand that, I’d like to start by defining the hair types I will be talking about today. You might have read “3C” or “4B” and not known exactly what I was referring to. Since I will be using these terms throughout the article, I thought it would be best to explain them.

This chart, courtesy of SheaMoisture, does a good job of showing different hair types.

This chart, courtesy of SheaMoisture, does a good job of showing different hair types.

So, in general:

  •     Type 1 – Straight hair
  •     Type 2 – Wavy hair
  •     Type 3 – Often referred to as “curly” hair
  •     Type 4 – Often referred to as “coily” hair (also as “kinky” but personally I don’t like to use that term)

I’d like to start by briefly describing the history behind the natural hair movement. The natural hair movement began in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, specifically when it was morphing into the Black Power Movement. In short, the natural hair movement was about getting rid of relaxers and straighteners and celebrating black hair in its natural state. For many, it was also about rejecting assimilation into white America. During the 1970s, as the movement spread, the Afro became a symbol of protest. However, it also became a target, with people wearing Afros being harassed and arrested by police.

In the 1980s, the natural hair movement slowed down and eventually dissipated due to the targeting of the Afro, the ending of the Black Power movement, and the discrimination against natural styles in the workplace. However, beginning in the 2000s, the natural hair movement has seen a resurgence, arguably coming back stronger than ever. Many celebrities are wearing their natural hair, more movies are featuring natural hair in their black characters, and there’s a growing number of social media pages showcasing natural hair.

One of the important things to note here is that the natural hair movement was created by black people, for black people, because it was about more than just curly hair. It was and still is about going against western beauty standards and the very real restrictions imposed on natural hair. It was about accepting oneself while you were in a place where you weren’t accepted. Remember that.

Even with all the work that the natural hair movement has done, natural hair is far from normalized. At almost every store I’ve gone to, instead of being able to peruse through a long aisle or two of hair products like those with straighter hair do, I’ve been forced to look at a small section of an aisle with “multicultural hair products” slapped on top, feeling almost stigmatized for just trying to buy the hair products I need. And that’s if the store carries the products I need at all. If I had straight hair, I could walk into any salon I wanted to without worrying that the stylists would be unable to do my hair. But now, I have to carefully research any place I’m looking at, making sure that they can do “black hair.”

Perhaps these situations may not sound so bad, and you may be wondering what the big deal is. Well, those situations are the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, being far from the worst things happening surrounding natural hair. Black hair is still discriminated against. There are countless stories of black children being bullied for their hair, or even being told by school administrations that they need to cut their hair or wear it in a “less distracting fashion.” Black women still face discrimination when wearing their natural hair in the workplace. In fact, only four states (California, New Jersey, Virginia, and New York) have laws against such discrimination.

Even as black hair is discriminated against, there is also an obsession with it (similar to how there is an obsession with many things in black culture). There are many examples of white women, like Kim Kardashian, wearing braids and other natural hair styles without acknowledging the origins of those styles. In fact, there is often a double standard with natural hair styles on white women vs. black women. For example, at the 2015 Oscars, actress Zendaya wore dreadlocks, which Fashion Police anchor Giuliana Rancic said must have smelled like “patchouli oil or weed.” Yet when Kylie Jenner, a white woman, wore dreadlocks, Rancic deemed them “edgy.” Shown by the hundreds and thousands of situations like these, white women receive praise for wearing hair styles created by black women, while black women are degraded.

Additionally, there is the always disrespectful practice of non-black people touching black people’s hair without their consent. This unwanted touching is minimizing and insulting. It’s treating black people as if we were pets, creatures who can be petted whenever their owner wishes. It implies a kind of ownership over our bodies that is genuinely disturbing yet unsurprising.

On the topic of hair, it is becoming more and more apparent that white people have inserted themselves into the natural hair movement, specifically making it increasingly about themselves and ignoring the origins and the purposes of the movement.

For context, there is a forum (known as a “subreddit”) on the website Reddit called r/curlyhair, which is about, as you’d imagine, curly hair. What’s so interesting about it is that for a subreddit about something that is heavily associated with black people (or at the very least Type 3 and 4 hair), there are hardly any black people on it. In fact, almost all the posts are exclusively made by white people, and by white people with type 2 hair at that. Additionally, many of the people on the subreddit use the “Curly Girl” method* to maintain their hair, and this method is actually based on black hair care, not to mention that many of the brands and products that they use (the most famous example being SheaMoisture) were originally created by black women for the care of their natural hair. Of course, none of this is ever acknowledged, and it wasn’t until a month ago that the moderators of the subreddit (which has been around for over 8 years) finally made a post recognizing that fact at all.

Probably the most insulting thing of all, however, is that while adopting many aspects of the natural hair movement as their own (without ever crediting or respecting the black women who made it possible), they get angry at the black women who call them out on it.

These were screenshots shared to the r/curlyhair subreddit in a post

 

The title of the Reddit post with the above Twitter screenshots.

 

Comments on the aforementioned Reddit post.

It is beyond infuriating to me that these people are essentially demanding that they belong to this movement that they don’t even acknowledge the origins of. That they act that they have experienced the same oppression that black people have faced for centuries because of their hair. And the fact is the treatments white people and black people have faced for their respective hair are different. The oppression of natural hair is rooted in a racism that white people simply do not experience, especially not now.

