From as early as I can remember, society has been arguing about the varying levels of hair politics. From discussing if perming is cultural appropriation to challenging the notion that women can’t rock a light caesar, hair has always stirred up controversy especially among communities of color. One of my favorites of all time, though, is the infamous good hair versus bad hair debate.
People have been categorizing hair as good or bad for hundreds of years, but the term “good hair” was coined in the times of colonization. During the mass genocide we now know as slavery, not only were billions of colored people enslaved against their will, millions of black women were raped for generations creating a caste of “mixed” slaves. These mulatto slaves were favored over darker slaves because of their lighter skin, “softer” (europeanized) features, and smoother hair. They were given preferential treatment by society as a whole, often being the only slaves allowed in the house, being recruited to assist the “master” in punishing darker slaves and in some cases even being allowed their freedom. Naturally, the darker slaves grew tired of the discrimination which created envy and anger toward their lighter-skinned counterparts, leading to deep-seeded internalized hatred of themselves and their “bad” African features such as dark skin, wide nose, round lips, wide hips, round butt, and especially kinky hair.
I remember being a child, listening to my family members talk about hair and being told that good hair or “pelo bueno”(in Dominican) was straight/wavy, long and silky smooth and that bad hair or “pelo malo” was short, dry and kinky, like mine. My mother justified relaxing my hair with countless stories about how it was too much to handle, how much prettier I was with straight hair and how, ultimately, my natural texture made me look too black, which was an undesirable trait in my culture.
It wasn’t until I turned 19 and started doing research on the many hazardous chemicals in relaxers that I decided to stop processing my hair with it. The racial and societal understandings of hair politics in my community didn’t quite hit me until my natural hair started growing in. Suddenly everyone in my family was reminded of who we really were, it was as if those few inches of natural curl growing out of my scalp was too much of a reality check and they wanted to isolate me so that they wouldn’t have to face themselves through my growth and self-acceptance. I remember hearing every excuse in the book regarding why I should go back to using relaxers, but no one ever took the time to acknowledge that I had chosen the path less walked in order to truly find myself.
At the same time, though, I also remember how good it felt to be real to myself, to have made the choice to not only stand up to my family, but to everyone who had ever thought nappy wasn’t happy. I felt like a woman, I felt like a BLACK woman. Where I once felt like a nobody who faded into the background, going natural rewarded me with my womanhood. I looked in the mirror and saw who I really was, for once in my life I felt genuine. Because for so long, perming my hair felt like a self-inflicted act of hatred, like I was paying a stylist to turn my hair into an open-ended apology letter to racism and internalized oppression, when in reality I was never sorry for being black, I was proud! I AM PROUD. In a society that has systemically denied me access to my African roots, I have found an open window by going natural. Releasing my attachment to the chemical process that made me look more convenient, likable and in essence WHITE, helped me release the preconceived notions society had set for me, the same notions that have trapped my people for centuries. More importantly, rocking my ‘fro is an act of resistance historically due to its popularity during the Civil Rights Era and the Black Panther movement. That’s why I feel so much judgement when I unapologetically walk down the street in my active ‘fight the power’ vibes, because people don’t like to be reminded of the darkness of our past and an afro stands tall and proud, no shame at all.
After I sitting with my journey, I’ve come to realize that there’s no such thing as good or bad hair. Wether you rock it curly, straight, in a bun, conrows or in braids, don’t allow yourself to be defined by it (unless that’s what you want). Hair is what you make of it. While I won’t (and can’t) neglect the real-life discrimination and hate against the natural community, I’m also not going to allow my self-esteem to be victimized by anyone else’s views about me or my hair. I may not be able to control the ignorance of others, but I can control my own and in doing so I’ve decided to affirm everday that
I am not my hair,
I am not this skin,
I am the soul that lives within.