I’m a nerdy Black girl, always have been. Although I was a cheerleader in high school and participated in marching band, I found creative ways to blend into the background, never bringing attention to myself. This mindset followed me into adulthood which I’ve explored in previous articles. For some reason, trying to assimilate into mainstream culture was more important than being authentic. This belief system bled into every area of my life including how I styled my hair.
Most people are aware of the strenuous relationship Black women have with their hair—we started with the hot comb as little girls in an addition to “creamy crack” as adults. All of this was in an attempt to blend into a society that rejected our ethnicity. My hair journey took a turn when I moved to Los Angeles; I was relaxing my own hair (which was problematic in itself) when after a few months it all broke off. I promptly turned to kinky twists as a protective style and kept them in for two years. I didn’t have a desire to go natural but I was wary of relaxing my hair again, so I kept it braided.
There has been a very successful natural hair movement that I’ve always kept tabs on. With the advent of Pinterest, Instagram and natural hair blogs, I spent hours looking at hundreds of beautiful Black women and their natural hair. I convinced myself that their hair was different from mine that somehow these styles wouldn’t work for me. But it wasn’t the styles that held me back, it was the fear of standing out. I was unable to let go of the Eurocentric beauty standards that had been ingrained into me since I was a young girl. Kinky hair equaled unkempt whereas straight hair equaled beautiful.
Something had to change.
Finding a competent hairstylist in LA is more difficult than one would think; thankfully, I found a very talented and sweet lady to braid my hair. I stayed with her for two years until she abruptly moved away. Still unconvinced of wearing my natural hair, I found another stylist but after a month the braids looked ratty. I stared at myself in the mirror and realized it was time to become my most authentic self. So during Thanksgiving break, with no appointments made, I took the scissors to my braids and released my natural hair.
I looked into the mirror, rubbing my cotton candy-like ‘fro, and started to cry; it was the freest I ever felt in my life. It was like taking a long awaited deep breath—there I was in my natural state and I loved it. I was anxious when walking into work because I thought I had to shield questions about my otherness but I didn’t, I was met with fervor and excitement. Everyone loved it accept the one person whose opinion mattered to me the most: my white guy friend.
His thoughts shouldn’t have mattered but they did. Like the girl wanting to blend in, if he liked it then somehow going natural was okay. After Snapchatting him a pic, I followed up, asking what he thought. He avoided the answer saying he saw it; I pushed further, asking for an answer. He said, “well, you know Black women and their hair, so I don’t know what to say.” I’m sure someone else would’ve laughed it off but I couldn’t—yes, Black women are sensitive about their hair but I wasn’t just any Black woman, I was his friend. In that moment, I felt reduced to nothing but my hair and skin color.
Jacqueline Woodson recently won a National Book Award in the Young Adult category for her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming”. Her friend, Daniel Handler introduced her to the stage by saying, “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon; just let that sink in a moment.” Woodson wrote a beautiful response to Handler’s so-called joke for the New York Times. She said, “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from.”
I realize the incident with my friend wasn’t as severe as Woodson’s but I empathized with her. By reducing me to a Black woman and her hair, he asked me to take a step back from our friendship and remember I’m a Black woman—like that’s something I could ever forget. As I drove home, I couldn’t escape his words. It was why I didn’t want to go natural in the first place—I didn’t want to be seen as an outsider. I wanted to be accepted, to assimilate into mainstream culture.
The process of assimilation strips away our essence in order to fit a standard. It’s like when darker skin Black girls rub their skin raw or when Black women try not to “get angry” in public. Those strings of fabric make who we are and if we keep tugging on the threads, the whole cloth falls apart.
After that conversation with my friend I realized I will always be an “other” and that’s not my problem. There’s a quote that says, “Why are you trying to fit in when you were born to stand out?” That quote means everything to me; I spent a large part of my life trying to fit in when I was born to be different; therefore, by going natural, I am strengthening the threads in the fabric of my authenticity.
Walking in our true selves matter; your authenticity may not be linked to your hair like mine but there may be a thread of your personality or looks that you’ve been tugging at in order to blend in. Living in a world that doesn’t appreciate us for who we are gives us an opportunity to believe in and validate ourselves. Yes, there are people out there who seek to remind us of where we come from, but there are also others who are amazed by our greatness. Ignore the haters and embrace being your true self!
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