30 Years of White Supremacy Told Through My Hair
Photo: Roy McMahon/Getty Images
It all started one day when I was five years old and realized that I could put a pair of my church tights on my head to pretend that I had long, straight hair that hung down my back like all of the other girls in my kindergarten class.
I did this exclusively in the privacy of my bedroom, of course. Even at five, I was sufficiently well-versed in the rules of society to know that I shouldn’t leave the house with a pair of tights on my head.
But this social awareness was also the reason I had the damn tights on my head in the first place. My five years in America were enough to teach me that the world around me saw White hair as better. Cuter, prettier, cleaner, more fun.
By the time I finished kindergarten, I hardly even considered my God-given puffy halo of frizz on top of my head to be “hair.” After being exposed to a roomful of White girls on a daily basis in my suburban Massachusetts school, combined with my general perceptions of what society considered to be attractive, I had become desperate to be White. And I knew I was close. I was half White! I figured I couldn’t do anything about the fact that my skin had come out decidedly brown, thanks to my “African American” biological father (who I still know almost nothing else about other than this description in my closed adoption file). However, my skin didn’t really bother me as a child. It was light enough that White people regularly complimented it as being like a “permanent tan” or a caramel candy.
I spent three decades internalizing the message that if I want to be seen as cute, I have to be seen as White. And my hair was at the root — no pun intended — of all of this.
Fast forward 30 years. As Medium writer Aysia C. describes in a piece that I find to be extremely compelling and well-researched, “My Natural Hair Is Not A (Political) Statement,” the topic of Black hair has become so mainstream that it appears to now be widely considered fair game for public comment. But, in any event, it’s safe to say that this country, with its natural hair movement and children’s self-love books and multicultural dolls and brown-skinned TV show characters, has come a long way since I was a little girl.
I, however, have not. I am only just now, at the ripe old age of 35, being honest about my attitude toward my hair. My hair has, somewhat oxymoronically, been both a superficial and a profound representation of my broader racial identity issues. I spent three decades internalizing the message that if I want to be seen as cute (or pretty or beautiful), I have to be seen as White. And my hair was at the root — no pun intended — of all of this.
So I now invite you on a quick tour of my journey to get my naturally Black hair to look like naturally White hair.
From late elementary through high school, my singular goal was to get others to forget that I had hair. Not really, because I firmly resisted my mom’s repeated encouragement to cut it super short, which she insisted would look cute on me. I wanted to have long hair like the White girls, but since it wouldn’t hang down like theirs, I would pleat it into a braid or tie it up into a bun.
Author photo (circa 1995, with brother). Not pictured: most of my hair.
This plan worked well enough to have it backfire on me a bit because my White girl friends constantly prodded me to “wear your hair down every once in a while like we do.” They reserved their braids and buns for things like P.E. class or sports practices. They saw my resistance to unraveling my updos as more a sign of laziness or lack of skills. “No, bitches!” I wanted to scream. “If I unravel my hair, it will stick out sideways like a triangle, and then what will you think of me?”
I liked — in fact, I still like — the look of my hair when it was straight. But I didn’t like why I liked it.
Relaxer — or, as comedian Chris Rock has coined it, “the creamy crack” — is a hair straightening treatment that was fairly popular in the Black community back in the 2000s, when I discovered it. It costs about $100 an application and does anything but relax you. It essentially involves a stylist applying a thick white goop directly to your head to burn out the curls.
The instruction from my stylist (who repeatedly actually tried to talk me out of starting down this path) was that I should allow the goop to sit on my scalp for as long as I could tolerate it. Most people throw in the towel at the time that their noses and eyes start running profusely. The relaxer is then rinsed out and the hair remains stiffly straight (mine didn’t really “hang down,” though, much to my chagrin) for about a month or two, at which point the natural curl comes creeping back in at the roots.
I discovered with horror after a few of these relaxer treatments that little wispy pieces of my hair were starting to detach themselves around my forehead like a halo. I reported this to my stylist. She replied that this was simply called “hair breakage” and happens to almost everyone who decides to use relaxer. C’est la vie.
The Brazilian Blowout
Let’s clear it up right out of the gate: The Brazilian Blowout is a hair straightening treatment. (You should have seen my husband’s face the first time I told him I was heading out for one of these.)
I was downright jubilant when I first got a Groupon promotion for “the Brazilian” in my email inbox back in 2010. The ad featured a woman with light brown skin, brown eyes, and hair that was as sleek, shiny, and straight as frickin’ sealskin. Not only did this model look exactly the way I had always wanted to look, but the straightener was apparently derived from a naturally occuring hair protein called keratin. Furthermore, the service was being offered by a chic salon in the heart of Manhattan’s mostly White Upper East Side. Win, win, win!
