Earlier this fall, I attended a curly hair runway event that was part of New York Fashion Week. It was the first time I had ever seen so many beautiful curly haired women all in one room. I’m telling you, I saw everything from Black women with gorgeous coils to Latina and mixed race women with heads filled with tight, medium and loose curls. It was an amazing thing to witness so many women embracing the natural hair movement. But I couldn’t help but notice that there were also quite a few white women in the room rocking their naturally curly hair too.
The event was all about embracing and loving natural hair. While I recognize that the natural hair struggle for Black women is quite distinct from the curly hair struggles of a Latina or a white woman with a significantly looser curl pattern, I was excited to see curly haired women of all different backgrounds and races united under the same roof.
It did get me thinking a lot though about white women and how they fit in the natural hair space. There’s been this debate for the longest on whether or not they should be included. For some, the natural hair movement is simply about embracing your natural hair texture.
“The term ‘natural hair’ refers to strands that have not been altered by any chemical services,” says Dominican curly hair stylist and expert, Ona Diaz-Santin, also known as The Hair Saint. “[I am blessed] to be in an industry where I have encountered clients of many races and walks of life. I have seen wavy, curly, and coily hair as a thread that binds us together.” Santin claims she’s had white clients with tight curls – even coily textures with similar stories to that of Latina or Black clients.
But others argue that white women have no right to be a part of this space because the natural hair movement was created to encourage Black women to love and accept their natural texture, despite societal pressures to meet Eurocentric beauty standards. For Black women, it’s not simply about self-acceptance, it’s also about telling the world they are beautiful despite being told otherwise. For many Black women, including Latinas and other mixed race women with textured hair, the struggle has never been quite the same for white women.
“White women assuming a role in this movement is perceived as offensive by Black women for whom natural hair has become a choice that has freed them from extensions, wigs, and/or chemical processing,” says psychologist Dr. Christine Hutchison. “It’s not just about the hair that grows naturally from your head and learning to appreciate it. It’s about dealing with years of an internalized message, that the only way to be accepted, desired, and respected, personally and professionally, is to change one’s own natural mane to align with traditional European standards of beauty, namely straight hair. Failing to acknowledge the history and origins of this within the Black community, and assuming the ‘me too’ perspective on this issue leaves Black women feeling overlooked, dismissed, and that their experience is, once again overshadowed by white women.”
For many WOC, when a white woman assumes a place in the natural hair movement, it implies that her hair struggle was similar to that of a Black woman or other WOC. But the truth is, that’s usually never the case – regardless of how curly her hair may be. Sure, a white woman might have been picked on growing up or encouraged to straighten her naturally curly locks. But how many instances have you heard of where a white woman was literally fired from a job or kicked out of school because of her hair?
It’s 2017 and Black girls and women are still being discriminated over wearing their hair naturally. This spring a charter school in Boston threatened to suspend two Black students for choosing to wear their hair in box braids. In South Africa, students at the Pretoria High School were told that they had broken school restrictions by wearing their natural hair either in cornrows, dreadlocks, or loose braids. There was even a protest about it. In Lawson Brown High School in South Africa, students weren’t even allowed to take their exams if they didn’t tie their afros up to make them appear “more beautiful.”
Black women are also constantly experiencing bias and discrimination in the workplace over their natural hair. In fact, earlier this year the Perception Institute released a study from 2016 that confirmed some of the bias Black women with natural hair were experiencing at work. And it wasn’t until 2014, that natural hair was actually made legal in the U.S. military. For years Black hairstyles were banned from the Army, Air Force, and Navy. This proves that for Black women, embracing natural hair is also about smashing preconceived racist notions that come along with it.
“The difference is located in the history of Black women being denied employment or offered employment contingent upon the way in which their hair is styled. Natural hair styles have been deemed “not neat” despite some of the styles, some examples being dreadlocks or braids,” says Dr. Hutchinson. “The experiences are also different because many Black women have sought chemical processing and “masking” their natural hair with wigs or extensions, in order to change their hair quality to be straighter, and therefore more desirable.”
That is not to say that women of all ethnicities can’t unite to talk about their hair, whether it be straight, wavy, curly, or coily. There are definitely similarities to the way women approach their hair in general but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be included in the natural hair movement. For some women, keeping the movement exclusive to WOC is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Yes, it’s an exclusive club and that’s okay,” adds Dr. Hutchinson. “The common space that women can share is that hair texture of all types are beautiful and women are beautiful regardless of their texture or style. However, Black women have common ground with no one when it comes to the discrimination that they have experienced historically based on natural hair.”
It’s important to recognize that the natural hair movement started with Black women and to acknowledge why. It’s also important to understand the pain and the discrimination they’ve faced for centuries and still face today over their hair. Once we can all get to that place, then we can talk about incorporating all women – including white women – into the conversation.