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29 March 2022

Forget Will Smith and the slap, why do we politicise black women’s hair?

Whether we have hair that's braided or no hair, we can't win.

By Ateh Jewel

The 94th Academy Awards will be remembered for that slap. The moment Will Smith got up on stage and, in what I think he thought was a chivalrous defence of his wife (but seemed instead to be steeped in toxic masculinity), slapped the comedian Chris Rock, who was hosting the ceremony. Rock had made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, which he perhaps didn’t realise was a result of a medical condition: alopecia. Indeed, Pinkett Smith has been very open and vocal about her condition. “It was terrifying when it first started,” she has said. “I was literally shaking with fear.”

The whole world has been analysing the scuffle between Smith and Rock. The news is filled with discussions about whether Smith should be cancelled and have the Oscar he won later in the evening stripped from him. Among all this noise, there is a neglect of Pinkett Smith and her feelings, and the politics of black hair and hair loss. Alopecia appears in many forms but the most common type is alopecia areata, the result of an autoimmune skin disease which it is thought that Pinkett Smith suffers from. For a variety of reasons, biological, socio-economic and cultural, black women tend to suffer from alopecia disproportionately.

This incident — “the slap” — makes it clear that hair is culture, identity and status, and that in our society women are still judged and objectified by their hair or lack of it. Black hair in particular is highly politicised. In 2022 black people are still being discriminated against because of the natural way hair grows out of their head, and the protective and braided styles they wear it in — to the point that in the US Congress, legislation called the Crown Act has been passed to protect against hair discrimination. The treatment of Pinkett Smith makes it clear that you can’t win either when you have or don’t have hair.

As a child of the 80s, I received the message loud and clear that my tightly coiled “4C” hair, which I inherited from my Nigerian father, wasn’t good enough. My mother thought she was doing the best for me when she chemically straightened my hair when I was eight, an expensive and painful habit I kept up until I was 37. The process left me with a battered sense of self, chemical burns and small bald patches from years of hair self-harm.

I have huge amounts of empathy for Pinkett Smith. I spent a lifetime trying to assimilate and turn down the volume of my “blackness”. When my hair started to shed I just thought “please forgive me and come back”. This month a 12-year-old girl from Indiana killed herself after suffering from alopecia and being bullied for it. The effects of alopecia on our self-esteem and mental health are so much more than skin deep.

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