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Global stories, local voices

|| Race is the darkest fiction

Frizzy, Curly, Relaxed: Cover up that hair, which I can't endure to look on

By Mélanie Barbotin and Deborah Adoh

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

Deborah is mixed race, she has frizzy hair. Melanie is white, her hair is curly. The two journalists mix investigation and personal testimony to understand how racism has always been, and still is today, rooted in the nature of our hair.

Long, smooth hair is what I dream of at 17. The opposite of my natural brown and frizzy hair, a mix of tight curls from my black Ivorian father and of wavy curls from my white French mother. I want to be like my friends or the women I see on television. But in my town, in Corrèze, no hairdresser accepts frizzy hair. One day, I convinced my parents to go to a hairdressing salon a hundred kilometers away from my home. Seeing my hair, the hairdresser refused to touch it. Recently, he straightened a client’s frizzy hair - it fell out immediately. He can't offer me anything else. I want to cry. I feel like I'm not normal.

***

I hug the walls, head down, ashamed. I've just spent an hour and half at the hairdresser's and come out with a bad haircut, as usual. My light-brown curls, which have always been my pride and joy, have almost disappeared after she combed my hair with a fine-tooth comb and blow dryer. Neither smooth nor curly, my fluffyhair now makes a shapeless clump around my head. I remember the hairdresser's discomfort when she realized she couldn't do it. I didn't dare say anything. "No charge for the conditioner," she exhaled, embarrassed, before making me pay.

***

Resigned, I revert to braids. Without realizing it, I follow the same path as my black aunts and cousins who never go out in the street without braids, a weave or wig, whether they’re in France or in Ivory Coast. Hiding one's frizzy hair, flattening it as much as possible, is like a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation.
To get their hair done, the black women of my family often go to Paris, to the Boulevard de Strasbourg. I decide to go to this long thoroughfare which has more than fifty salons, each one touting for trade. I ask about their deals, but not one of them offers to cut loose frizzy hair. The further I go, the more I realize I'm one of the few people with natural hair.

***

It's done, I'll never go back to a hairdresser again. Determined to take care of my curls myself, I found a Facebook group dedicated to the care and maintenance of curly and frizzy hair. Nearly 25,000 people, most of them women, exchange tips, recipes and cheer each other up. After launching an appeal for evidence, I am amazed to realize that wearing hair naturally is a big deal for many of them. "Sheep," "poodle," "mop," "witch's hair," or even "ass’s hair," nearly a hundred women say they have been victims of mockery and insults.

"These insults often begin at a very young age," Agnès noted. She decided to write a children's book, Ce N'est Pas Si Grave, (It’s Not that Bad), published by Enfants d'Aujourd'hui (Children of Today) in 2019. Agnès has two mixed-race children, one with frizzy hair and the other with curly hair. She did not expect her sons to suffer so much inappropriate behavior. "Strangers in the shops were touching their hair as if they were dogs."

The younger of the two boys, Simao, could not stand being nicknamed "the little sheep" in his school in Tarn-et-Garonne. From the age of six, he wanted to straighten his hair. "As soon as he got out of the shower, he took the brush and flattened his hair thoroughly. He used to say to me, 'Look at me Mommy, how handsome I am,'" she remembers.

The trigger was the day when the teacher asked her eldest son to do his self-portrait: he drew himself with smooth blond hair and light skin. "He had understood that to have straight hair you had to be white, so he even changed his identity."

***

A process of alienation that sociologist Juliette Sméralda explains in her book Peau Noire, Cheveu Crépu, (Black Skin, Frizzy Hair) published by Jasor in 2005. The Martinican researcher shows the link between the denaturation of frizzy hair and the legacy of the colonial period.

During the black slave trade, individuals were hierarchized according to their color. In the plantations, those with lighter skin could escape from working in the fields and become "house negroes". This is called colorism. This discrimination also extends to hair. "When a black person's hair is more like a white person’s hair, waves not curls, curled not frizzy, the less inferior they will be," says Afro-feminist sociologist, Carmen Diop.

Smooth hair has been imposed over the centuries as the standard for universal beauty. "Even today in the West Indies, having ‘good hair’ means having hair that is not frizzy, that doesn't need to be straightened with hot irons or chemicals."

On the other side of the Atlantic, the phenomenon of "passing," where light-skinned black people pretend to be white, is a good example of the hair issue, analyses Maboula Soumahoro, an authority on the United States and the black/African diaspora. In the twentieth century, "there was a test among the black elites. Those who wanted to enter the circle had to use a comb or a brush, and if it couldn't run through, the hair was considered too frizzy, so they were excluded." 

***

"What's interesting is that even for people who consider themselves white, hair is going to be the characteristic that will make them inferior," Carmen Diop adds.

