By Tamika Green
What’s it like to be black or mixed-race in Britain? This is probably a question that’s overlooked, considering that America’s the one that’s always in the news with stories concerning racial tension.
To answer this question though, we can look at an aspect of ourselves that is more than an extension of our bodies. Something that we can manipulate, change and use to express ourselves. Yes, I’m talking about hair.
Now, it might seem strange to use hair to answer this question. But a lot can be unsurfaced if we look at hair as more than just strands of protein. Think about it – hair isn’t just like an arm or a finger, it’s like an item of clothing.
We can show our personalities and alter the way we are perceived by others by choosing how we want to be seen. But it can also show what we’re trying to hide or suppress – and that’s what I want to bring attention to.
For some black and mixed-race women wearing wigs, weaves or straightening their hair is just a style, something that they prefer. For others, these styles are chosen out of convenience or because they are seen as more socially acceptable. There is a whole movement defined by women of colour embracing their natural hair! But why is it even a thing?
Well in Britain, these problems are only made worse by a lack of afro hair products in supermarkets and pharmacies. Imagine every time you wanted more shampoo, you had to order it online rather than popping to the shop and simply grabbing a bottle. This is what it’s like for many black and mixed-race women in Britain.
For girls in particular, to not see hair products tailored to their hair type sends out the message that afro hair is not normal. This is one way in which a poor self-image is born and it’s something that I battled with for a long time.
When I was growing up I felt that I was different, a sentiment that I’m sure a lot of other black and mixed-race women experienced when they were younger. I was brought up in a rural town where the population isn’t as diverse as bigger cities, like London or Birmingham.
With a white British mother and no contact with my African-American father or that whole other side of my family, I had no education on how to look after my afro hair or my history.
From an early age, I resented my skin colour. But as I grew older I realised there was nothing I could really change about that. And so I turned to the one thing I could change – my hair. Straight hair was something that I strove to achieve for many years, and when I did it was a nightmare.
At age 12 I had my hair chemically straightened for the first time and the pain was unbearable. The next day I had scabs all over my scalp. I didn’t use chemical straightening techniques again after that but I continued to straighten my hair using straighteners for about another 5 years.
What eventually made me stop wasn’t a sudden lightbulb moment. My prompt was learning about the Civil Rights Movement during A Level History.
I suddenly felt extremely proud and I no longer felt the need to iron out my roots. Looking back, I feel sad that I even felt those emotions of embarrassment and hatred.
So what things can be put in place to help black and mixed-race girls have a better self-image? The answer is simple: teach black history in schools.
I only wish that growing up I had an in-depth education on the Civil Rights Movement and not just a one-off assembly on Martin Luther King (which, might I add, just made me feel more in the spotlight).
A thorough teaching will help ALL children learn about the message of equality and doing so can never be wrong. The second solution is to put afro hair products on the shelves of supermarkets! Seriously, it’s about time.
Something as simple as this can make a huge difference as to how black and mixed-race women view their hair. Not to mention that afro hair is different to Caucasian or Asian hair and has its own specific needs.
I spoke to my hairdresser, Catherine, about black hair and how we can make a difference in the community:
“Caucasian hair tends to get naturally oily after a couple of days so they don’t need oily hair products. African type hair tends to be less prone to becoming naturally oily so products with high to very high oil and moisture content is preferred.
Two things the black community needs, in my opinion, is to (1) own the hair products businesses and stop waiting for someone else to provide the service, and (2) support black businesses by shopping there and paying the full price without constantly asking for discounts and whining about the price being too high, while simultaneously happily paying the full price for products and services outside the black community.”
…so there you have it.
Lastly, to all the girls out there, I say wear your hair whatever way you want. If you have straight hair, curly hair, or afro hair own it, work it and feel proud of it. Don’t feel pressured to change any part of yourself to fit in. Just do your thing!