I was quite surprised a little while ago to come across a specific word for discrimination and prejudice based on hair. The word is hairism. There are some people in the world who associate certain types of hair with abilities and characteristics, and who believe some people are better than others based on their hair. Hairism can be seen as a component and manifestation of racism in many cases. I was really glad to come across this word as I feel I’ve experienced a good deal of hairism in my life but never really known how to talk about it. My hair is thick and curly. Sometimes it’s big and frizzy. It can look very different depending on the weather, which country I am in (my hair is easier to manage in countries where the water is not as hard as in the UK) and/ or what hair products I use. I also feel its texture has changed over the course of my life. It’s not as easy to manage now as it was a few years ago and I’m not sure whether that’s due to the aging process.
My relationship with my hair has changed over the years too. There have been highs and lows. In the early days I sported a little afro and I love looking back at these pictures now. I find them really cute and I imagine this as a time before I had learned to be self-conscious about my hair, or absorb any negative ideas about it. Whether this is really true or not I don’t know. I’m not sure when negative ideas about my hair kicked in, but I do remember being a young girl (from about 5/6 years old I’d say) and wishing very badly that I had straight hair. I think this was a combination of wanting to look more like the white kids around me, feeling different and also wanting my hair to be more manageable. My white mother did struggle with my hair as a child. It was painful when she brushed it and I think at times she wasn’t using the right products or combs. I don’t feel I was ever taught properly by my parents how to look after my hair. This is something I’ve had to do for myself as an adult or been helped with by other mixed race people, such as my older sister.
I did have my hair straightened at about 11/12 years old. At my insistence my mother got a hair relaxer for me, which was for black afro hair. It was way too powerful for my hair, and turned my thick hair really flat and limp. It was awful! I decided I wouldn’t chemically straighten my hair again after this and I never have. Not long after this period I had my hair cut very short. I was copying a friend who had done the same but the look didn’t work for me at all. It was hard to style and just didn’t suit me, but it was much easier to manage and I enjoyed that aspect of it at least. A low point was being mistaken for a boy whilst out shopping with my mother which says something about gender expectations in terms of appearance for young girls.
I received a lot of bullying and micro-aggressions about my hair whilst at school. I was constantly made to feel my hair was too big and unattractive, especially by boys. I was more likely to receive the micro-aggressions from girls who probably meant well but then again, perhaps in some cases they didn’t. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I really started to embrace my hair. At this point, instead of finding my hair unattractive men started to describe it in more flattering terms. I do feel at times though it became part of my fetishization as a mixed race woman, by white men. Having wild, unruly hair was conflated with my sexuality at times in ways which were demeaning.
I think I started to like my hair more in my twenties because by this point mixed race women were more readily accepted as attractive in the media, hair included (this highlights the enormous power of the media on self-perception for people of colour), and also I had finally learned how to manage my hair and wear it in ways that I liked. It can still be hard to find the right hair products and suitable hairdressers at times but I do think things are certainly better for mixed race people now in these respects. I must admit I still struggle to trust hairdressers though and I have been known to cut my own hair to avoid having to find an appropriate hairdresser. I think I have got a little bit of a hairdresser phobia which is definitely borne out of negative experiences at hairdressers run by both white and black people.
I do still get micro-aggressions from people about my hair at times. Many white people find it hard to talk to me about my hair without asking if I ever straighten it, as though this is necessary in some way and would be ‘better’ than my natural hair. I also still get white people trying to touch my hair and it’s only recently at the age of 35 that I’ve realised I don’t have to have to humour white people about this. My hair is mine and I can decide not to give consent to having my hair mauled by curious white people as though I am an animal at the zoo.
I absolutely LOVE my hair these days and wear it natural as often as I can. I’m trying to take good care of it. I do worry sometimes though about being seen as unprofessional if I leave my hair natural for job interviews/ certain work events. It’s common knowledge that people of colour are discriminated against because of their hair when it comes to job opportunities and we literally can’t afford in some cases not to bear this in mind. I tend to wear my hair how I want to at work, but when I think about it I do amend how I wear my hair depending on what the business setting is. Even up until recently I would probably wear my hair back for an important meeting which shows I am influenced by other people’s attitudes about my hair in professional settings. I want to work to overcome any kind of self-consciousness about my hair in this way. As long as I feel comfortable with my own hair I don’t see why there should be any issues for others.
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