Black hair is more than fashion

Illustration by Diana Ortega

Black History Month celebrates black achievements and culture throughout the formation of this country. Specifically, black culture is rich in historical ties to United States slavery and its African origins.

The topic of black culture seems to be particularly controversial and black hairstyles are a prominent part of this controversy.

I have noticed that other cultures are not debated and politicized nearly as much as black culture. Cultural insensitivity is undoubtedly an issue experienced by all races and ethnic groups, but I feel black culture is one of the least respected.

As an example, we accept that bindis belong to southern Asian culture and are primarily worn by women belonging to the Hindu religion. In the past, women not belonging to the culture have attempted to wear bindis as fashion. Rightfully so, these women were called out for their insensitive behaviors.

The general consensus was that this is a form of cultural appropriation.

Comparatively, when Kim Kardashian West was spotted in a historically black hairstyle, it sparked a debate. Unlike the bindi example, many questioned whether something as simple as a hairstyle can even be appropriated.

Black culture is not simple. Our hairstyles are not just hair. There is deeper historical meaning rooted in years of slavery and cultural oppression. Black hair was used to reclaim our African heritage post-slavery.

In order to understand the cultural significance of traditionally black hairstyles, it is necessary to revisit U.S. history.

Slaveholders labeled black culture as barbaric. Subsequently, African slaves were stripped of all cultural identity upon arriving in the U.S. This abhorrent action was also done to dehumanize slaves.

Eventually, the abolition of slavery provided African Americans with the freedom to style their hair. This was part of reclaiming their culture. Women began wearing elaborate hairstyles that were representative of their African roots. This created conflict in some parts of the U.S.

According to Vice magazine, Louisiana responded to the conflict with the Tignon Laws of 1786. These laws prohibited African American women from wearing decorated clothing and hairstyles. Additionally, the laws forced women to cover their hair in tignons, a fabric wrapped around the head.

Then-Louisiana Gov. Esteban Miró enacted the Tignon Laws to prevent African American women from garnering the attention of white men. At the time, Louisiana was home to many interracial relationships, resulting in biracial offspring. Local government began fighting against this.

When U.S. slavery was abolished, African Americans found they had to conform to white social and cultural norms in order to make it in society. As explained by a BBC News article, both men and women began chemically treating their hair so that it appeared straight.

The black hair industry was then formed.

The same Vice magazine article mentions that the market for black hair products became so big that it spawned America’s first black, self-made millionaire woman, Madam C.J. Walker. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Walker developed a line of hair care products, including a hair growth treatment, that became wildly popular. Walker also developed hair straightening treatments and tools.

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement that African Americans found pride in resisting European beauty standards. This pride took the form of Afros, braids and natural hair textures. Black people were no longer comfortable with chemically straightening their hair to get a job.

Throughout history, African Americans have had to conform to European beauty standards to be deemed socially acceptable.

This is why I don’t understand the argument against black women wearing straight hair as a way to dismiss the cultural significance of our traditional styles.

Black women are discriminated against when displaying their natural hair, and also criticized for wearing straight hair.

I have worked many jobs that did not allow traditionally black hairstyles. If you have an issue with black women wearing straight hair, advocate against workplace discrimination. Correct your friends and family when they make insensitive comments about black hair.

I do not care if a white girl wants to have a black hairstyle.

I do, however, hope it is understood that black hair is more than just hair. The argument that it’s just hair is often used to defend cultural appropriation. Understand that you cannot look at black culture through a non-black cultural lens. While it may just be hair to you, it is so much more than hair to us.