Celebrating (But Not Touching) Black Women’s Hair
Let's take a moment to celebrate Black women’s hair.
“I love my hair,” says Paula Houston, chief equity officer for the UW Medicine Office of Healthcare Equity. “Every three weeks my hair is different. I put it in different styles, and I love that I can do that.”
Martine Pierre-Louis, equity, diversity and inclusion director for Harborview Medical Center, feels similarly.
“I have always loved the texture of my hair, the capacity of it to take on different shapes, how playful I can be with it, and all of the different things it can do,” she says.
Dr. Leslie Walker-Harding, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine, is on board. “As a woman and an African American woman, my hair is extremely important. It is a joy to have such expressive hair,” she says “I feel fortunate that my hair can speak my truth at every stage of my life.”
Rooted in identity
For many Black women, hair is deeply connected to identity, family and community. At times, these connections are very personal.
“When I think about my own hair, I think about my relationship with my mom,” says Pierre-Louis, who remembers a period of her childhood in Haiti when her mother had moved to the United States and was not around to braid her and her siblings’ hair. “A group of us girls in my class were labeled as sans-maman (motherless) and looked down upon, simply based on the unkempt daily state of our hair.”
The hair salon is a sacred space and a community hub. Angela Moore, associate dean of Administration and Operations at UW Medicine, describes it as a “place that brings together women to discuss our deepest concerns and joys throughout the week.”
“When I was considering moving from the east coast to the Pacific Northwest, I recall sitting in the chair of my hairstylist in West Village, Manhattan, with tears in my eyes crying to my stylist, ‘Who is going to be my hairstylist?’ See, for many Black women, our stylist becomes a member of our family,” says Moore.
The sanctity of Black women’s hair is well respected in the Black community.
“I grew up with a mom, two sisters and 10 aunts, and I worked in my uncle’s beauty supply store in Oakland, California. We pride women’s hair. It is so important to our culture and community and we won’t let even the worst of economic or social times disrupt our care of our hair and ourselves. It is a way of bonding, honoring each other and celebration,” says Lee Davis, lead equity, diversity and inclusion trainer for the UW Medicine Office of Healthcare Equity.
Davis, who learned to braid his sister’s hair, says, “Sometimes it would take all day to get braids or extensions, and it was good time spent.”
History of hair
Emma Dabiri, author of the 2020 book “Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture,” explains that natural or braided hair is also a point of shared experience and solidarity among many Black women who — due to the African diaspora and other oppressive forces that have separated them — may live continents apart.
Celebrating Black hair is important in the context of this historical and ongoing oppression. Among the Yoruba people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, hair care and hairdressing have long been acts of spiritual significance, with one of their most powerful goddesses, Oshun, known for her great skill as a hairdresser.
Braiding has been not just a style but an art form among African women dating back at least to 3500 B.C.E. The intricacy and sculptural possibilities of Black hair have provided meaningful cultural and personal signals within Black communities for centuries. For example, oral histories tell of enslaved Africans in Colombia who weaved cornrow patterns into their hair to map and share escape routes, hidden in plain view.
Natural and braided Black hair only became stigmatized and oppressed after the transatlantic slave trade dispersed Africans to the European colonies. To justify the enslavement and inhumane exploitation of Black people, enslavers dehumanized them, including referring to their hair as “wooly” or with other animalistic terms, or simply shaving it all off. On large plantations, hierarchies developed which favored Black people who had more European features, including less curly hair. After emancipation, the pressure to conform to European beauty standards only increased — chemical hair straighteners and other products were marketed to Black women as a way of leaving slavery behind, entering civilized society and uplifting the Black race.
None of this history was lost on Angela Davis, the civil rights activist whose iconic Afro became a symbol of Black Power in the 1960s and inspired generations of Black people to wear their hair naturally.
Neither is this history forgotten by Houston.
“Celebrating Black hair is about resisting and rejecting white standards of beauty, standing in our power and embracing who we are,” she says.
Movement to embrace and respect Black hairstyles
While the movement toward natural Black hair has gained momentum over the last several decades, oppressive forces remain. The high fashion industry has fetishized and exoticized Black hair and bodies. Some primary and secondary schools across our country and the world have continued to forbid Black hairstyles and require straightening, resulting in detentions, suspensions or worse for Black children who understandably object. While it is just beginning to change, Black women, as they gain power in business and professional settings, face pressure to code-switch and abandon Black hairstyles, and cover their Black identities in other ways.
As noted by Dr. Bessie Young, vice dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and medical director for the Office of Healthcare Equity, this is still an issue for UW Medicine’s Black care team members, who may receive feedback that natural or braided hair, especially locs (formerly known as dreadlocks), is unprofessional.
“As a medical student, resident, fellow and attending at UW Medicine, the unwritten rule was that my hair had to be straightened in order for me to appear professional,” Young says. “I am ecstatic that Black women can wear their hair naturally, avoiding all the chemicals and straightening we were forced to use in the past in order to conform.”
Enforcing such unnecessary white standards of beauty and professionalism is not only expensive and damaging for Black people, but also wrong. The idea that locs are unclean or unsanitary is an inaccurate and harmful stereotype, and restricting and labeling hairstyles such as locs as unprofessional is problematic. Twenty states, including Washington, have passed variations on the Crown Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on hairstyles or hair textures.
Do not touch Black people’s hair
In 2016, the Black R&B and soul singer Solange sang, “Don’t touch my hair, when it’s the feelings I wear. Don’t touch my soul.”
Any unwanted, purposeful touching of another person is unacceptable.
To understand how offensive this is for Black women, we must also appreciate the unique and meaningful relationship between Black women and their hair, understand the role of hair in the oppression and survival of Black women and Black people in general. This includes an awareness of our society’s horrific history of white individuals owning, touching and experimenting on Black bodies, including medical atrocities that occurred late into the twentieth century. White people engaging in unwanted touching of Black women’s hair are not just offensive acts, they are racist acts.
Black women’s hair — in a righteous Afro, an intricate weave, an updo of locs, a cascade of multi-colored beaded braids, cornrows or twists — is amazing. Many of these hairstyles have survived the diaspora, functioned as forces of liberation, and become intimate sources of joy, connection and expression among Black women. Centuries of accumulated meaning and love are woven into them.
Let us celebrate Black women’s hair with respect and admiration. But when it comes to “Can I touch your hair?” The answer is “no.”