By Da’Maje Russell
First-year student and Chemistry major at Jackson State University
Honoring Black History Month 2023, Damaje Russell participated in a blog writing project about race-based hair discrimination. He and his colleagues in Composition & Literature for Language Arts/Honors English at Jackson State University wrote personal narratives reflecting their experiences and observations. In “My Roots”, Damaje examines the history and culture of natural hair while also addressing the impact of race-based hair discrimination on family members.
What do your hair roots mean to you? According to Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka in western African societies, hair styles communicated “relationship status, maturity, spiritual connectivity, ethnic identity, capital, and class” (cited in Pitts, 2019, p. 385). Why don’t we have this same regard for our hair in America? Is it because of the “nappy head” trope or that it does not fit into White norms? The answers are in our history.
Most Black people had to straighten their hair in the past so they would not be seen as hoodlums or incompetent. While I have never been discriminated against because of my hair, that does not mean I am blind or oblivious to what my people go through because of how disconnected we have become from our roots due to slavery. I have seen firsthand the discrimination Black people experience because our hair is different.
Hair discrimination can happen anywhere, but I would say the place I have seen it most was at school when I was younger. I have three sisters who all have 4C hair, which they could not embrace growing up. They would see a few other girls with straight hair, but the majority, as you might expect, were white girls. Being laughed at and picked on caused my sisters to develop hair complexes. The harsh treatment drove them to start straightening their strands. Their hair looked better, in the eyes of certain beholders, but at what cost? Hair discrimination makes people want to change their unique identities, and it all comes from us not ever being able to appreciate our hair without judgment or punishment.
Black women are usually the focus of research, writing, and conversations about race-based hair discrimination. We cannot ignore the impact on Black men, who are also targeted because of their locs, Afros, and fades. To make matters worse, they are already burdened by stereotypes positioning them as hoodlums. My dad, who of course is a Black man, wore locs for a while but cut them off for a job interview. This was after he was told his hair had to be groomed and could not pass his ear. Much younger then, I was shocked because his hair did not define his work ethic, but they did not even care. This is a classic example of why most Black men went for low cuts back in the day because if they did not, they would have jeopardized their chances of providing for their families.
So, what is the whole point of my post? I wrote this to not only contribute to conversations surrounding race-based hair discrimination, but to also make people think about what their roots mean to them. To me my roots show not only my ethnicity, but also how my ancestors fought for me to have this right to be free and embrace my Blackness. I hope that you think about what your roots mean to you, and do not let anyone dim your uniqueness.
Pitts, Britney. (2021). "“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown': A critical race analysis of the CROWN Act". Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 52(7) 716 –735.