What angers me the most is how simply this issue could be fixed. If these people educated themselves about what they’re saying and doing, stopped throwing around culturally important terms like “big chop” and “natural hair,” and accepted the fact that as white people they cannot completely understand or experience the discrimination that black people face because of their natural hair, this would no longer be an issue. But sadly, that isn’t the case. And now every time someone calls them out for their disrespect, that person is laughed at and called a “gatekeeper.” Any sort of effort to try to diversify the subreddit is met with a lot of pushback.

I understand that what I’ve detailed is one isolated forum on the Internet, but I would be remiss if I were to say that this kind of behavior is only localized to the r/curlyhair subreddit. For example, Twitter is another great place to find such behavior.

For context, this is in response to the Tweets pictured earlier in the article. Notice the striking similarities between this and the entire “Black Lives Matter” vs. “All Lives Matter” issue.

If social media screenshots aren’t enough proof that this kind of behavior is becoming increasingly prevalent, then just look to the real world. In my own experience, the amount of times that people have come up to me and started talking about how we’re both rocking natural hair when they clearly have wavy hair is astounding. It’s the same energy as the people who tell me after laying in the sun during the summer that they’re “almost as dark as me.” It’s minimizing, it’s disrespectful, and it needs to stop.

Obviously, I’m not saying that white people or non-black people can’t have or embrace their curly hair. In my opinion, the more people who embrace their hair (whatever form it may be in), the better. That’s not the issue here. The issue is the entitled attitude that some people have, believing that they can insert themselves into the natural hair movement and then shut black people out of it.

Sadly, this whitewashing of the natural hair movement is just another entry in the long list of white people trying to adopt things from black culture without actually respecting black people themselves. White people using black emojis, white people using makeup to appear more tan and “ethnic”, white people stealing dances from black creators on Tik-Tok, all of these recent incidents that I’ve seen have the same thing in common. White people want to partake in black culture without the involvement of black people. The best way I can put it is that this is the gentrification of black culture, except instead of talking about class, we’re talking about race.

 

NOTE: I only very briefly explained the roots of the natural hair movement. If you’d like to learn more, here is the article I used to get my information from, and if you look up “natural hair movement origins,” there’s plenty of other sources like it to learn from.

* : The Curly Girl method comes from Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey. This book (which, fortunately for this article, I have a copy of), and its Curly Girl method, are very popular in the curly community. Personally, I used DevaCurl (a brand co-founded by Massey) up until this past February. However, re-reading this book now, it has many, many, problems that I believe exhibit many of the points I’ve made in this article, so I’m going to detail them here.

Before I get into all the problems with the book, I would like to give credit where credit is due. To Massey’s credit, in the introduction she does point out that the idea that straight hair is preferable to curly hair stems from racism. Additionally, the section including black hair (not about black hair—I will get to that in a little bit) was written by a black woman. That is where my praises stop, however.

Curly Girl is so very clearly written by white people for white people that having black people in the book in the first place is insulting. It is so obvious to me that black people were mentioned in the book so that it could get some diversity points. Take their “Curl Confessions” for example. These are small personal histories sprinkled throughout the book from different people that were interviewed. Of the more than 30 stories, 26 of them were from white people, while only 4 were from black people, and these numbers only come from the stories with pictures attached to them. Black men are completely absent from the book, as are any people who are not white or black, even though the book states that “many ethnic groups have very curly hair.”

As another example, take their chapter about hairstyles for people with curly hair. Out of a total of eleven hairstyles, only one of them could work on 3C+ hair. That said, doing the style on 4C or even 4B hair is a stretch. This isn’t a surprise, however, considering that there is truly only one 4B/4C model in the book (additionally she is the only dark-skinned black model). After that, there are a couple 3C/4A models, and even just Type 3s in general are far and few in between.

Speaking of bare-bones diversity, the book treats all non-white people as a singular entity, specifically the “Multi-curl-tural” group. Not only is this a damaging narrative for all the groups shoehorned into it, but it once again minimizes the impact that the stigma against natural hair specifically had on the black community. The book is very “All Lives Matter”-like in its execution of this as well, specifically saying that “African-American women are not alone in their struggles with their hair. We are a multicultural world.” In its failed attempt at trying to seem diverse, the book also contains unfortunate sentences such as “your hair really will evolve once you know how to care for and style it. Waves turn into spirals, ringlets into corkscrews, and undefined fractal Afros into well-hydrated, shiny coils.”

As expected, Curly Girl makes no mention of where it got its ideas for managing curly hair from, which was very likely from black people. The only time the book makes any sort of mention of this nature is when it attributes an avocado treatment to the Mayans. Other than that, absolutely no credit is given, save for a small reference to a Japanese treatment.

And because Curly Girl was written by a white person with white people in mind, it repeatedly promotes the damaging and incorrect idea that the treatment white people face for their curls and the treatment black people face for their natural hair are equal. Because clearly, being teased and called “Shirley Temple” or “Little Orphan Annie” is just as awful as being discriminated against and stereotyped in the military, workplace, and school for decades.

 

Image courtesy of  WABE 90.1FM

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