This is the second post from our new column highlighting the voices and experiences of students of color on Brown’s campus. In this entry, Raquel Bryant ’15 discusses her mixed hair.
“I am not my hair.”
As a woman of mixed race—a “blendiva,” if you will—my life has been filled with the “What are you?” question, being called “exotic” and, of course, filling in the “Other” bubble when asked about my race/ethnicity. Full disclosure: I identify as mixed race: my dad is black and my mom is Peruvian, and apparently when you mix those up you get me and my siblings. But, you know what else you get? A spectrum of hair textures that neither parent quite knows how to deal with: not as kinky as my dad thought it should be and nowhere near as straight as my mom dreamed it would be. I spent mornings before elementary school with a spray bottle, a wide tooth comb, tears in my eyes and a very frustrated parent. But I am not alone in my quest to understand my hair. Curly girls of all skin colors and many women of color, especially black women, have been experimenting, inventing and innovating in the realm of hair products for decades.
My friends love to ask me, “How do you know so much about hair?” and I think back to the hours I have spent reading reviews, watching YouTube videos, and listening to my older sister rant about hair. My knowledge of hair didn’t stem from general interest, it grew out of necessity. I can’t just walk into CVS and buy a shampoo or conditioner that is good for my hair. The same way that “nude” tights are made for a certain type of nude, most mainstream hair products are made for a certain type of hair. (Ever notice the “ethnic” hair care section? #problematic.) I had to do research and experiment and talk to other women of color with similar hair types to find out what would work best for me. In other words, I most definitely did not “wake up like dis.”
Most mornings before elementary school, the battle with my hair ended with a giant puff on my head. And right there, in elementary school, is where I first became aware of my “different” hair. What really stuck out to me was that my hair seemed to defy gravity while all the other little girls had straight hair that laid down flat. My hair wasn’t controlled by headbands, I couldn’t run my fingers through it, and it was definitely not blonde. I found myself lusting after the silky, shiny, flat hair I was surrounded by.
Over the years I tried lots of different styles, from “Just for Me” relaxers, to box braids and cornrows, until I finally settled on a straight and smooth style—achieved with a perm—that I wore throughout high school. The summer before Brown is when I first became interested in the Natural Hair Movement. Together with my sisters, we bought a bunch of new products and tried them out on our hair. I was motivated to go off to college with a more progressive style. I arrived at Brown with my typical summer look: unpressed, relaxed hair, resulting in beachy waves. I participated in TWTP and I can remember calling my sister after the first day and telling her about all of the beautiful natural styles I had seen. I was feeling great about the decisions I was making with my hair.
But still, once it was time to go out and “look nice,” I felt like I needed to straighten my hair. So I did. Most of the black women I know back home, including most of my family and the other young women in my high school, wore straight styles similar to mine. Brown was really the first time I saw natural hair in any kind of abundance. It was awesome to see students and professors with amazing natural looks, but I was still stuck in my straight hair thinking.
I debated back and forth with myself over how I should be wearing my hair, and I did some more investigating with my sisters until I discovered that I could continue to straighten my hair without a perm. Aside from wearing natural styles, the Natural Movement also encourages the abandonment of chemical regimes like perms. So as a team, my sisters and I decided to quit the creamy crack and rediscover our natural hair, something that I hadn’t been acquainted with since 8th grade. I’ve been “clean and sober” for almost three years. While my sisters have fully embraced the curly girl life, I still choose to wear my hair in a straight style sans chemicals—but don’t worry, warm weather is coming and the curls always make an appearance! Being at Brown, the full spectrum of hair choices is represented, making it the perfect environment for trying out new styles. I am inspired by the women I see workin’ it around campus, whether they have braids, curls or straight hair.
So now you might be thinking, “Raquel, what is all the big deal? It’s just hair!” Well, there are politics to hair and normative ideas about hair that can be damaging to WOC. It would be wrong to think that hair is just a part of a “look”; hair is a part of our society that reflects our social hierarchy and, you guessed it, institutionalized racism. We are being kicked out of school for our hair, fired for our hair, and told by the media that our hair is not okay. Women, in general, are constantly being told what is “beautiful”, but these expected standards of beauty are not necessarily accessible to all women, especially to women of color and black women. Our hair is different, so it makes sense that the way we style it is different. But somehow natural styles like afros, braids and locks do not fit into our societal ideas of beautiful hair. Red carpet events are usually full of black celebrities sporting weaves, wigs and relaxers, in a way that seems to perpetuate the idea that looking your best equates with having straight hair. Although some celebrities might wear their hair in a natural style for a movie or in their daily life, once it’s glam time, their natural hair is hidden and traded for the more traditionally beautiful and professional look.
Last year, a photoshopped image of Michelle Obama with natural curls circulated around the internet, exciting many people, including my sisters and me. To us, First Lady Obama wearing her natural curls symbolized an official acceptance of natural hair. If she could embrace her curls and stand by the President of the United States, we all can! But, in reality, Michelle sports a sleek bob because today, natural hair is seen as a radical and sometimes political expression. This is why we don’t see natural hair on the red carpet or in the CNN newsroom. This lack of representation leads to alienation and other-ing. If I am never shown with natural, black hair, how am I supposed to celebrate it? We are constantly being shown “white” hair, reinforcing the idea that only a certain type of hair is beautiful.
With all the good that has come from the Natural Hair Movement, it has also created a bit of a hierarchy in some communities where women with natural hair are shaming those that wear straight styles. To that I say, a black woman is no less of a black woman for choosing to straighten her hair or alter her hair in any way, but we should not feel pressure to conform or wear our hair in what is perceived to be the socially acceptable way. Our hair is ours and we should feel free to do what we will with it, regardless of societal or community pressures.
The bottom line is, you would be hard-pressed to find any two people with the same length, style or texture of hair. There is no comparing the diversity we find atop people’s heads, so don’t try! Just remember, what’s inside my head is more important than what’s on top of it! And in the words of her highness, India.Aire, “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am a soul that lives within.”