When I cut my hair last summer, I sheared 12 inches of chemically straightened hair from the coarser curls closest to my scalp. I had only an inch of hair in its natural state; at the time, I felt free.
I was working from home for a non-profit, so I didn't think much about how my "big chop" would be received by my co-workers. A few months after the haircut, though, my contract ended and I was on the job market again with a rapidly-sprouting afro. It was the first time in 15 years of professional life that I’d ever interviewed for office positions with my hair in its natural state.
I was wary enough to poll my social media feeds: Should I straighten my afro? Should I get braided extensions that could be styled into a neat, efficient updo? Or should I walk in unapologetically, my hair as free as it was on the day I cut it? Feedback was wide-ranging. One friend admonished me to avoid braids, suggesting I’d only be replacing one stereotype (“militant”) with another (“ghetto”). Others told me I was right to rethink walking in “with a bush.” A blowout was gingerly suggested. Eventually, I sauntered into those interviews with my TWA—teeny weeny afro—in part because I resented that I’d had to deliberate at all. That none of my interviewers mentioned my hair directly afforded me a few sighs of relief, but every time I apply for a new position, I return to those same aesthetic anxieties.
Last week, Allure reminded me of this when it published a feature on afros that entirely erased women of color (“You (Yes, You) Can Get An Afro*” the headline read, with an asterisk: “*even if you have straight hair”). In 2015, only particularly willful ignorance could account for an afro hairstyle magazine spread that treats the afro as a white woman's entitlement. "An Afro is not an introvert’s hairstyle,” they write, apparently uninterested in its political overtones. “This is confident hair.”
I am an introvert, and I owe whatever confidence my afro projects to the women and men of the ’60s and ’70s Black Power movement, who originated the style and provided me a template for how to deal with any backlash I might receive for wearing it.
For black women and those women whose hair is like mine—tightly coiled, not loosely curly—that confidence isn’t an aesthetic option. It’s a necessity, as we navigate professional and public spaces where our natural hair won’t always be welcome. The decision to wear an afro or any other “unstraightened” hairstyle is only as “ballsy” and “powerful”—Allure’s words—as our ability to obtain and maintain employment, navigate stereotypes and discrimination, and deal with microaggressions like unwanted hair-touching. (That’s not even to mention that to wear an afro means we have to convince ourselves that years of advertising positioning straight hair as necessary to either enhance our beauty or to boost our chances at professional advancement were wrong.)
Writer Bridget Marie addressed some of these affronts in a satirical post over at Medium:
Get ready to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about what others are thinking about your hair. Do they think you look “too ethnic?” “Unpolished?” “Too political?” Will a prospective employer be less likely to hire you if you show up with your Fro to a job interview? These are all real questions you’re going to need to start thinking through if you’re planning on rocking those curls.
Natural hair discrimination in the workplace has been widely reported. Ebony covered it in a 2013 op-ed, titled “Natural Hair vs. Corporate America: Why Are We Still Fighting This Battle?” DiversityInc addressed it in an advice column: “Do Blacks Need to Relax Their Natural Hair to Get Promoted?” In 1981, the case of Rogers vs. American Airlines made national news headlines, when Renee Rogers, a black woman employed with the airline, was told that her cornrow hairstyle violated the company’s grooming policy. She filed an action against the airline on the grounds of racial discrimination, and not only was her complaint dismissed—a federal court judged claimed Rogers failed to prove racism was at play—but she was also accused of mimicking white actress Bo Derek’s hairstyle1 in the 1979 film, 10.
It’s impossible for a “light-hearted” summer trend piece like Allure’s to be well-received, given how prominent the history of natural hair discrimination is in this country. Just last year, the Congressional Black Caucus took the U.S. military to task for its grooming policies, which barred cornrows, twists, and dreadlocks. The Transportation Security Administration has also come under fire for disproportionately patting down black women’s hair—especially their afros. It’s a practice TSA only agreed to stop five months ago, when it reached an agreement with the ACLU of Northern California, which had filed a complaint in 2012.
Of course the afro also has a much longer historical precedent, which Essence Gant at Buzzfeed pointed out in her coverage of Allure’s afro fallout:
Not only did the magazine choose to not use a black model with straight hair, it failed to reference the very sacred and political context of the natural style, worn during the American Civil Rights era as a symbol of black pride and protest for equality.
Allure responded to Buzzfeed with a statement that still failed to acknowledge any of the cultural insensitivity their feature implied:
The Afro has a rich cultural and aesthetic history. In this story, we show women using different hairstyles as an individual expressions [sic] of style. Using beauty and hair as a form of self-expression is a mirror of what’s happening in our country today. The creativity is limitless—and pretty wonderful.
Contrary to Allure’s plucky defense, the afro has never been an individual expression of style for the women who originated it. It’s a collective expression of culture, history, and genetics. As author Bebe Moore Campbell wrote in a 1982 issue of Ebony, “In the ’60s and ’70s, the Afro was more than hair; it was a symbol of black pride, a silent affirmation of African roots and the beauty of blackness.” Allure is right that the afro holds a mirror up to this country, but the reflections must vary when black women with naturally kinky hair and white women with naturally straight look into it. The woman I see reflected at me is very clear: As a black woman choosing not to straighten my hair, I am at risk of being viewed as a professional liability, or of being forbidden a personal freedom granted everyone else.
Though it’s often said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, it’s hard to feel praised by Allure’s mimicry. It ignores history and pretends as though an afro is a breezy, ephemeral, late-summer fad, and not a hard-earned declaration of cultural acceptance and self-worth.
It is tempting to divorce aesthetic statements from their cumbersome histories. A year of wearing my hair the way it grows from my scalp, however, without heat or chemical alteration, has taught me that history is inescapable. An afro is a signifier. On a black woman, it invokes the black power movement, “black is beautiful” counterculture campaigns, and decades of discrimination. It was impossible to be confident or feel good wearing it until I accepted that. I feel that I am a more authentic version of myself than I was when a foot of straightened hair hung limp in my face; that authenticity makes me feel more beautiful. I didn’t know it until it was gone, but I was hiding behind a curtain of chemically relaxed hair. Wearing an afro has been like stepping out of camouflage.
It’s much easier for me to achieve this hairstyle than it is for a woman with straight hair, but it’s much easier for them to wear it without repercussion. For them, it’s aesthetic drag; for me, it’s become a kind of social combat. Every day, I go out into a world that resents my afro. Every day that I choose not to straighten it, I win.
A 1980 profile in People notes the irony of Derek being credited with popularizing cornrows: “African tribes, like the Masai of Kenya and the Nzinga of Nigeria, began it centuries ago. In the U.S. black women like Cicely Tyson have been cornrowing their hair for years.” The piece also notes that a black woman, Ann Collins, was Derek’s “official braider” on the set of 10.