The politics of black hair: an Afrocentric perspective

Have you ever asked to touch a Black person's hair? Dr. Kathomi Gatwiri discusses why this might not be appropriate for most Black people.
woman standing and touching wall

I can’t believe it’s almost 6 years since I wrote this article for the conversation. These 800 words saw my inbox receive multiple weekly enquiries to speak on radio, TV or podcasts about the ‘politics of hair’ for close to a year. I received more invitations to speak about hair than any other topic I’ve ever written about. And I’ve written about a lot of things. Obstetric fistulas. Childbirth trauma. Racial trauma. Racial microagressions. Whiteness. Anti-Blackness and much more. After a while, I stopped speaking about hair. It was exhausting me. There were other things to speak about. So hair didn’t ‘feel’ important to expend my thinking time on. Except it is. Once in a while, I see how hair is a provocation. So, this time, I bring you a revised version of my Conversation article for AWGSA members. Enjoy!

A childhood context about hair

I grew up in a small village in Kenya.  It was common then that ‘village girls’ kept their hair short and ‘city girls’ grew their hair.  Our lifestyle in the village placed long hair on the shelf of inconvenience and distraction- so we were not given much option but to shave it.  Sometimes, my grandmother, a primary school teacher at my local school, would reprimand me if my hair grew out ‘too much’. She would then grab a pair of scissors,  other times a razor blade and scrape my scalp clean. ‘I don’t want you embarrassing me at the school…It’s manageable when it’s short’- she’d say.  We never really questioned why we were not allowed to grow our hair, but at almost every school assembly, we were punished if we had not shaved our heads. We were told it was to keep us looking tidy.  It wasn’t long before I realised I was not allowed to have a certain kind of hair- a story I will have to tell you another time.  

It's not 'on god': missionary whispers about kinky hair

Revisiting that phase of my childhood with fresh eyes reveals a problematic history. When colonial education started in Kenya, most schools were run by Christian missionaries who constructed a singular narrative about African hair: unsightly, ungodly and untameable. They demanded that girls attending Christian schools cut their hair to the scalp. They attached morality and ‘goodness’ to hair. As I came to understand it as an adult, this psychology of black hair, was rooted in antiblackness and unhealthy ideals about black womanhood and our overall bodily aesthetics.

At such a young age, cutting our hair somehow minimised evidence of our ‘would-be’ womanhood. It was a covert move to reduce our desirability to African men, who were also constructed as primal beasts with no sense of sexual control by the dominant colonial discourse.

To this end, artistic hairstyles were banned or criminalised in schools and some churches. By enforcing these rules, the missionaries were able to successfully sexualise hair and use it as a tool of control and punishment in a way that Africans had never done. 

The meaning of hair to Africans extends beyond looks and sexuality. For example, in the Maasai community, hairstyles and braid patterns can signify marital status, class, age and other social roles. Braids and threading to protect Afro hair was an important bonding ritual between girls and their mothers and aunties that was well-documented pre-colonisation

Blockbusters busting hair myths

In the Marvel movie Black Panther, natural hair is portrayed in a way I haven’t seen on big block-buster screens before. Hair is used provocatively for the Western gaze- as if to say, “This is normal”. 

Different afro hairstyles are also used as social identifiers that define the intersectional locations of various characters. The queen and the older women wear elaborate dreadlocks, and the warriors are bald and bold. Nakia, a secret agent and the king’s love interest wears Bantu knots, an artistic African hairstyle. Shuri, a young tech genius, wears braids, which are popular among younger black women. 

The film also uses hair symbolically to show the rejection of patriarchal and racial expectations shaping beauty standards. In a particularly powerful scene, Okoye, a warrior and army general, rips off her wig and throws it at an adversary during a fight. In doing so, she rejects such accessories, often used to soften women’s blackness by hiding their natural hair.

Just google it!!!!!

It’s 2023, and still, a simple Google search of ‘unprofessional hair styles’ is dominated by black women‘s hair. A search for “professional hairstyles” is populated by white women’s straight hair. Social and cultural messaging about hair and beauty has been clear: to be presentable, attractive, and professional, black women need to ‘tame’ their hair.

