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An article recently in an online hair magazine asked whether we had allowed bi-racial women to hijack the natiral hair movement. The resurgence of natural hair ‘movement’ in the early 00’s was a space for black women, specifically black women who had been told and taught that their kinky, napppy, coily hair was not enough to collectively celebrate their beauty. as time has gone on, the article notes that natural hair products and gurus are largely bi-racial  or light skinned women with looser curl patterns. The most popular youtube channels are of women who are either bi racial or, regardless of shade, have a curl pattern that suggests some proximity to a non -West African lineage. There are entire product lines that seemingly have as their main selling point the notion that you can buy a certain curl pattern, namely a pattern that suggests that you could plausibly have “Indian in your family”. Thousands of women with the kinkiest of hair textures drown themselves in a variety of curly puddings,  looking for the magical formula that will transform them from Lupita to Alicia Keys.

The article was somewhat controversial, which I find laughable and similarly upsetting. We are still as a community unable to acknowledge our blatant obsession with venerating mixed race people, more specifically mixed race and light skinned women, at every oppotunity, even to the point that we  confine black representation in black owned and controlled spaces to light skinned or mixed race women.

The natural hair movement is just one small part of a larger destructive w(hole). I can’t count how many times recently I’ve rolled my eyes at a thumbnail or trailer (because I refuse to watch most them for a variety of reasons) of yet another film or show where the black female romantic interest is, as per usual, no darker than  a brown paper bag or has wavy hair and features that conform to a European standard of beauty. Inevitably there will be a sidechick dark skinned friend who is always there in every film  as the wing woman and proverbial mammy for the light skinned woman to be comforted by. It’s imperceptible to some but glaringly obvious to me, that in the UK in particular (less so in teh US perhaps) dark skinned black women are pushed out of spaces and black female representation in media is almost exclusively mixed race.

I don’t blame the women themselves for it. On the contrary they are as light skinned black  or mixed race people, both victims and beneficiaries of a vicious system of colourism that we can no longer blame exclusively on white people for creating and promoting when we also uphold and perpetuate it in our own community. As dark skinned women, we have been emotionally and mentally disenfranchised from ownership of beauty – we are told that for us, it is only a commodity that we can purchase instead of owning innately while at the same time seeing others celebrated for features we naturally own. However, we cannot wait and expect others to do the work of acknowledging our worth.Whilst appreciating that society is invested in creating a narrative that we are less desirable, we cannot wait for society to change and beg for inclusion. Mainstream media will do what it wants but in our own spaces we must demand to be at the forefront and refuse to be under and unrepresented.

We are scared of being exclusionary maybe because we know the pain too well of being excluded. We do not want to be seen to be saying to mixed race or lighter black women with loosely curled hair that they do not belong, that they can’t sit with us, that they are not one of us.They too experience racial prejudice and profiling.  Rosa Parks, with her near straight hair and light skin sat on the bus and endured abuse for our sake too.But even her presence in the civil rights movement was one of privilege – lighter skinned black people had access to education and social circles that their darker brothers and sisters were more frequently denied access to. It’s not a wonder that many of the leading civil rights activists in the early and mid 1900’s passed the paper bag test. But it is no longer 1952 and it is backwards to demand justice and equality from those outside of the community while continuting to uplift the race based hierarchy inflicted on us by them within our community. This is not a work of exclusion, but one of inclusion. Dark skinned women, who make up the majority of black women are being disproportionately excluded from black controlled spaces. It’s beyond ridiculous.

The reason why we allow ourselves to be erased from our own spaces is because many of us simply do not yet believe in our own worthiness. We empty our pockets to give our hard earned cash to Miss Jessie’s in the hope that their curly pudding will allow us some proximity to the racial ambiguity that is continually celebrated in and outside the community. Whiteness is still so aspirational for us that in many aspects of our lives, beauty aesthetic being only one of them, we desire to assimilate to it.

Black women are berated for so many things,and I don’t want to add to the list by screaming “you don’t love yourself enough, why don’t you love yourself, your kinky hair, your round nose, your full lips??!!! Why don’t you love yourself??!!” We know that it is hard to love yourself when so many things militate against that love, but is possible. And its difficuly does not negate its absolute imperativeness. We must learn this love, for the sake of ourselves, our children, the men we love, even the black men who don’t as yet love our or their own blackness.

It is possible. I know it is because I’ve done it. I absolutely love my skin colour, I absolutely love my curly, coily hair, that does not look like Tracee Ellis Ross’s (although her hair is beautiful too). I genuinely think I’m beautiful, and it did not happen overnight. It happened with some good contact lenses, youtube tutorials and a relationship with God that gave me a God-fidence that defied anything any magazine, BET show or ignorant man can say to me. It also happened with looking at a few pictures of beautiful women who looked like me on Instagram and Pinterest and rarely, on TV. It happened through my Mum and the fabulous women I saw in my every day journeying who had a sdilent confidence that refused to be diminshed.

