Policing Black Hair Is Society’s Way Of Policing Our Existence
Every time I listen to the soulful voice of India Arie singing the words ‘I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within’ I feel such a resonance with the mantra. At the same time, I am saddened that black people are repeatedly told by society that they are their hair.
Chikayzea Flanders is among several black school children who have been subjected to arbitrary policies about their hair from schools that clearly preoccupy themselves with things that shouldn’t impact a child’s education. He was ordered by his school to cut his dreadlocks or risk being kept in isolation from the rest of his class.
His mum, Tuesday Flanders, rightfully took legal action against the school’s demands and won. To order such a thing of Chikayzea is to dismiss the cultural and historical significance of his hair, and there could be no justification for such a demand that isn’t inextricably linked to racism.
It was argued that being Rastafarian, Chikayzea’s hair is an intrinsic part of his belief system. It’s a fair point, but one that frustrates me – because a black person’s hair choices should not need to be validated to appease others. This incident doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Black people have manipulated their hair in many forms for centuries, just to appear ‘neat and tidy’, lest they are labeled as savage or unkempt. In 2014, the American army banned black female soldiers from wearing natural hairstyles, even though looks such as cornrows were more efficient for the soldiers to wear.
Met with uproar, the policy was quickly scrapped. Black hair is political. The natural hair movement was born out of the need for black women to embrace their hair in its natural form, after spending centuries assimilating to the demands forced upon us by societies that promote Eurocentric beauty ideals. (Picture: Kelechi Okafor) Another example is the incident at Pretoria High School for Girls in Gauteng, South Africa; in 2016, the school demanded that pupils chemically straighten their hair to avoid ‘untidy afros’.
This sparked a debate in the country on racism still being present and the need for a wider conversation on the issue. Decades ago, American writer Audre Lorde wrote an essay called ‘Is Your Hair Still Political’, where she details how a black woman working at airport security denied Lorde permission to travel because had dreadlocks.
Meanwhile, her companion (who was sporting a hairstyle that was considered less political) was allowed to travel. It’s interesting that a black woman enforced these rules because it speaks volumes to the ways in which some black people have internalized how our hairstyles have been policed over time.
We strive to assimilate, and demand the same of other black people because we ‘don’t want to look bad’. Instead, we should ask ourselves who exactly we are doing this for because the society that denigrates our natural hairstyles is the same society that praises non-black people when they don the same styles.