In her book Hair Matters: Beauty, Power and Black Women’s Consciousness, Ingrid Banks argues that ‘for Black women, desirable and undesirable hair is measured against white beauty standards’. To date, black women lament the ongoing hair bias they face during interviews or in the workplace when they wear their hair in its natural form. Policing and prohibiting our hair  just being the way its meant to be is a way of enforcing conformity with white beauty standards. Our hair continues to be seen as an aesthetic-  threatening – a symbol of difference – or an object of curiosity. 

Due in part to these messages and the internalised hatred for our kinky hair, black women often resort to using harsh chemicals and extreme heat to tame their “unruly” hair. These methods can not only damage hair but also cause physical discomfort and pain. Just like skin-lightening creams, hair-straightening products have overpopulated the market — with companies capitalising on the message that Black women require fixing.

Can I touch it? Mmm.. hard pass thanks

Not too long ago, I turned around to face the white woman whose hands were already deep in my scalp. ‘it feels like a warm sponge’- she said really impressed with her ability to describe the texture of my hair.

Well of course, I did what any feminist would do in that moment. I put my unsanitized hand right into her hair. It felt glorious not to perform  niceness or politeness to this stranger who was touching me without consent in public. I acted on the taglines of white feminism, ‘You don’t owe men who disrespect you niceness’–  which I often think is a twisted paradox because of how conveniently white women seem to forget the way in which they continually transgress racial boundaries with Black and Indigenous women. Interestingly, they forget  that these catchy taglines  apply to them too. So in a moment of mild irritation, I took their advice and I ‘matched this woman’s energy’ 

My mamushka would be very proud of me for what I did next because she did not raise me to do things in halves- so I said ‘ it feels greasy’.  She looked offended-  and shocked that I, a Black woman had the audacity to do to her exactly what she’d done to me. She yelled at me. I told her that I was merely mirroring what  she had done to me. She refuted my ‘right’ to touch her by saying, ‘ it is not the same‘ arguing fiercely that she was ‘doing it as  a compliment .’ When I reversed the gaze, and by implication, the disrespect, this woman was able to ‘feel’ immediately in her body  that it was wrong for someone to do this to her. Yet she continued to operate on the assumption that her body wasn’t accessible to me, yet mine was to her. 

I giggled in amusement at the ridiculousness of white curiosity and the entitlement it demands. And as she stomped off angrily complaining about how ‘Australia has gone to shit’  the irony of it all was obviously not lost on me. Think of it this way: is it okay to go around asking people if you can feel their breasts, butts, and biceps simply because you are curious ‘if they are real?’ Okay, maybe that’s too extreme- how about asking people if you can touch the clothes they are wearing simply because they look good in them- still weird- yes. Okay, you get the point.  Hair is the same. It is attached to our bodies and  it should not be made accessible to you  simply because you are curious about it. 

Hair, consent & whiteness: An unlikely combo

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of growing hair that looks ‘different’ in Australia is learning how to negotiate the constant attention it draws to you – the unwarranted touching ‘just to feel it’ to the unending questions about whether it is ‘real’. The real question here is not whether or not you can touch Black people’s hair, but rather, why do you want to touch strangers?

The next time you are really tempted to ask a Black person if you can touch their hair- please pause and ask why. It is already difficult for us to say no without being met with disappointment, which can very quickly turn into racial abuse. Just like in the DARVO framework, whiteness reverses itself as the victim and in return, we are called angry- aggressive and unapproachable when we don’t let you touch us for amusement. If we do say yes, most of the time, it’s to avoid the aforementioned dynamic, which adds to our racial fatigue.

The random and constant touching of our hair (and, by extension, our bodies) by white people reveals the threads of an unspoken expectation that our bodies should be available to teach white audiences and to quench their curiosity about us. Unless you have access to our bodies in a consensual and safe relationship, you do not know us well enough to touch us.

Hopefully, as we create more intersectional conversations about bodies and their various expressions in the white-hetero-capitalist-patriarchy, our hair may stop being interpreted as a threatening symbol or an exotic ‘mark of difference’ – because it really isn’t. It’s just hair, after all.