Within the Black community, there exists a hidden caste system of “good” and “bad” hair, just like skin color hierarchies. “Good” hair is considered to be closer to straighter, wavier, Eurocentric hair, and “bad” hair is kinkier, coiled, thicker hair. Although these hair valuations are seen as being on a gradient, there is almost always a natural splitting that takes place when seeing and being seen. This dichotomy contributes to the double consciousness in the upbringing of Black girls in America. This twoness originally described by W.E.B. Du Bois is between the “American and the Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
I surmise that this internal war starts very young; when a young Black girl is told their hair is too difficult to manage or when they are given dirty looks for wearing their natural hair in public. This pushes many Black girls to hide their hair, hide themselves, in order to avoid those feelings of shame, questionable looks and judgments, and while learning to be accepted if they apply Eurocentric norms. So, is it really our hair when we go to salons to perm (to get semipermanent straighter hair), often causing damage and burns to our scalp? Is it our hair when we install straight hair weaves that pull out our hair, causing bald spots? The validation in these compromised states and being seen so positively is enough to teach us that who we are naturally is unacceptable and we must find a way to fit in and erase a part of ourselves.
School is sometimes the first experience where Black children learn survival skills when it comes to their hair. To quote Ayana Byrd’s Hair Story, “they are forced to defend it, explain it, and often make excuses for it as white students and teachers remain unaware of their inner turmoil.”
Before I dive into what that turmoil may look like and its effects on the psyche, I want to first discuss a familiar story for many Black girls growing up in this society. Many accounts of hair while growing up is one of pain and suffering. The straightening comb was either seen as a rite of passage or the beginning of a painful relationship with oneself. To straighten one’s hair involves using grease and extreme high heat to force the texture of the hair to be pulled straight and to resolve all kink. The sound alone of heated grease reminds me of bacon sizzling on a stove. Now think of this sound paired with the sometimes-painful experience of the hot comb burning the back of your neck or making you flinch when it got too close to your ears. This was not something to look forward to but was done to tame the hair to make it more manageable. It was a necessity to look presentable and be more tolerable to others.
The kiddie relaxer often marketed as the pain-free option to the hot comb came into fashion because it permanently (with the exception of chopping off all your hair) changed the texture of your hair to be straighter hair, unaffected by moisture. The perm would happen whenever there was “new growth.” That is, whenever your natural hair started to grow out again and show, it was time for the perm to cover it back up. The pains of relaxing one’s hair is very known and has its own set of messages. Sometimes it is seen by parents as a convenience because of a busy work schedule, which sometimes says, I don’t have time for you. There are also physical consequences of the perm: bald spots, burns, severe hair damage, especially when not treated properly. There is a constant need to tame herself to be accepted by America’s visual norms without causing a disturbance. What a trauma to recognize the Black self.
As a child, I was acutely aware of how my hair appeared to others. When doing something as innocuous as going into the pool, I would feel the sense of relief because I knew having a perm would “protect” me from being seen in my natural state. There is a process of knowing and trying to unknow. How can Black girls maintain the ability to think about their true self in the face of whiteness?
Black girls and women live many truths. The painful truth of existing in this world and of knowing what it takes to live in this world. We are in a world where laws must be passed to not discriminate against Black hair. The Crown Act was created in 2019 to protect against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots. Its purpose is to create a safe and open environment for people to wear their natural hair. To think, we as a society need laws in place to safeguard those whose hair is not like the “majority.” Although this addresses a larger issue of discrimination in schools and the workplace, it doesn’t do justice to the psychological impairments that are experienced as a Black person growing up in America. The implications they absorb include: I am too difficult; people will like me more if I make drastic, painful changes to myself; people don’t have space for me; I must assimilate more than others to be valued; my feelings are lesser than yours; I have to change myself to fit in or I have to change myself to not be noticed; and why am I on display, must I always be conscious of my appearance and how it makes others feel?
I will end with another quote from Ayana Byrd’s Hair Story which says, “I hate the way our hair can speak so many words for us before we open our mouths.” ■
Raynell Sangster, LMHC, is a Jamaican-American candi- date in the adult program in psychoanalysis at IPTAR. She is also a clinical psychology PhD student at Adelphi University, where her research focuses on identity development among Black girls. Her private practice focuses on providing culturally relevant psychotherapy to Black women.
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