As a Black mother, there is no shortage of moments that leave me saying, “WTF, America?!” You’d be shocked at the things you have to worry about when you’re a marginalized parent. As a black mom, it’s hard out here. I was prepared for racism to show itself in a wide variety of ways. But I don’t think anyone ever informed me that Black hair would be such a point of contention in our lives.
For many Black Americans, hair is especially significant. Even when our hue can “pass,” our hair is often one of the undeniable signs that someone somewhere in our bloodline was of African descent.
But hair is much more than a racial indicator — it’s a source of style and creativity. For nearly as long as Black people have been legally free, our hair has been both regulated and politicized.
If you wear your hair straight, folks question your acceptance of Blackness. If your hair is in an afro you risk being perceived as militant or rebellious. The styles in between — twists, dreads, weaves, the whole set — experience the same level of scrutiny.
Hair is one of Black America’s best-kept secrets and for many, that’s worth emulating — and in some cases, banning.
I was disgusted, but not surprised, when an image featuring the updated “summer rules” of the Outdoor Recreation Center of Wendell started making its rounds on social media. At first, I thought it was a joke. I rolled my eyes after realizing the post was first shared on my birthday – thanks for ruining my day, racism. But more than anything, it made me think about the experiences I’d had as a young girl who was regularly socialized to think my natural hair wasn’t good enough. It also intensified my determination to make sure my children wouldn’t experience the hair-related racism and internalized shame as I had as a child.
“[N]o baggy pants, no dread-locks/weaves/extensions or revealing clothing will be permitted or you will be asked to leave,” the flyer said. It wasn’t up long before the interwebs began dragging the hell out of these racist AF regulations.
The owners of the recreation center did their best to save face and paint the new rules as something advised by maintenance not an indicator of racism. Hilariously, the “I’m not racist” owners had a graphic on their Facebook page indicating that between a confederate flag and sagging pants, the sagging pants was the most offensive of the two. But, suuuuure, no racism to see here, folks.
This kinda crap isn’t new. For much of society, Black children’s free hair is perceived as unruly and a symbolic precursor to unruly behavior. And the post took me back to my own experiences with this. I found myself reflecting on memories of being told I had to get my hair straightened for holidays and ceremonies. I remember being frustrated when I was told my two-strand twists weren’t acceptable for my high school graduation. There was no possible way that I could think about the politics and limitations of Black hair without remembering all those times I panicked wondering how I could hide my hair or make it more “presentable” when attending job interviews after college.
When my loved ones, Black elders like my mom and aunts, told me that I shouldn’t wear my hair that way to special events, I thought it was about me. I thought it was a suggestion that I as a person and my hair specifically wasn’t good enough to wear naturally.
But now that I’ve seen the countless headlines of Black children being punished and violated over their hair, I understand. That understanding was solidified as I read stories of Black adults who’ve missed out on job opportunities simply for wearing their hair in its natural state.
It’s ridiculous to think that in 2019, we need legislation that validates the right for Black people to wear Black hair. But it’s true. We live in a society where we need permission from white people to show up authentically. If not, it can cost us everything.
And that hurts Black kids. It pushes us into violations of “acceptable” (read: white) standards. It limits our ability to show up as our unaltered selves to school. It is weaponized as a reason for us to be labeled as unqualified for employment opportunities despite full competency. And it leaves us questioning the value of Blackness in a world that bends over backward for what commodifiable qualities we can offer but has no room for Black people.
In an even more ridiculous chain of events, the owners of the rec center that posted the rules are threatening to take legal action regarding the claims of racism. Because, as we all know, being called a racist is much more painful than experiencing racism firsthand.
I’m frustrated that in this day and age we’re still dealing with dog whistle racism. You know, those messages where people are trying to discourage the participation of a particular group without calling the group out directly.
But the issue goes far beyond Black childhood and extends into Black adulthood. There are still tons of stories featuring Black adults whose employment have been in jeopardy based on how they were their hair. Truthfully, anxieties around white standards of professionalism and the expectation to have straight or tamed curls play a significant role in my decision not to enter the traditional workplace.
I didn’t want to be petted. I didn’t want to be stared at, reached for, and groped. And I was not comfortable with feeling like my performance was judged within the context of my appearance. For Black kids, hair is one of many gateways to racism and limited access to what the world has to offer.
I find it hard to believe that the rec center owners didn’t realize Black children would be disproportionately discouraged from pool use on a policy that explicitly called on Black hairstyles, like dreads.
But they forgot something. It is 2019, and people are more vigilant when it comes to social and racial issues than ever. These days, if you do something stupid you’ll get called out by Black folks and allies alike. I will love my hair regardless of what anyone says.
We’ve been here too many times. Black families already know what’s up and hopefully, they’ll never have another Black customer.
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