The politics of black hair

Mainstream conversations about feminism usually proceed from the standpoint of middle-class white women - but they need to know their experiences aren't universal, including when it comes to hair.

White people: The texture of hair that grows from our heads is different to yours. The implications of how we wear our hair, and the meanings invested in whatever styles we rock, might differ from yours too.

And I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but when you see a black woman with a huge glossy mane of blonde hair she is usually wearing a weave or a wig. And yes, my hair does grow, and no, I don’t wear it naturally because I can “get away with a bit of frizz”, but because I like it.

However, lack of awareness about our hair is standard across both society and mainstream media platforms, exemplified here by Hadley “I was astonished when Beyoncé was revealed as a wig wearer” Freeman. What is astonishing is how little you seem to know about our hair, even after all these years of us living in close proximity to each other. Not to mention all the (unacknowledged of course) innovations that have been borrowed from black hair culture and are now considered mainstream.

During the Twitter backlash sparked by Laurie Penny’s recent article on short hair, critics pointed out the way in which mainstream conversations about feminism usually proceed from the standpoint of a middle-class white woman. The temptation then is to conflate the experiences of black and white women - in this instance in their relationship to their hair - and not acknowledge their own very particular position positions itself as universal.

Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe.

It can feel pretty frustrating that white supremacy has bequeathed a legacy in which, for many black women, simply wearing our hair in its own natural state can become a complex and politicised act. At the same time - despite the connection between said supremacy and the relationship that many black women have to our hair - most white people demonstrate absolutely no idea about the everyday maintenance of Afro hair, let alone its politics.

Allow me to reverse the situation for a moment. Imagine we live in a world that is dominated by Black Africans. Imagine your great great-grandparents were colonised and enslaved by ours. Imagine that while those sorry times have passed, and it's all post-racial bonhomie now, the transmission of wealth and power never really shifted. Both are still largely concentrated in black hands. Imagine we dominate the media and beauty industries. Imagine that in order for the beauty of black women to be truly appreciated there must be an ugly, and inferior other, with whom she is compared. This other is the white woman. Her hair is vastly different to the dominant beauty standard. It is thin, lank, stringy and greasy.

All the successful women in society have full resplendent, Afro hair, even the minority white ones.

Their hair is beautiful, it is huge, it makes them taller.

It’s almost as though the Gods, looking favourably upon this chosen race, anointed each and every one of them with a little piece of the heavens - in the form of the cloud of hair- that has been placed lovingly upon their adorable heads. But, in this counter narrative, white people have a long-standing tradition of innovation and experimentation with hair (of course, we black people are largely unaware of it, but it exists) and some of them invest that expertise and knowledge into making their hair look like the hair of the good, the pretty, the successful. In fact when we black women cut off our gorgeous tightly coiled kinks, white women sometimes weave the hair on to their own heads.


And after this is done the women with the naturally Afro hair might exhibit surprise that underneath all that gorgeous hair that is just like theirs, there lies a lie.

“Why would they do this?” they might ask. You mean this isn’t really your real hair? “Can I touch it?”

OK, you see where I’m going. Did you bristle a little at hearing your hair described as essentially ugly and bad? Did it seem as though I was being needlessly insulting to make my point?

That was not my intention. It was more a little exercise walking in my shoes. Because, you see, my hair is routinely described in pejoratives. 

Frizzy. Coarse. A problem to be managed. Until the rather wonderful natural hair movement, facilitated in many ways by social networking, this message has been pretty much communicated to me at all times from all angles.

How did you feel when white hair was routinely described as lank and greasy? But sometimes my hair is described as lank and greasy, I hear you cry.

Sometimes is the key word here. It’s also just as common to hear white hair described in highly complimentary language. Think about it; long, silky, shiny, glossy. Don’t even get me started on blonde hair, with all its adjacent connotations of goodness and beauty.

Where are the common phrases used to describe idealised tightly coiled Afro hair? Certainly none come to mind with the ease of the words used to conjure images of idealised Caucasian hair. If there is a beauty standard I should aspire to it is the same as yours apparently; silky and glossy. The expectation is that my own hair must be hidden or transformed in some dramatic way.

About three years ago, I finally quit the whole ‘relaxing’ jive, and stopped straightening my hair. When I was transitioning, I let a white friend feel the new growth. I was excited, as I hadn’t properly felt my own texture in over a decade. However, her response - “Oh my God, it feels like pubes” - brought me slap-bang back to being an eight year old who used to cry themselves to sleep because they were so ugly, and who prayed every night to wake up and have ‘normal’ hair like white people.

Well, those tears were a long time ago. That little girl is now a grown woman who loves her hair (incidentally she has great hair, she always did!) But the journey that led me to the relationship I have with my hair today is likely different to yours. So I urge you to remember, your experience is not the universal benchmark. Such is the ubiquity of whiteness that is this might be easy to forget. Not to worry; we’re here, there’s lots of us, and we’re going to remind you.

Emma Dabiri is an academic and blogger. She tweets: @thediasporadiva

Solange Knowles. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.