Why I am not my hair… but it is my protest

It’s Sunday afternoon and for me, like most black women, it’s wash day. My hair is rustling under a plastic cap, absorbing a “pre-poo” before the real work begins. The weekend activities of black women are vastly different to those of their white counterparts.

mask
Plastic bag realness

Growing up in South London, surrounded by other black children, it was normal to spend 8 hours in the hairdressers getting braids, or sit like a statue in my grandma’s kitchen trying to avoid being burned by the hot comb! It was only when I moved to Exeter (4 hours away by train, a million miles away culturally) for university that  I became aware of how different my hair rituals (amongst other things) were. In a predominantly white area, I became conscious of the time I spent doing my hair, I would get it relaxed on trips home and then mimic my white friends, I stopped plaiting it up at night and I NEVER wore a satin cap in front of my friends! I was already so aware of my differences and I didn’t want to make myself stand out more.

Fast forward four years, I moved back home and realised exactly how exhausting it had been to conceal such a big part of myself. I transitioned back to my natural hair and took full advantage of the fact that I was able to find hairdressers that weren’t afraid to touch my hair! I focused on treating my hair like the crown that it is, I treated it, steamed it, braided it and oiled it. I also embraced all the styles I had neglected while away: box braids, long wigs, short wigs, faux locs, twist outs, braid outs… the list goes on.

I got a job at a well known, large professional services firm and realised that, despite being in London, I would go back to being the only black woman in most the rooms I entered. I didn’t want to become the token black girl again: called on whenever  white people want some”cultural entertainment” (read: twerking) but ignored when her life isn’t quite as fun / palatable (read: microaggressions and racism). I could already imagine the questions I’d get the first time I changed my hair;

“How did it grow so long?”

“Can I touch it?”

(before waiting for my response) “It’s so soft and springy!”

“Can mine do that?”

These questions are exhausting at the best of times. They serve to point out, over and over again, how “different” I am. That what is normal to me is novel to the majority. That I am not the norm. When you are starting out in a new place, it’s worse. All I wanted was to be recognised for my talent and potential, I didn’t want to be known as “the black girl” or “the girl whose hair always changes.” I fought a constant battle between who I truly was, and who I thought I needed to be, between my home self and my work self, between the black woman and the professional.

It felt as though the two parts of me could not coexist. I’m sure many of you remember the news that googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” brings up photos of black women with natural hair, whereas the opposite search will bring back pictures of perfectly coiffed white women. You may even have seen the condemnation of Grazia and Evening Standard magazine after they erased the natural hair of Lupita Nyongo and Solange Knowles respectively. After seeing these articles, I had an epiphany: black women are still not fully accepted, and I can’t wait for the dial to move before I live confidently as myself.

So I started to change my wig more often, and I experimented more with colour. Dark colours at first, but then I branched out and I wore the colours I’d always dreamed of; I wore green braids and a lilac wig. Each time a changed my hair, I loved the way it looked, but I was still anxious. I would mentally prepare myself for unwanted comments and strange looks at work, but I would take a deep breath and walk into the office with my head held high. I had to prove that my hair did not negatively affect my performance, on the contrary being my true self gave me the energy to apply myself fully.

wedding
Box braids are one of my fav protective styles!

There are always those who don’t truly understand you, but they should never stop you from living your life authentically. I have had multiple comments from well-meaning, white male partners who have advised me to ensure I am remembered “for the right reasons.” Well, if I am remembered for any reason at my current workplace, I want it to be because I was great, not in spite of my “strange” hairstyles, but because of them. I don’t want my younger brothers to live in a world where they are asked to leave school because their hairstyles are inappropriate. I want to live in a world where my children read this blog and don’t understand it. I want them to be confused as to why anyone would ever be judged on culturally significant hairstyles. I want them to wear their crowns with pride, and so I have to continue to be me, all the while, protesting the status quo.

Last week I caught a portion of Question Time, and the usual panel of MPs and journalists was joined by George the Poet. He valiantly attempted to inform the, mainly white, audience that the UK press had used racism to fuel the anti-immigration rhetoric that was a key pillar in the Brexit campaign. A smug male audience member asked him if he had ever read any statistics because “the UK is the least racist country in Europe”. Aside from one brave muslim lady who defended the experiences of herself and other minorities in the country, the whole audience supported his statement. I realised in that moment that I was still considered as an outsider in the country of my birth. It is a lonely realisation, one that can leave you without hope.

A life without hope is no life at all, so I will continue to push forward and fight for equity and representation for all. Which is why, while I am not my hair, it will continue to be my protest.

Right, I better go, it’s time to detangle!

God bless x

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