In the novel I am currently reading, Americanah by Adichie, the protagonist, Ifemelu, has recently decided to cut off her relaxed hair in an effort to grow out and discover her natural hair. In the process of growing out her natural hair, she utilizes the website by the name of “happilykinkynappy.com” to communicate with others in her struggles. This is something I connect to and find brave in a couple of key ways.
First off, the societal situation Ifemelu places herself in almost requires her to have relaxed, straightened hair. Unfortunately, having relaxed hair is a western standard of beauty that African women are subjected to constantly. Relaxed hair appears in magazines, on television, and just about any corner of popular cultural where black women are relevant. For her to cut off her hair despite the knowledge of employers potentially discriminating against her is courageous.
Secondly, removing the layer that allows Ifemelu to be further accepted as an American for the sake of individuality is fearless to say the least. Going natural and allowing people to perceive you the way you truly are is a scary thought.
I have written before about some thoughts I have pertaining to hair, but surprisingly I have yet to write anything too masturbatory about my own hair, so let’s do it. I started growing my hair out a little less than two years ago, and it that time it has gone well past my shoulders. Most American men do not have hair that goes well past their shoulders. I take good care of it, and now and then I receive small compliments for it, but initially growing it out was tough for me. Constant reminders from my family and friends that my hair looked terrible nearly pushed me to cutting it. In no way are my struggles comparable to those of a Nigerian woman immigrating to America, but I understand the feeling of exposing myself to criticism.
Changing the way you look, however insignificant it may be, teaches you how to be comfortable with yourself no matter your appearance.
I have been growing out my hair for nearly twenty-two months, and at times I have considered chopping it all off because of how much of a hassle it can be. I have the average head of Caucasian hair for the most part; my strands are naturally straight in some places and wavy in others. Washing it and conditioning it properly in addition to brushing eats time away from my day, and I’ve spent my fair share of time sitting in a parked car in front of the barber contemplating a cut. Once, while ranting about my hair struggles to a friend, he suggested that I style my hair into dreadlocks. “You can lock your hair once and never have to mess with it again,” he said. First, I told him that having locs doesn’t automatically mean I won’t need to spend time taking care of my hair, and that I like my hair the way it is and can handle taking care of it. Second, I told him that locs were not for me as an individual, but more importantly, that locs were not for my race. Period.
Dreadlocks, or locs, are twisted rope-like strands of hair. They have existed in cultures around the globe as far back as 3600 years in places like Egypt, India, Greece, and Northern Europe among others. The history of dreadlocks is one of spiritual association, political resistance, and, unfortunately, cultural appropriation. Though locs have been popular in many African cultures throughout history, they recently became popularized in the Western Hemisphere through figures in the Rastafarian religious movement, such as Bob Marley. To those unfamiliar with the history of dreadlocks,primarily whites, the hairstyle was seen as trendy and available for all. When whites with locs were met with resistance from people who held spiritual or cultural value in the hairstyle, they argued, and continue to argue, that their European ancestors had worn locs throughout history as well. Though this is backed up by historical evidence, the “ownership” of dreadlocks isn’t necessarily based on who has worn them the most throughout history. It is about who has been privileged the most throughout history.
This argument is not about hair, it is about power. Black people, oppressed people, have identified with this hairstyle for reasons very important to them, all the while under the oppression of Europeans. So when a white man or white woman decides to wear their hair in locs, even after centuries of Europeans criticizing African descendants of their “unkempt” and “dirty” hair, they undermine the cultural value they possess. Thus, it is important for whites to be mindful of their privilege in relation to way they style their hair. Even if they’re tired of brushing it.