Arrested Development: Natural Hair Privilege
By: Eris Zion Venia Dyson
My hair has been the subject of scrutiny for as long as I can remember. In fourth grade a classmate called me “Grease.” In sixth grade songs were sang about my Jheri Curl “don’t slip on the drip” and “the juice is loose.” By the time I was in eleventh grade I cut all of my hair off only to be mistaken for a boy and called a dyke (not to mention a little boy said my head looked like a bag of flaming hot Cheetos at the barbershop). My freshman year of college, a professor picked up one of my locs and told me to “take your braids down when you go on a job interview” and in my senior year of college I flat ironed my afro only to have another professor say “you look better that way.” I cut all of my hair off the very next day.
This is a mere fraction of the stories I have. From the co-worker who said I looked like a porcupine to the chef at Whole Foods who believed that I was mean and angry because of my “black power” ‘fro. In 2001 I received my very last relaxer. “I still get reoccurring sores on my scalp from the chemicals to this day. When asked why did I “go natural” my typical response is one that laments: If white people can wear their hair the way it grows out of their head… why can’t I?!” Or I respond with: “How can a person ‘go’ natural? I was born natural.”
Black hair care is a billion dollar industry that thrives on the notion that the hair of black people in its natural state is not acceptable. In 2009 Lamya Cammon, a Milwaukee student, had one of her braids cut off by her teacher in front of her entire class because she was “angry” at the child for playing with her hair. The teacher only received a $175 fine and Lamya was moved to another class while this ‘educator’ maintained her job after openly abusing this student. And now in Lorain, Ohio the Horizon Science Academy released their dress code which included “Afro-puffs and small twisted braids, with or without rubber bands are NOT permitted.” Interestingly enough two bullet points early the dress code stated that “Hair must look natural, clean, well groomed.” They later released a statement saying they will be updating their dress code “…and by no means did [they] have any intention of creating bias towards any of [their] students.”
Instead of spending paragraph after paragraph delving into how colorism, colonialism, capitalism, and white privilege has given permission for educational institutions to treat children of color this way; I decided to invoke the spirit of Peggy McIntosh who wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Listed below is the Natural Hair Privilege Checklist. While there is only thirty-seven points on the list, I’m certain the list could go on and on. Take a moment to consider how your hair informs your identity.
The Natural Hair Privilege Checklist
On a daily basis my hair in its natural state…
(Natural state denotes the way your hair grows out of your head without it being altered in anyway shape or form)
- I can be pretty sure that my coworkers/supervisors/classmates/educators will be comfortable with my hair.
- If I pick up a magazine, watch TV, or play music, I can be certain my hair will be represented.
- When I talk about my hair (such as in a joke or talking about my hair regimen), I will not be accused of pushing my hair texture onto others.
- I do not have to fear that if my family or friends see my hair in its natural state there will be economic, emotional, physical or psychological consequences.
- I did not grow up with games or jokes that attack my hair (i.e. nicknames or songs made about your hair).
- I am not accused of being militant, warped or psychologically confused because of my hair.
- I can go home from most meetings, classes, and conversations without feeling excluded, fearful, attacked, isolated, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, stereotyped or feared because of my hair.
- I am never asked to speak for everyone who has hair like mine.
- People don’t ask why I chose to wear my hair natural.
- My race or ethnicity is not challenged because of my hair texture (i.e. “you must be mixed”)
- People don’t ask if I am limiting my access to success because of my hair.
- I do not have to fear revealing my hair to friends or family. It’s assumed.
- My hair was never associated with a historical movement.
- People do not try to convince me to change my hair.
- I don’t have to defend my hair.
- I can easily find a community that will not exclude me for wearing my hair in its natural state.
- I can count on finding a stylist/cosmetologist trained, willing and able to do my hair without chemicals.
- Because of my hair, I do not need to worry that people will harass me.
- I have no need to qualify my hair’s identity.
- My masculinity/femininity is not challenged because of my hair.
- I am not asked if I wash my hair or if it is clean.
- I am not identified by my hair.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my hair will not work against me.
- While watching movies I can be sure I will not have trouble finding my hair texture represented.
- I am guaranteed to find people with my hair texture represented in my workplace.
- I can walk in public with my natural hair and not have people double-take or stare.
- People do not touch my hair to attempt to understand it.
- I can remain oblivious to hair different from mine without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- I can go for months without having a conversation about my hair.
- I am not grouped because of my hair texture.
- I am never told that “natural isn’t for everybody” or “you can get away with that”
- I can be sure that my hair in its natural state is generally acceptable.
- My hair, and typical styles associated with it, are not banned or deemed inappropriate in dress codes.
- Nobody calls me ‘natural’ with maliciousness.
- People can use terms that describe my hair and mean positive things (i.e. “silky and shiny”, “good hair”, “normal”, “long and flowing” or “straight”) instead of demeaning terms (i.e. “bad hair” “nappy” or being “unkempt “).
- I am not asked to think about why I am ‘natural.’
- I can wear my hair without worrying about my job.
I once wrote that “Our hair is a forbidden dance: moving, shaking, bending, waving, rhythmic.” The manner in which our kinky tresses are coaxed into submission for an iota of acceptance is boggling. Society is in a state of arrested development. But the next time you walk outside and gaze at the beauty of trees, take note how the breeze makes the branches and leaves sway. A tree is God’s Afro. Kinky coils are not to be feared. Our hair is not a threat.
Eris Zion Venia Dyson