Colorism and Hair-ism

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Last week I was walking in Harlem to a hair salon to get a much-needed hair cut. As I was walking, I noticed that there was at least one hair salon on practically every block. Some salons had no speciality; they did every kind of hair. Many specialized in hair braiding. I snapped the above picture of one of the hair salons I encountered on my walk. As you can see, it features a variety of Black women with braided hair, likely accentuating the different styling options the salon is capable of doing.
When I first looked at the picture, I thought it looked pretty cool. I thought that in addition to showing off the hairstyles, it was awesome to see a visual representation of the many different skin tones that make up the Black community. I walked away after that thought. A few seconds later, I turned around again to take a closer look at the picture. I noticed two main things about the collage on my second glance. First, the most prominent faces in terms of both size and eye contact are those of light-skinned women. Second, the darkest skinned women often had their heads facing down and there’s not as much eye contact. Now, I get that as a salon, the main objective is to feature the hair of these women and men, and the darker skinned women often had complicated and intricate braids on the top of their heads. But why are they all like that? Was the decision intentional to create the collage in this way? Did subconscious colorist prejudices lead to the way it was created?
As I continued walking, I kept thinking about hair in the Black community in general. It’s such a personal (and political) decision for many Black women — whether to wear their hair natural (going against Eurocentric beauty ideals), relaxed (chemically straightened, so fitting more into societal ideals), braided, etc. It’s interesting because I think hair and colorism go hand in hand in terms of how they relate to society’s broader standards of beauty. In terms of complexion, society says lighter is better. In terms of what constitutes “good hair,” according to society, I think of the type of hair that naturally doesn’t have much kink to it — the opposite of my own chemically processed hair.
Interestingly, I came across an article from January that explores the role of colorism within the natural hair community. The author discusses how “the preoccupation with longer, looser curl types” is prevalent and indicative of the influence of White beauty standards within the community that supposedly seeks to challenge them. The author writes:

The message is subtle, but profound. If you’re a black woman with natural hair that is considered “nappy,” your hair isn’t beautiful in its natural state. It’s only beautiful with heavy manipulation to emulate looser natural hair patterns. And if you’re a dark-skinned black woman with long, loose curls — you must be “mixed with something.” . . . But why the “face” of natural hair has become light-skin and loose curls is . . . worth exploring. In its own way, it’s adding to the ongoing erasure of darker black women, and it’s perpetuating the idea that even when we choose to embrace our natural hair, we’re still not good enough.

I think the author so spot on here. While it can be an empowering and important decision to wear natural hair, it’s so unfortunate that not everyone can see themselves adequately and positively represented within the natural hair community. We always need to be mindful of how much space we take up and whose opportunities we may be taking away. The natural hair movement needs to be more inclusive of all complexions and hair types because if they’re really going to challenge Eurocentric beauty standards, they can’t compromise. They need to show that all of the different types of hair are beautiful and that women of all shades can rock their natural hair.

2 thoughts on “Colorism and Hair-ism

  1. This is so interesting, Brittany. Thank you for changing how I will interact and think about these types of billboards/advertisements when I pass them–it’s interesting, when I first looked at the picture you posted I thought “oh, those women are mostly all light-skinned–that’s not okay.” And I think that speaks to the power of your (and of each of our)blogs. That my brain recognized what it thought was an ism perhaps before/in a more conscious and important way than it would have had your blog not enabled me to consciously think about this ism in the world. (Also- have you read Americanah? That’s what this also made me think of. It’s a BEAUTIFUL book, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

    On how Ifemelu’s hair is important in the novel

    “I like to say that this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair. In particular I want to talk about natural black hair, and how it’s not just hair. I mean, I’m interested in hair in sort of a very aesthetic way, just the beauty of hair, but also in a political way: what it says, what it means.

    “[Ifemelu] is going for an interview and she’s told that if she really wants to get the job — and she is qualified for the job — but she’s advised that the best thing to do would be to take the braids out and get her hair straightened, because that’s the way to look more ‘professional.’

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  2. Thanks so much Brittany! Black hair is indeed so complex and political and I’ve recently been exploring natural hair and its most recent “movement.” Especially the concepts that A. it does have a face of light skin and lose curls and B. the curl patterns that are acceptable. Many who claim to be natural wouldn’t go outside directly after washing their hair but put product, retwist their hair, blowdry it, etc. It’s interesting that even the strongest women who are able to consciously reject certain ideals of Whiteness still have some aspects internalized.


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