By Roicia Banks, MSW
When reading about "intergroup conflict", I could not help but think about African American women and the social and political importance of our hair. My father is African American, and my mother is of Native American and of French descent. My hair texture is as complicated as my genetic history, but to my peers, my hair is seen as more "acceptable" or desirable because it is more “manageable”, and the curls are less tight and coiled. What my peers do not understand is my own personal experience with prejudice and racism as it pertains to my type of hair. Of course, it is not at the same level that a person with type 4C hair might experience but, it is still my experience and we are not playing "Oppression Olympics" are we? This ongoing debate prompted me to have this discussion at my annual mental health conference in January entitled: ATTITUDE: A Mental Health Summit for African American Women where I chose Alisa Gooding, trichologist and expert in African American hair to be our keynote speaker. Ms. Alisa spoke about the history and origins of our "hair-story" in the United States, and how we have gotten here to the wigs and weave today. In recent years, there has been a growing movement within the African American community to embrace natural hair and reject European beauty standards that prioritize straight hair. However, some African American women still choose to wear wigs or weaves for various reasons, such as convenience or personal preference. This difference in approach to hair care can lead to conflict and judgment between those who prioritize natural hair and those who do not.
Natural hair advocates argue that wearing wigs or weaves perpetuates damaging beauty standards that have historically been used to oppress African American women. For centuries, Black women have been taught that their natural hair is unprofessional, unattractive, and unacceptable in society. This message has been reinforced by schools, workplaces, and the media, which have all promoted Eurocentric beauty standards as the norm. As a result, many Black women have felt pressure to straighten or alter their natural hair to fit in with these standards. This process can be time-consuming, expensive, and damaging to hair health and more importantly, our physical health.
As we now know, chemical relaxers have served as a direct link to the uptick in cancer among African American women, specifically breast and uterine cancer. It is also being reported that hair weaves and wigs are cleaned with so many chemicals and our scalp absorbs those chemicals through its pores. The weave is clean, but it is TOXIC and it can lead to complications with your scalp and to hairloss! Due to bias, racism, and lack of resources, there are more African American women who die from breast cancer as opposed to their white counterparts. While breast cancer incidence rates among Black and white women are close, mortality rates are markedly different, with Black women having a 40 percent higher death rate from breast cancer. Among women under 50, the disparity is even greater: While young women have a higher incidence of aggressive cancers, young Black women have double the mortality rate of young white women. You might have seen the "Chemical Hair Straightening Lawsuit" for those who used the product and have been diagnosed with uterine or breast cancer that is circulating around on social media.
In recent years, natural hair advocates have pushed back against this pressure, encouraging Black women to embrace their natural hair texture and reject these harmful beauty standards. Women who wear wigs or weaves argue that it is a personal choice that should not be judged or criticized. For some, wearing wigs or weaves is a matter of convenience, allowing them to switch up their hairstyle without damaging their natural hair. For others, it is a way to express their personal style or protect their hair from damage. Some women also argue that wearing wigs or weaves does not necessarily mean they are rejecting their natural hair texture or perpetuating harmful beauty standards. Instead, they view it to exercise control over their own appearance and make their own choices about how to present themselves to the world. Despite these differing perspectives, the intergroup conflict between natural hair advocates and wig or weave wearers can still arise. Natural hair advocates may view those who wear wigs or weaves as perpetuating damaging beauty standards, while some wig or weave wearers may feel judged or excluded by the natural hair community.
One of the main sources of conflict is the idea of "good" and "bad" hair. Historically, lighter skin and looser hair textures have been viewed as more desirable within the African American community. This has led to the perception that natural hair is "bad" or "unmanageable," while straighter hair textures are viewed as "good" or "professional." Some natural hair advocates argue that wearing wigs or weaves perpetuates this harmful idea, as it implies that natural hair is not good enough on its own. They believe that by embracing natural hair, Black women can challenge these damaging beauty standards and celebrate the unique beauty of their hair texture. I often share my personal experience of growing up on tribal land and why I personally have trouble understanding the significance of our hair as Black women. In my community, our hair is viewed as a piece of us or part of our ceremony, something to be treasured. In this world that we are living in, hair (wigs, weaves, clip-ins, etc.) is seen as a piece of beauty driving us to crave the acceptance of others which leads to vanity.
Some wig or weave wearers argue that they are not perpetuating this idea, as they are not ashamed of their natural hair texture. They view wearing wigs or weaves as a personal choice that should not be judged or criticized. Another source of conflict is the idea of cultural appropriation. Some natural hair advocates argue that non-Black women who wear wigs or weaves that mimic Black hair textures are appropriating Black culture and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. They believe that this appropriation reinforces the idea that Black hair is "exotic" or "other," rather than a legitimate expression of Black culture. They also argue that non-Black women who wear wigs or weaves may not fully understand the historical and cultural significance of Black hair, which can lead to further marginalization of the Black community. However, some wig or weave wearers argue that this criticism is unfair, as many Black women also wear wigs or weaves that mimic European hair textures. They believe that the issue is not about cultural appropriation, but rather a personal expression, and with this same logic I cannot say that they are wrong.
I know y'all finna drag me but it has to be said... personally, I believe self-esteem is the most important, loving who you are as you are. Ditch the blonde wigs and rock the Bantu knots! I would encourage African American women and young girls to embrace themselves at all of their beautiful natural stages and to "do the work" in order to become confident with what God gave them. We see the short-term and long-term consequences of conformity. We may be able to want to be cute and some of us can afford the flawless looks and the seamless lace fronts now, however, we may not "see" the true cost long-term, but there is most definitely a cost.
Love & Light,