Black Hair is Political!
Riska Koopman on why black hair is political
To say that hair is just hair, is the same as saying that all lives matter. If you’re gonna come talking smack, then please just don’t. It astounded me when people couldn’t comprehend the #BlackLivesMatter or #FeesMustFall movements and in the same vein, I cannot understand how anybody, especially South Africans, can think that hair is just hair.
Black hair is political.
The origins of ‘nappy’ hair
In America, during the cotton slave trade production, black hair was referred to as ‘nappy.’ The term was derived from the association with the tuft of the cotton plant, which was coarse and hard in texture. Hair in this context was used as a tool of power to differentiate between European and African hair. Nappy hair was therefore construed as being unruly and undesirable. In fact, the first black millionaire, Madam CJ Walker, made her fortunes in selling a concoction to make black hair grow longer and sleeker. It’s well known that, as black people, we have been obsessed with changing the texture of our hair for the longest time.
South Africa’s ‘pencil’ test
In South Africa, during apartheid times, a hair pencil test was used to determine racial classification. If the pencil fell out of your hair, you were considered as being white. If not, you were demoted to either “coloured” or black. While the pencil test is now thankfully outdated, our societal obsession with hair and preconceived notions of beauty continue to dictate many of our choices. As a consequence, hair relaxers and skin lighteners are sadly still very popular.
The links between hair politics and structural inequality
Structural inequality continues to have a crippling hold on our country. While we now live in a democracy, we still have high levels of economic inequality manifested in high levels of unemployment and income inequality. The hair policy debacle at the Pretoria Girls High School brought to the fore the lack of reform in our society. The school’s policy banned hairstyles associated with black hair (afro’s, braids, dreadlocks), a clear indication of how we continue to stigmatise and discriminate against black students. Ultimately, the message is clear, racism still is still rife in our society and the politics associated with hair is but one manifestation of this.
During the 1960s & 70’s the likes of Angela Davis sported an Afro in defiance to an oppressive system that was both overtly and subliminally racist. Black hair that made no effort to look like white hair in this context was highly political, it was giving the system the middle finger. Straight hair and fair skin was (and in many instances still is), a superimposed beauty standard, the act of straightening your hair, can be viewed as an act of seeking approval by society. During this period, the Black Panther movement was saying maybe we don’t want to be a part of a society that doesn’t view black people as their equals.
Today’s black natural hair movement is not overtly politically driven. Rather, women (and men) globally have realized the negative impacts both physically and psychologically of chemically treating their hair. This trend coincides with that of living cleaner, healthier and more ecologically friendly lifestyles.
The growth of the black natural hair movement
South Africa’s natural hair community is growing in leaps and bounds. The burgeoning demand and increased buying power of previously disenfranchised consumers has led to an expanding shelf-space for natural hair products from all over the world. Natural hair care brands have also sprouted locally, like Curl Chemistry, Akan Organic’s and Pearl Thusi range, Black Pearl.
Globally, the beauty industry has made millions off black women’s hair woes, with relaxers and hair straightening creams, making up most of sales in this market traditionally. The good news is that the gross sale of relaxers is in steep decline and marketing strategies have had to shift toward this new emerging market. The black hair industry has been a lucrative one, yielding far more profits than its white counterpart. However, big corporations quickly found out that this market is a politically astute one and will not be manipulated. Shea Moisture faced serious resistance from the natural black hair community when it released its latest ad campaign. The depiction of white women accepting their natural hair outraged social media users leading to it being removed and the company issuing an apology statement. Black hair naturals also prefer to support black women, arguing that brands like Pantene and Head & Shoulders now recognize their needs.
Black hair is political.
Representation and ownership of the natural hair movement
Problems arise in the areas of representation and economic ownership of the natural black hair movement. And this is where the issues become deeply political. Due to structural inequality, both in Africa and other parts of the world, black people wanting to start businesses, especially natural hair/beauty care businesses, often do not have the capital or access to capital to do so. Big corporations therefore continue to dominate the market, and are able to adapt to new consumer needs. The extensive range of natural hair care lines is a case in point. Due to the high quality natural ingredient make-up of these products, they are priced higher than their “regular” counterparts. Big corporations, using economies of scale, can undercut smaller players greatly. As a result, we are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Social media and its impact on the black natural hair movement
The internet has been instrumental in the growth of the natural black hair movement. A new career path has opened up for natural hair bloggers and vloggers, posting their hair journeys; tips and styling methods to platforms like Facebook; Twitter; Youtube and Instagram. The amount of followers, subscribers (read popularity) is directly proportional to the earnings which these new-age models or influencers could earn, via advertisements on their social media and working with brands. According to Andre Walker’s curl pattern chart (a chart invented to help transitioning women know how to care for their specific type of curl), their hair was 3A & 3B, pictured below. This chart divides hair into 3 main categories, type 2 Wavy, type 3 Curly and type 4 Coily, furthermore, within these categories the density and type of wave, curl or coil will put you into a sub-category of 2A, 4C or 3C for example. It’s all very confusing, I know! The most celebrated bloggers and vloggers are the 3A & 3B, a quick look at their Instagram following and interactions will show this. Whereas, women with kinky and coily hair, are less celebrated.
Why is this? Proximity to whiteness, and western beauty ideals. Light skinned women with 3A & 3B curl patterns have come under fire for hijacking this movement which was supposed to finally include women with 4A- C hair in this new construction of beauty. Yet the natural hair market is flooded with curl elongating, anti-shrinkage, anti-frizz, curl smoothing creams and custards. Some may argue that darker skinned women are featured. Yes, this is true. But, where they are they have a prototype, of long thick hair. This type of natural hair-hierarchy, does not take us much further from where we began if we’re being totally honest with ourselves.
Black hair is political
As long as we continue to emulate and perpetuate these as natural hair goals, then we have a problem. It is crystal clear that while we’re negotiating new beauty standards, getting our toes wet is fine, jumping in and washing ourselves clean of all these colonial beauty standards is just too
 The Black Panther Party, 1966, was founded to patrol African American communities from acts of police brutality. The party grew into a Marxist revolutionary group, it also sought for all African-Americans to be compensated for centuries of exploitation. The group represented an anti-government militancy which undermined their efforts at controlling sections of the population. This movement was one of the greatest anti-oppression uprisings in the USA and their work remains widely celebrated.