African identities

The kinky! It’s part of me

The mistreatment of black women based on their hair is not new. The policing of Afro hair has been happening for centuries. In work settings, Afro-textured or kinky hair has often been perceived as undesirable, unprofessional and ugly. Such negative views have made many black women to spend a fortune on artificial hair, weaves and extensions. While it’s perfectly acceptable for black women to embrace artificial hair, it’s important to continue fighting prejudice against black and Afro hair.

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Dr. Chifuntu is a young Zambian medical doctor whose passion for natural hair beauty has influenced many. Photo supplied/Dr. Chifuntu

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line…which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair” — W.E.B Du Bois in a speech entitled To The Nations of Our World.

“One day I was having a conversation with an Asian friend, and he made a random comment about how black girls are always talking about how they love themselves, when they cannot even accept the hair that grows out of their scalp. Ouch! What if I could accept me!” Dr. Sampa Chifuntu Sichilima.

To Sampa, that conversation was life changing, it marked her Afrocentric journey of redefining what beauty really is on her own terms. On many occasions, I hear her contend that accepting yourself liberates you from so many life pressures. Sampa’s retort to that seemingly cut-throat comment about Black girls from our Asian brother, constantly reminds me of many African women world over, who believe without a shadow of doubt that once they accept who they are, they can be comfortable in their own skin.

Dr. Sampa Chifuntu Sichilima.

Dr. Chifuntu is a young Zambian medical doctor whose passion for natural hair beauty has influenced many. Her unusually long natural hair is admirable to many up-coming African natural hair fanatics. She currently wears many hats including that of being a mom and VIP ambassador at Natural Kurls, a saloon specialised in treating African natural hair.

Dr.Chifuntu stands tall on wearing her natural hair, but she respects that other African women may hold different views and opinions

While the doctor stands tall on wearing her natural hair, she respects that other African women may hold different views and opinions. However, she argues and maintains that there is a problem when inferiority complex drives individuals to think that “kinky hair” is not as lit as the hair type of other races.

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Unprofessional hair syndrome

Unprofessional hair” is a phrase mostly used in reference to natural African hair, hair which is usually hard in texture and appearance as compared with hairs types from other races. Though this phrase is slowly fading away, most Black women say they still  experience some form of “polite” racism in reference to their hair. 

A research by Dove indicates that, Black women’s hair is more policed in the workplace, and the hair from other races (particularly White/Caucasian) is more preferred in the workplace than African natural hair. Hair is perceived and judged differently, and unfairly so on Black women. This groundbreaking study “confirms workplace bias against hairstyles impacts Black women’s ability to celebrate their natural beauty, and how workplace bias and corporate grooming policies unfairly impact Black women”.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks after a screening of the film “Hidden Figures” at the White House, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 in Washington. Photo credit: NASA HQ PHOTO CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps that is what Michelle Obama meant to articulate when she was quoted saying; Americans “weren’t ready” for her natural hair during Barack Obama’s tenure at the White House. Straight, fine-textured hair has been considered superior to our kinky Afro hair for centuries, and that bias still persist to this day. It is thus unsurprising that people with Afro-textured hair still continue to face appearance-based discrimination.

An act called Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (Crown Act) was recently passed in the United States. This is a piece of legislation that will ban discrimination against individuals based on how they choose to wear their hair. Among the hairstyles mentioned in the legislation are those “in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros.”

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi writes that the natural hair movement began in the 1960s as a political statement by Black activists. “The movement permeated the 70s and dissipated in the 80s after Black people with afros started to be targeted for their activism against racial oppression. The trend took off again in the mid-2000s. It was accelerated when notable Black celebrities like Erykah Badu, Lupita Nyong’o, Janelle Monáe, Solange Knowles, Tracee Ellis-Ross, and Viola Davis began to wear natural styles,” Yongo-Okochi notes. Many other activists from different African countries born in the 90s are  reigniting the movement and are using their hair to raise awareness on important issues such as race and cultural identity. 

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Lupita Photo: Facebook/Lupita Nyong’o

Research by Mintel reveals that about 40% of Black women are most likely to wear their hair natural (no chemicals) with no-heat styling, which supports the view that across the U.S, Black women are fully embracing their natural hair. Conversely, African women still spend more than $250 (on average) on imported human hair (extensions, weaves and wigs). The more expensive the hair, the classier one is regarded among peers. While such scenarios are common place, many questions beg answers. Do African women suffer from stigma or is it just a matter of inferiority complex for some? Is the reason that African hair is just difficult to handle and time consuming valid? The debate rages on and others have argued whether natural hair movement has failed Black women. 

