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“By the time a Black girl is six [years old], she knows the value of having the ‘right’ hair texture and skin tone. That means she is also aware of her value relative to others, how they receive her, and is able to feel the harm…even if she doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe it.” – Dr. Donna Oriowo, LICSW, M.Ed.
Although chilling and heartrending, I believe Dr. Oriowo’s analysis is one we all can identify with.
Hair remains a critical topic in our community. And while a great deal of research about colorism and its impact in the African diaspora is well documented, not nearly enough data reveals the effects and emotional response of society’s teaching children of color (specifically Black girls) that their hair is inferior.
Today’s Black children have access to literary, artistic and commercial imagery which honors their natural features, but these are contemporary developments. Even now, young Black girls sense how certain hair types and styles can have controlled meanings for social status and ease because society’s influence on the “best” kinds of hair continues to shape how they encounter the world.
According to a 2022 study conducted by the Arizona State University Department of Psychology (one of only a few studies that examine hair satisfaction in young Black girls, funded by the Dove Self Esteem Project), unwanted touching and texture-typing is only the tip of the iceberg of prevalent, negative experiences many Black girls face about their hair.
The study included 105 girls, ages 10-15 years old, all of whom identify as Black or African American; and highlights how the trauma starts early on in their “safe spaces”. Despite young Black girls’ exposure to a variety of hairstyles within their families, schools and circles of friends, they are socialized to differentiate hair through Eurocentric portrayals of beauty. Any hair texture resembling it (or in close proximity) is viewed as better. When asked to define “good” hair, responses such as “long”, “wavy”, “flowy”, “soft” and ”straight” were common. “Bad” hair was classified as “nappy”, “short” and “hard to comb through” and many recounted horrific incidents of bullying about their hair, starting as early as preschool and kindergarten.
Unpacking the Iterations of Texturism
When asked to know the source of their criteria, the children cited various fashion models and celebrities of color, most of them wearing straight or wavy-textured hair. But, these findings illustrate how Black girls have inherited the ongoing, painful history that Black society has about its hair, stemming from deep-rooted, white racist ideologies.
Eugen Fischer’s hair color gauge of the early 1900s is a prime example of how hair typing and racism go hand in hand. Designed by the Nazi German scientist and overzealous eugenist (Fischer), it was a box containing a selection of 30 different synthetic hair color types, used to assess the whiteness level of mixed-race people in Namibia, by prioritizing the hue and texture of their hair. This and other utensils would later contribute to one of the first mass genocides carried out by German military forces, killing approximately 80,000 indigenous Namibian people because “scientifically”, their hair (and other physical features) were not “good enough”.
Throughout American history, other cases in point include the desperate attempts to stretch out naturally tight curls and coils, as a means of adaptation and survival during slavery. Blacks utilized several techniques such as applying heavy wheel axle grease, sewing thread and butter knives to straighten their hair.
And during the Great Migration, when some six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern and Western states, many straightened their hair as a symbol of success for escaping dangerous rural situations and ensuring upward mobility.
In the decades that followed the Black power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when many members wore natural hairstyles as a mark of Black solidarity and pushback against mainstream Eurocentric hair standards, Black women were regularly penalized for wearing them in the workplace. Afros and braids styles were looked upon as “too radical” and the pressure to conform was enforced.
Fast forward to the natural hair movement of our current era where great progress is made about the education, ratification and inclusion of natural hair, but the majority of the conversations and advice surrounding tighter coiled hair types maintain undertones of challenge and struggle. Negative reactions to hair “shrinkage”, followed up with instruction on how to “fix it” (in order to achieve “more attractive”, longer lengths) are everywhere; and further emphasizes how these hair types are still ranked lower than looser curl types.
Our Children Deserve Better
The tremendous work from Dr. Oriowo and the Arizona State University study is proof that a complete understanding of the discrimination and microaggressions Black kids experience about their hair is critical. And while the perception and negative narratives of Black hair did not begin in the present day, its remnants of the mistreatment of Blacks from slavery continue to guide children’s perspectives and have an enormous effect on their self-image.
As a community, we must continue our commitment to helping our little ones grow without damaging intergenerational prejudices. It’s difficult work, but it is necessary.