I had figured that the Brazilian’s biggest drawback was that it cost roughly $400 a treatment, and this wasn’t even really a problem to me because at that time, I was working as an extremely highly paid law firm associate. But there were a few more issues I learned about once I showed up to the airy, modern salon and was promptly led to the back, past the bathrooms, past the stylist breakroom, down a small dimly lit staircase. “WTF?” I thought. I was then handed an N95 gas mask as I rounded the corner. “What the hell did you just sell me, Groupon?!”
Well, as it turns out, the Brazilian Blowout contains not only the natural protein called keratin but also the natural organic gas compound called formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is classified as a probable carcinogen and can cause respiratory distress and severe nasal irritation when inhaled. The treatment is now banned in a few countries, and a number of U.S. salons that offer it have been under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) due to the potential risks to the highly exposed stylists.
In any event, I dutifully sat in my basement chair while my eyes watered. Kind of like the relaxer. In fact, the entire treatment mimicked the relaxer — burn out the curls and then melt the chemical into the hair with blow dryers and flat irons. The big difference is that the Brazilian Blowout cost me about four times more and was done alongside curly-haired White clients. I note that it did get my hair super straight, though.
Author photo (circa 2016). For the first time in my life, I could confidently say that my hair “hung down.”
The Japanese straightening treatment
I loved the Brazilian, but I hated the formaldehyde. I just couldn’t get over it. I was not quitting yet, though. I am the type who goes big when she has a goal. I believe that type has a name — “A.” I tried a truly formaldehyde-free (but still $400) treatment called “the Cezanne.” It didn’t do shit.
I tried another one called the Japanese straightening treatment (which sometimes goes by its more PC name, thermal reconditioning). This one did do something, but the Japanese didn’t make the process any easier than the Brazilian. My eyes may not have been watering, but I was in the styling chair for literally six hours on the Saturday of my first (and last) appointment. I had my hair washed, blow-dried, and flat-ironed no less than three times. The grand total came to $1,000. And then my curly roots grew in two months later, and my hair started breaking off again. So we were basically right back at relaxer, just with an extra zero on the end and a White stylist behind the chair.
The (non-Brazilian) blowout
After I left corporate America and my corporate paycheck behind, I tried to quit straightening treatments. But I couldn’t quite do it. I freaked out as soon as my curly “new growth” hit the previously unheard of six-month mark. Would I be relegated back to the damn braid-and-bun?
Fortunately, this period in my life coincided with the introduction of the pinnacle of first-world services: the Dry Bar. This is the cutesy name of the first salon of its kind, but there are imitators everywhere these days. Here’s what happens at a dry bar: A stylist washes your hair a few times and then blow-dries it. You then get up and go to the front desk to fork over $45. Seriously. This is the entirety of the service provided by this salon. (Fine, they also offer a flat-iron or a beachy-wave finish). And yet they’re making a killing, in part thanks to me! I reached a point where I was going to the dry bar, like, once a week. There was something about having another person apply heat to my hair that made it look sleeker and last longer. Also, I could just sit there and scroll through my phone. (I said it was a first-world service!)
I felt no pressure from anyone else but myself to do this. In fact, my mom, my husband, and a few of my close friends regularly encouraged me to wear my hair more naturally. As my husband put it, “Your hair looks nice when it’s straightened, but it’s just… so clearly not your natural hair.” He’s not wrong, now, is he? I think he was also a bit opposed to inserting “dry bar” as a line item in the family budget. But he said to go for it if it made me happy.
No matter how I end up wearing my hair, now or in the future, I am relieved to have reached a part of my identity journey where I am no longer trying to pass as anyone else but who I am.
That’s the thing, though. It didn’t really make me happy. Sure, I liked — in fact, I still like — the look of my hair when it was straight. But I didn’t like why I liked it. It didn’t make me happy to know I was trying to pass as someone other than who I am.
I’m finally being honest about that, even if I can’t say that my journey has reached a destination. I haven’t paid money for a chemical straightener or gone to a dry bar for quite some time now. As I type this, my hair is tied up on top of my head in the “reverse messy bun” thing that has become downright fashionable in the Covid-19 era.
When it comes to wearing my hair down and curly — you know, I somewhat agree with a March 2020 critique of the natural hair movement featured in HuffPost. The writer points out that many pro-natural hair products currently exist to help Black women get their locks to form looser, wider curls. In other words: hair that hangs down. And so we’ve come full circle? Who knows.
But at least I can say this with sincerity: No matter how I end up wearing my hair, now or in the future, I am relieved to have reached a part of my identity journey where I am no longer trying to pass as anyone else but who I am. And who I am is not a White woman or a woman with White hair, and that doesn’t make me any less beautiful.