Did you hear?
Viola Davis wore her natural hair to the Golden Globes. No, really. There it was, all fro-ed out and exquisite. It had volume, it had bounce. It was a godammned crown crowning a goddamned queen, and I, for one, was shook.
There are a few experiences that are common to every black girl across the world. I say across the world because I grew up in West Africa – true story – and I, like every other black girl in my generation, went through the excruciating experience of having my hair permed, i.e., chemically straightened.
If you’ve never had your hair permed, allow me to describe the experience for you. The first thing you notice is the coolness of the perm as the stylist – or your mother/aunt/cousin – slicks it over your hair.
Then comes the smell.
Perm smells like rotten eggs with a metallic tinge. It’s the type of smell that sears your nostrils and makes your eyes water the first time you smell it. And remember that cool sensation I talked about? Well, that soon gives way to heat as your scalp burns when the perm hits it.
The burning is not supposed to happen, because, ostensibly, you’ve put grease on your scalp and haven’t scratched, but, what eight-year-old child doesn’t scratch their scalp out of sheer nervousness or boredom?
When you cry that it burns and that it smells, your stylist/mother/aunt/cousin will tut and say you’ll love it when your hair comes out bone straight.
By now, you may be asking why black women put themselves and their children all through this? The answer is, in a word – racism.
Whenever I see headlines like those, I mentally insert the word “black,” because by and large, black women are disproportionately punished for wearing their hair in natural hairstyles, which are often seen as “ghetto” or “urban,” or whatever other word is a euphemism for black.
This is why I laugh every time I read some online comment that accuses black women of cultural appropriation when they straighten or color their hair. People who say that literally do not understand what cultural appropriation means.
Cultural appropriation, as defined by Olufunmilayo Arewa is “borrowing [which] reinforces historically exploitative relationships or deprives African countries of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.”
Substitute any colonized country or peoples for Africa and the definition applies.
Black women literally cannot engage in cultural appropriation, especially as it pertains to hair because we are not exploiting another person’s culture. By straightening our hair, we are, in fact, assimilating into the dominant culture.
For us, hair straightening is a matter of survival, not appropriation.
In fact, when I interviewed with my current job, I debated whether to straighten my hair beforehand. Would my natural hair render me unemployable? I thought about it for a long time, every warning my mother and all the black women in my life had ever told me running through my mind.
Then I remembered something important – I didn’t want to work at a company that didn’t like my natural hair. After all, it took me so long to like it myself.
Growing up, I was inundated by what an attractive girl should be. She should be skinny, she should be white and she should have long hair.
Think I’m exaggerating? Think about all the TV shows and movies that were out in the 80’s and 90’s. How many featured people of color with natural hair?
And if they did have natural hair – how many of them had kinky natural hair?
As you know, black people have different hair textures ranging from sleek straight to kinky. My hair, at 4c is the kinkiest (yes, there are whole guides for classifying hair type). How many Disney princesses have you ever seen – ever – with 4c hair? Yes, there’s Tiana and Moana, but they’re – 1. recent additions to the Disney pantheon and 2. don’t have kinky hair.
Also, Moana’s not black, so there’s also that.
Love her anyway.
The point is, there were few, if any models of black beauty I could look up to when I was growing up. Which of course meant that I didn’t think I was pretty. Sure, I was ok, but if I didn’t have the long hair of the Cinderellas and the Ariels, who would ever think I was truly gorgeous?
People often wonder why people of color, particularly black people, agitate so much for representation in the media. This is the reason. Because not seeing yourself represented on screen leads to a sort of internalized racism. Because I didn’t see myself represented on screen, I didn’t think I was attractive because I didn’t fit into the model that I was shown.
You wonder why black children prefer white dolls over black ones when they’re given the doll test? This is why.
As I grew older, this narrative that kinky hair – or worse, short kinky hair – is not attractive grew stronger, and this time, it was reinforced by the opposite sex. I wore my hair short part of high school and college, and I can’t count how many [black] men turned up their noses because my hair wasn’t straight.
It’s not that I wasn’t pretty, it was just my natural hair left a little to be desired.
By the time I finally started loving my hair, I was well into my mid-twenties. It wasn’t an easy shift. I was in film school at the time and didn’t have time to keep up the frenetic pace of hair appointments. Then, as I got further and further into my curriculum, I learned firsthand how a few people shape the narratives of many.
That’s when I let go of the narrative I’d been fed and learned to love my hair the way it was, rather than the way everyone told me it should be
This is why Viola Davis’ actions are so important. It might seem like a small thing for many people, but for someone like me, who never saw a black woman with her natural hair onscreen growing up, it means the world.
Viola Davis is a natural hair revolutionary, paving the way for women who have been told since infancy that they must straighten and braid and tame their hair because the larger society looks unkindly upon and actively punishes those who don’t.
This isn’t the first time Davis has had a natural hair moment, however. She elicited gasps of shock and delight through the black female community when she took off her wig onscreen during a scene in How To Get Away With Murder and she also wore a short afro to the Oscars – the freaking Oscars!
You may not understand my excitement, or my joy at all these happenings, so in closing, let me leave you with an empathy exercise:
Imagine if your hair was seen as undesirable or less than by everyone around you. How would you feel?
Imagine always being (rightly) afraid that you could get kicked out of school or lose your job because of your hair. How would you feel?
Imagine people touching your hair like it’s some foreign animal, and making odd remarks about how brave you are for wearing it the way you came out of the womb. How would you feel?
Imagine, for an instant, how it would feel to be me.