That is why I demand to be seen and I demand to be acknowledged. I demand to write and tell other women, to remind myself, to create a memory, that I am present and I am more than enough.I won’t be silenced by those who claim that speaking about this is redundant or divisive or hateful, becuase I know I am motivated out of a great love for myself and for others. I write this because, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain they will kill you and say you enjoyed it”.

I am a dark skinned black women. I refuse to be erased.

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Pic copyright: www.nymag.com

Sidenote: For my less melanin affiliated friends reading this who might not be au fait with black hair, this link gives a good 3 minute synopsis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTP96_61sGc

There are a few hair moments that stand out to me over the 24 years I’ve had this coily, curly, kinky sponge on my head. I have great memories of sitting in between my mum’s legs on a Sunday evening watching Mr Bean, a pot of Dax hair oil balanced precariously on the arm of the sofa, and a comb stuck in one side as she braided my hair.  I remember wash days where my Mum would use the shampoo to shape my hair into crazy cones or Mohawks or quiffs in front of the mirror, and I would perch on the landing as she blow dried into an even bigger ball of cotton like fluff. I remember year 5 when some of the girls who bullied me at school took my hair out the band, let my coils spring in all directions and  pinned my arms behind my back, pushing me across the playground for my schoolmates to laugh at me. I remember my hair being braided by a friend’s Mum, and being secretly pleased at her asking me who in my family had Indian in them, because the back of my hair was ‘soft’. I remember being aged 11 and begging for a relaxer.  Age 14 I wore my afro on the bus on the way home from school and mocking schoolboys would throw up black panther esque fists at me. Over time, I realised that the conversations that surrounded my hair weren’t the same, or even as frequent as my white friends. My hair was political.

It’s apparent that hair is important to all women, regardless of race or ethnic background. Sit down with any group of women and mention hair – and there will be some sort of conversation. We’re all invested in keeping the hair on our head looking good, and getting rid of the hair anywhere else. Having said that, I think it would be fair to say that the black community (and I use that term to broadly encompass people across the diaspora, of African descent, including those who choose to identify themselves as mixed race) especially value hair. Within that broad community there are different textures, different standards of beauty and different narratives about the way our hair is worn, but one thing is certain – black hair is political. Regardless of whether we want it to be, it is.

The past few years have been interesting because of the ‘natural hair movement’ that seems to have swept across – well, pretty much anywhere where black women live. Type ‘natural hair’ into Youtube  and there will be women from the Caribbean,  South Africa, the UK, and of course the U.S offering tips  Along the way, there are ongoing conversations, lines drawn in the sand, and questions raised about how we wear our hair, why we wear our hair the way we do, and the implications of those choices.  In fact, the natural phenomenon has been big enough to garner attention from so called ‘mainstream’ media, including  CNN and the BBC.

CNN aren’t doing exposes on the fact the ombre is the latest (or was) hair fad. The ebb and flow of non-outrageous hair fashions aren’t significant enough to catch the eye of most mainstream news outlets outside of their fashion section.

Black women’s hair, however, isn’t ‘just’ hair. We might want it to be. And for some of us, the decision to go from weave to natural to relaxer and then back again is based on nothing more than flight of fancy or the particular ‘look’ we’re going for that year. As a group though, the decision for as to whether our hair is political or not has already been made for us.  Our hair carries the weight of slavery, colonialism, civil rights movements and questions about whether we are ‘mixed’ or not. Hair could could be used to spot a  runaway slave who was light enough to try and ‘pass’ for white. Hair told some high class blacks at the turn of the century whether you were right type of black to be admitted into their esteemed company. Hair is used by some to determine whether we’re the type of black girl who listens to Erykah Badu and drinks vegan water, or the type who watches Real Housewives of Atlanta. Our hair can be the type that we can wear to work, or the type that we feel we have to straighten to fit into a corporate environment. Our hair can be the baby-mama type hair, or the type that makes men question whether their babies will have ‘good hair’. Our hair tells others whether we are down for the cause, or on course to be a video model.

We cannot ignore the pathology in our community that meant that until recently, 80% of black women used sodium hydroxide, at the expense of possible chemical burns, alopecia, and hundreds of pounds, in order for their hair to be straight. We cannot ignore the fact that unlike white women, the vast majority of black celebrities refuse to wear afro textured hair – whether their own or a replica. We cannot pretend that our hair choices exist in a vacuum, devoid of any form of social pressure or historical suggestion.

It’s true – not every woman wearing a relaxer or donning a head of synthetic weave desires to look white. In fact, many black hair styles that are ‘straight’ are a world away from the hairstyles of their white counterparts. They are straight, but they are uniquely ‘black’.  So it’s not primarily about wanting to look like a white woman – that would be an oversimplification.

Despite this though, there is still a beauty hierarchy that has at its root the notion that kinky, West African (I note that not all black Africans have this hair), won’t –allow- a- comb- to- pass- through -it hair, is something to be fixed, tolerated, or hidden. I’m not saying that everyone has to wear an afro. I’m not saying that weaves are from Beelzebub, or that perms are the mark of the beast. I am saying that when we make choices about our hair, we should be cognizant of the possible reasons as to why we make those choices. It’s not just hair.