Is the reason that African hair is just difficult to handle and time consuming valid?

I took time to speak to few African women to hear their views about their hair preferences and experiences. Chitalu is a Zambian woman who prefers weaves and wigs to her natural hair, though she finds weaves limiting in terms of styling. She explained that weaves and wigs serve as a protective hairstyle though they often break the hair line if they have to be installed by glue. “Natural hair is not just easy for me to work with, as it’s very difficult to maintain and takes up a lot of her time. With wigs, I merely just put them on when going out as I just don’t have the time for natural hair,” Chitalu said.

African-American woman with natural hair. Photo: Wiki commons/www.nappy.co/license/)

Kaoma says she loves the attention that comes from having her short natural hair being the only African in her class. But she also expresses the troubles she goes through trying to keep it stylish and creative. She says she hates how much time she has to spend on it as its length requires creativity, which takes a great deal of time.

Growing up, most black girls were made to believe that straight long hair is the standard of what is beautiful presentable hair. As such, most of the girls and young women of that generation used hot iron combs to straighten it. African hair is extremely versatile, beautiful and sometimes unpredictable because of it’s ability to shrink when in contact with liquids or moisturisers. It’s the type of hair that has the ability to make one super creative, because within a day, week or month you can choose to either have the same hair style or many different hairstyles such as an Afro, straight hair, curled, braided or cornrows, you mention it.

The beginning of Dr. Chifuntu’s natural hair journey

In my deep dive conversation with Dr. Chifuntu, I asked her a number of questions about her journey, and she shared her non-complicated relationship with her natural hair. The statement made by my Asian friend triggered something inside of me, she said. What if I could accept me? My skin, my hair, my height, my weight and all that God created me to be?

Dr. Sampa Chifuntu Sichilima.

I asked her, what has been your biggest challenge? The natural hair journey is like every other journey. Full of ups and downs, she said. I like to compare it to skin, something we can all relate to. Skin sometimes glows, sometimes breaks out, sometimes it’s super moisturised and other times just dry. The biggest challenge has been finding good and affordable natural hair products, she added.

But are things changing?

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It is becoming evident that many women are making a conscious choice to wear their hair naturally and creatively so, as they feel more empowered and confident to adopt and embrace an Afrocentric hair and beauty look. Commenting on the journey, Dr. Chifuntu said, “It’s definitely better than it was in 2014 when I started my hair journey, People are more receptive towards it and it’s such a joy to see more people wearing their hair out, but we still have a long way to go”.

But has the journey been fulfilling and worthwhile, I wondered. I posed the question to Dr. Chifuntu, what has been your achievements through this journey? “My greatest achievement is all around me, on the heads of my colleagues, friends and families. Simply the privilege to inspire the next person to embrace their natural hair,” she noted.

When I asked about her views on why many Black women still prefer to wear Indian, Peruvian or Brazilian hair, Dr. Chifuntu put it simply — freedom of choice. “I would say preference. Some people just prefer straight hair and that really is ok. Hair is a form of self-expression and everyone should be allowed to wear it however they want”. “Unfortunately for some people it’s the crippling conformity to certain beauty standards that dictate that you must be light and have straight hair to be beautiful. And so they bleach their skin and wear straight hair to feel beautiful,” she added.

Dr. Sampa Chifuntu Sichilima.

While the journey has been long and tough, to the extent that Dr. Chifuntu considered wanting to quit her hair journey, her perseverance has yielded a fulfilling lifestyle. “When I started my hair journey I wanted long healthy natural hair fast. And when it didn’t happen in 2 days I wanted to give up. But over the years I have learnt my hair and also chosen to embrace it in whatever state it is. There is no giving up on something that is very much a part of you”.

Her journey is truly inspirational and she advises other Africans to embrace their natural beauty. “Dear Black child, you are beautiful just the way you are. Having had this conversation, I have come to a conclusion that though every African woman of course has a choice on what type of hair they decide to wear. They should wear it for the right reasons and not for reasons such as conforming to the prescribed beauty norms to suit the perception of a few,” she said.

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