From Bantu knots, to braids, to locs: hair is identity, culture, and expression
It was my first year of university here at Mt. A when I had a peculiar encounter with a professor of mine. I had gone into her office during office hours to clear up some confusion based on a recent concept she had taught in class. When I got into her office, she looked up at me and started laughing, then proceeded to point her fingers at my hair from across her table. She then asked me what I had on my head as she continued to laugh. At this point, I was confused. Confusion just sums it all up. Jokes were meant to be funny, and nothing about this situation was funny; instead, it was painfully awkward.
I told her they were bantu knots and for whatever reason, this made her hysterical. Before coming into her office, I had a few questions, but I remember only asking one because I needed to leave. I didn’t want to be there, I just wanted to go to my room. When I got to my room, I loosened my hair. The next day, I met up with my friends and they were confused as to why I loosened my hair when I just got it done. So, I opened up to them and told them exactly what happened, and they urged me to report the incident, but I didn’t. I am still not exactly sure why I didn’t submit a report; I guess it was based on various factors. I did not want to be the reason someone lost their job, if the case was taken “that far.” I also did not want any further awkwardness between the both of us. I mean, she was my professor, I had her classes three times a week, and saw her in the labs, you know. Coming from a place where everyone looked like me, there was this internal contention in my head. Was this racism? Could what I had experienced be considered racism? Am I overthinking all of it? To be honest, it left its mark. The next time I did bantu knots was a year later…
I have always been one to experiment with my looks, from my choice of clothing to my hair. I just love doing it, it makes me happy. It has lowkey become second nature to me. As I am doing one hairstyle, I am thinking of what to do next. At this point, I don’t think there is any colour of braids I haven’t tried in this lifetime. It was a safer option for me than dyeing my hair every time I wanted a different colour. Scientists can have electric blue hair or hot pink hair or whatever colour they like. It was nice seeing the pharmacist, downtown, with purple hair. She is so cool. I went ahead to win the coolest hair in residence in my first year, and was a bit shocked because I didn’t know that award existed. To be fair, if I didn’t win, who would?
Fast-forward to my second year. I had gone back home for the summer holiday and decided to get faux locs for school. It is my favourite hairstyle, and it just does something to my face. After a few weeks, I decided I wanted to change my hairstyle, so I took them off and got cornrows. During house meetings, everybody who was part of the resident staff or belonged to the executive had a designated place at the front. The meeting wasn’t even over when one of the guys I worked with decided to spill his backhanded compliment. He told me he liked my hairstyle. I thought he was going to end it there and was ready to say my thank you but he continued. He said he preferred it to the other one and at that point, I couldn’t help but wonder where this was going. He then went ahead to state the reason as to why he preferred the new hairdo to my old one. “I like it better than the old one, it is neat and gives you a cleaner look.” Dumbfounded. I was dumbfounded, where did the audacity and effrontery come from? Well, I tried to maintain a calm demeanor, but my face betrayed me, it always does.
I was downtown with a friend last week when a lady walked towards us and tried to touch my friend’s hair. Bizarre. The whole thing was bizarre. We are not some non-living objects displayed at some art gallery for you to touch. Oh wait, even at most art galleries there is a no touching rule. We are not pets you can go around stroking. Manners require you to get permission or at least make small talk before you do that to someone’s pet. Your curiosity should not come at the expense of my humanity. You can admire without being disrespectful and invading my personal space. You might be wondering if this whole article is going to be about just hair. Yes, it is.
Microaggression is a word that was coined by Chester Pierce, an African American psychiatrist who was also a professor at Harvard University in 1970. This term has been misused and used to water down the gravity and effects of racism. Racial microaggression is simply racism. Some of you might be thinking “it’s just hair,” but it clearly isn’t when there are real-life implications. In North America, a study conducted by the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN) and Dove found that over 80% of children by the age of 12 reported experiencing race-based hair discrimination. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent back home from work due to their hair. I came across an article from the McGill Journal of Law and Health that was written by Annaëlle Burreau. This article highlights real-life instances with real-life people who lost their jobs, were sent back home from school, and racially profiled because of the hair that grows out from their scalp.
There is some historical background as to why Black women’s hair is so micromanaged and policed today in society. In the 18th century, the Tignon law was passed that required Black women to tie their heads with a tignon scarf to mark them as inferior to white women. Some people speculate that one of the reasons for this law was that white women were jealous of the attention Black women were getting from white men and felt that the hair was the main reason as to why this was happening, so forcing them to cover their hair up made sense.
Remembering the story I started with, I am actually glad I did not take the incident up at that time because the systems that are set up to tackle cases that involve racism on campus are not effective. I am honestly quite tired of the faux performative activism; as a community, we can do better! We can do better to ensure that Black students on campus feel safe, heard and seen.