Natural Hair- A Definition of Black Identity?

Emmanuella Anyanwu November 03, 2011

The question of whether or not black women prefer to wear their hair relaxed or natural has become increasingly controversial. Some black women prefer to wear their natural hair while others do not. Those who wear their natural hair are seen as proud of their black identity while those who alter the natural state of their hair are viewed as sell outs. Most discussions on this topic only go as far as attributing the preference for non-natural hair to a marginalized view of the African identity. Is it possible and acceptable for a black woman to prefer long, silky hair?

Natural Hair- A Definition of Black Identity?On ‘The View’, Whoopi Goldberg asked why society has bought into the idea that we have to fit into the magazine covers. By fitting into the magazine covers, she was referring to the fact that a lot of black women want to have long, and silky hair. “The brighter, the lighter, the better”, as described by an interviewee on the documentary- Good Hair.

This desire for long, straight hair is spread among many black children and women. In a CNN Special, Charisse Jones talked about how she used to drape her pajama top over her head and pretend she had long hair with the white girl flow- (the white girl flow refers to the act of swooping one’s long, silky hair). When interviewed by a Tyra Banks show producer, all 4 children expressed strong preference for straight, long hair.

This preference is also evidenced in adult women and dates back to historical times. According to a New York Times article, home relaxer sales rung up $45.6million in 2008, excluding Walmart. In Chris Rock’s documentary on hair, it was mentioned that the black hair business is a $9billion business and that human hair is Indian’s biggest export. The straightening of hair by black women dates as far back to the early 1900s, when coarse and kinky hair started to be synonymous with low class.

According to Ayana Bird of Glamour magazine, women and men who had silkier hair had a higher chance of being freed when the master died and they were the slaves who worked inside the house. Working inside the house meant more access to education, food, clothing and the necessities of life. As a result, “we are not talking about slaves walking around saying ‘I’m cute’. It was slaves walking around and saying ‘if I have this hair, I might have a better chance of life and survival’”.  

It is apparent that we still have more steps to take in order to attain equity, however, society is now more receptive to black women wearing their natural hair. Nevertheless, tons of black women still prefer to wear “white-looking” hair. Could this be because of of the fear of facing an unfair consideration for a job if they wore their natural hair to the interview?

Some black women consider their natural hair as their voice. To them, wearing their natural hair is a way of validating the African identity. Inadvertently, the aforementioned women perceive those women who don’t wear their natural hair as conformists and self-haters.

“I am who I am regardless of how I wear my hair”, were the very relevant words of Tywana Smith, a co-owner of Treasured Locks, according to a New York Times article. Natural Hair- A Definition of Black Identity?Tywana and her husband, the co-owner of their business, reported that some of their customers ask them to stop offering hair advice to customers who chemically straighten their hair and refer to such customers as sell outs. We are then left to question whether it is wrong for black women to want long and silky hair.  Could it be said that the desire of a black woman for silky hair suggests some form of subservience to whites? Or is there a common quest in all human beings for enhancement of physical attributes in order to be more appealing?

Asians straighten their hair, Hispanics with curly hair straighten their hair, and even Caucasians add extensions and color to their hair to make it fuller, longer and of a desired color.

Are all women of diverse ethnicities self-haters? If whites add extensions just like blacks do, Japanese women straighten their hair just like Hispanics and blacks do and all color their hair, depending on the individual’s preference, then there must be an underlying factor that transcends self-hate. Perhaps there are hair attributes that are of universal interest to all women- a desire that has nothing to do with self-identity.

In response to Whoopi’s compliment that her natural hair looks good, Sherri Shepherd on The View said that she prefers being able to do the white girl flow. Meghan McCain, a Caucasian guest co-host on The View, said that she adds extensions to her hair. On one end of the spectrum lie blacks like Whoopi who feel strongly that black women should wear their natural hair while on the other end are blacks like Sherri who see no connection between their blackness and the way they wear their hair. 

At the end of the day, we all want to look good. No matter our definition of beauty, a woman’s identity does not depend on the way she wears her hair. Her black pride cannot be solely judged by her hair but by the sum of her self-conduct and affairs.


Last Edited by: Updated: March 25, 2016


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