Misconceptions & Stereotypes about African hairstyling, propagated by black people themselves.
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
There are many misconceptions about what black hairstyling is and they are mainly propagated by black people themselves. In fact, I would argue that most white people don’t know anything about black hair and get most of their misconceptions about what it is from black people.
“The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” Steve Biko reminds us.
The colonizers stripped off our identity and gave us new ones, much was lost and what we now have is influenced by their philosophies and religions.
In our own minds, anything we deem to be “too African” is considered backward and ugly.
Looking at a continent that was and still is highly controlled and influenced by western culture, I think it is time we start to challenge the authenticity of the post-colonial African identity and fight to decolonize it. The slave and colonial mentality have to stop.
Aren’t we in African bodies with European minds?
Maybe you've also seen or heard of people complaining about African hairstyles for being dirty and "unprofessional" in African work-place environments.
Colonial-style dress code was couched in the language of "decency", the idea of "dressing decently" or "smartly", the language that is still often used in postcolonial Africa.
African conservative institutions – religions, schools, militaries, corporations and so on – have the right to prescribe a dress code. However, these should not be based on partial knowledge where these institutions simply don’t do any research into what some of their prohibitions actually mean and their destructive influence on the unique qualities of African identity.
From slavery to colonialism, below are some stereotypes about black hairstyles and the destructive influence of western culture;
In the 18th century, British colonists classified African hair as closer to sheep wool than a human hair. Enslaved and free blacks who had less kinky, more European-textured hair and lighter skin, often a result of plantation rape, received better treatment than those with more typically African features.
After Emancipation, straight hair continued to be the required look for access to social and professional opportunities. Most black people internalized the idea that their natural hair was unacceptable, and by the early 20th century wore it in straightened styles often achieved with dangerous chemical processes or hot combs, or they wore wigs.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Black Power movement declared that “black is beautiful” and not least unstraightened natural black hair.
But in many settings, black hair was still a battleground. In the 1980s civil rights groups led boycotts against the Hyatt hotel chain after it terminated a black female employee for wearing cornrows.
In 1999, couriers for Federal Express were fired for wearing dreadlocks. In 2013, 7-year-old Tiana Parker was told her dreadlocks violated her elementary school’s dress code in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke was threatened with expulsion from her private school in Orlando, because her natural hair was deemed a “distraction.”
Of recently, January 2019 in Kenya, Makeda Ndinda who was granted admission to Olympic Secondary School in Kibra was asked by the deputy principal to choose to cut her hair or leave the school.
One of the most enduring stereotypes about black hair is that people will even cite the “anecdotal” evidence that Bob Marley’s dreads had 47 different types of lice when he died. These are urban legends of the worst kind because they perpetuate the stereotype that only black hair attracts lice, and other vermin, which is simply scientifically untrue.
The association of locks with dirt partly comes from the Caribbean where Rastafarianism emerged as a subculture. However, even in this instance, the misconception is that dreadlocks equal Rastafarianism. The Rastas got their locks from Africa. To be exact, matted African hair was transported to the Caribbean by images of Ethiopian soldiers who were fighting the Italian invasion which began in 1935.
When a black person decides to “dread” or lock their hair, they neither need nor keep “dirt” in it to make it lock. Our hair (as does all hair) locks naturally when it is left uncombed or unbrushed.
In most African cultures, hair is associated with social status, religion, authority, and a person’s tribal background. And for many, African hair is art.
African institutions, schools, corporations and so on .. need to take the leading role in upholding the value of black people's identity, standards, and outlook. They should focus on productive results and not on whether one is preserving the dress code from the remnants of our colonizers.
The black people need to judge themselves according to their own African standards and not to be fooled by colonial masters who have white-washed themselves and made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other.
The creativity, energy, and innovation of Africa’s youth shall be the driving force behind the continent’s political, social, cultural and economic transformation.