Disturbed, I don't immediately understand what she means. Then memories come back to me. I see myself in the eighth grade, I feel a hand in my hair. I'm paralyzed. My neighbor touches my curls in the middle of class.

A flashback. This time, I am sitting in the back of the school bus and I hear behind me: "You see, she has frizzy hair, like an African."

"You've experienced what it's like to be black, the sociologist tells me. Except that it's happened to you only once or twice in your life, whereas for a black woman it will happen every day and it will also be about her skin color."

***

Alexandra looks just like me. She is mixed race. Her father is Ivorian. Her hair is brown, frizzy and long. She has known straightening and braiding, and hated her hair for a long time. The young woman of 31 tells me her story at home in Mouscron, Belgium, surrounded by her two daughters. The insults began during her childhood in Ivory Coast and continued when she moved to the north of France as a teenager. "Your hair is weird," her classmates told her many times in high school.

A recent American study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in August 2020, shows that black women who wear their natural hair are more discriminated against in the job market than those with straight hair and, of course, white women. According to Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, who conducted the survey, they would be considered "less professional" by potential employers.

When I started work four years ago, I was afraid of comments about my frizzy hair. One day, I dared to wear it loose. I wanted to let it breathe after so many years of chemicals and tight braids. I was working in a sales department exporting to African countries. Maybe this environment helped me to cope. To my great surprise, my colleagues complimented me a lot about my hair.

Alexandra was not so lucky. "In beauty school, when I was looking for an internship, as soon as I came into the institutes, they would tell me 'it's not going to work,' she recalls. I had stopped using chemicals so I started straightening my hair and doing a blow-dry." But the most hurtful word came from her manager while I was working at a beauty salon in Tourcoing. "When you do braids, it looks dirty, like a rasta. It's not acceptable to the customers."

According to Carmen Diop, who studies the careers of black women who have graduated in France, it is not normally a formal requests from the employer. "It's so entrenched that they don't even have to say it anymore." The researcher notes that a large proportion of the women she follows defrizz their hair or wear wigs because they feel they cannot go to work with their natural hair.

After her employer's comment, Alexandra decided to look for another job. This is the last insult she heard at work. The beauty consultant is now wearing her natural hair with pride and does everything she can to ensure that her children do the same. "Before, I didn't like my skin and hair color," says 9-year-old Jade, timidly. But since mom told me about Africa and the history of frizzy hair during lockdown, I'm proud!"

***

Pride is also the feeling of the Nappy women who claim to wear their natural hair. At first, the English term Nappy was very pejorative. It was used by slaveholders to denigrate the hair of their slaves. At the beginning of the 2000s, women reappropriated the word Nappy, as a contraction of natural and happy. "Being Nappy is not a fashion," says Miguèle Serbin, considered by some as the "mother of Nappy" in France. "We are not against women who want to wear wigs and weaves, we just want to show that something else is possible."

While the Nappy were, first known for their style, they were also inspired by pioneers such as Angela Davis, an Afro-American activist, member of the Black Panthers, who was one of the rare women in the public eye to wear an Afro hairstyle in the 1960s.

It was when I started to wear my hair naturally curly that I learned about the famous activist. Today, at the age of 25, I proudly wear my hair like her, and I have made it a militant act, because there are still many struggles to be fought: discrimination, chemicals that are dangerous to our health, lack of training for hairdressers. Moreover, Miguèle Serbin, hopes her association, the Advisory Council for the Valorization of Frizzy Hair in France, will succeed in getting French and European legislation moving - and why not include the word Nappy in the dictionary too?

However, "the Nappy movement does not only benefit black women," she assures. "During the Nappy events in Paris, we saw women of all origins and social backgrounds."

Thanks to the Nappy women, I actually learned how to take care of my chestnut curls with new specialized products, such as Noir Ô Naturel or Les Secrets de Loly, which gradually invaded my bathroom. Dedicated hair salons have also opened their doors, such as Boucles d'Ebène in 2011 in Bagneux (Hauts-de-Seine) and Le Bar à Boucle in Paris in 2018. Today their appointment book is even full up two months in advance.

***

Initially, wearing my hair natural was just a health issue for me, then it was a question of style and comfort. Now I know that it is militant.

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About the author

Portrait Mélanie
Mélanie Barbotin

Freelance journalist, graduated from ESJ Lille, I work for the written press, radio and the web. I've worked for Radio France and Ouest-France. I'm always equipped with my camera, microphone and pen, looking for stories.

Portrait Deborah
Deborah Adoh

I am a journalist specialized in sports. I graduated from the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille and I deal with all kinds of subjects. I like to highlight those who are not given enough space to speak: from disabled athletes to women scientists. Curious by nature, I like to discover new worlds and change my view of the world through meetings and reports.