A Paper I Wrote in Law School: An Introduction

Sharing a small piece of my childhood and formative years with you is the best way for me to introduce myself. To let you into how, over the course of writing this paper, I found true pride in being Black. This is the introduction of the three-part, 30-page paper I wrote for a Race and the Law course that morphed into a personal reflection on my identity. Eventually, I want to take each part and improve and expand on them. 

 

 

THEIR NATURAL ISN’T OUR NATURAL: WHY WE DON’T KNOW OUR HAIR

Hair seems to be such a little thing. Yet it is the little things, the small everyday realities of life, that reveal the deepest meanings and values of a culture, give legal theory its grounding, and test its legitimacy.

 –Paulette M. Caldwell

Introduction

When I use the term we, I mean Black women with curly, coily, or kinky hair textures. When I say “Black,” I am referring to a person’s African ancestry. When I say African-American, I intend to single out the Black Americans who have a direct tie to the legacy of Jim Crow.  To demonstrate, I will use my multi-layered identity as an example. Layer 1: I was born in Miami, Florida, therefore I am American. Layer 2: My parents were born in the Dominican Republic so that makes me Dominican-American and Latina. Layer 3 (final layer): The slave trade and colonialization made it so that the Caribbean became the hodgepodge of complexions, languages, cultures, and hair types it is today. I am dark and my hair is kinky so my African ancestry is obvious. Because of this I am Afro-Latina and to be even more specific, Afro-Caribbean (because you can be Afro-Latina from Brazil, for example, but Brazil is not in the Caribbean). All that to say, I am a black American woman but my family migrated to the U.S. after the mid-70’s so they were mostly unscathed by the oppressiveness of the Jim Crow era and the Civil-Rights struggle the followed. Because their experiences were not filled with separate but equal, I was not raised with a heightened sense of inferiority or anti-white sentiments. This is important to me because as I talk about different groups of people and different history, I don’t ever wish to minimize or generalize the experiences of those groups, and also because it shapes who I am and who I am not.

As little as four years ago, I lacked this clarity in my identity. I never felt empty, or lost, but now I feel whole. I didn’t always have this self-assurance backed by history. This is new. Growing up in Miami, I always felt like everyone else, but I always felt different. My friends and I shared similar interests, immigrant parents, and cultural duality. But they were white with soft hair (they were not white, I just thought they were), while I was dark with kinky hair. I hated it because my life revolved around my hair (in a negative way) to a great extent.

People have compared me to so many different women that I’m convinced they just pick their favorite Black female celebrity and tell me I look like them. The comparisons range from Raven Symoné to Beyoncé, and even Stacey Dash. That one is my favorite because I think it’s the most ridiculous. Stacey Dash has green eyes and really soft wavy hair. In the spectrum of all Black shades I am not the darkest or the lightest, but I am certainly dark enough for the world to identify me as a Black woman before I have the opportunity to open my mouth and tell them the wonderful story of how because of colonialism, I exist. I know this because people have complimented me with “you’re the prettiest Black girl I’ve ever met,” which I find highly offensive. But I digress.

I have no memory of enduring my first relaxer because it happened before I even had the chance to form memory. It was for a very special occasion – my one-year-old birthday party. I do remember being angry every Saturday morning when I was in elementary school. I was subjected to torture in the form of heat-blasting appliances and smelly chemicals. My mom has soft wispy curls while my dad has good ol’ kinks. I’m proud of my mom. She did what she could with what she had. She didn’t have the tools to educate me on my hair but she did make sure I always looked good. Or she tried when I hollered in protest.

Middle school was by far the worse. The usual awkwardness was there, but mine felt magnified because, at least my friends had nice hair. I had bad hair and it was ruining my life. I was to avoid water at all costs. That’s my most painful memory. Nothing hurt more than having to choose between going to a pool party and not getting in the pool, or not going to the party at all. I’m a Pisces – these were tough decisions. By the time I got to high school I was so deep into weaves my hair fell out my senior year, and college was a sad mix of relaxers, clip-in extensions, pulled back buns, and too much breakage.

It’ been about 15 years since then and I am a student of myself now. I am 27 years old and my relationship with my hair is no longer dictated by animosity. I love it now. Not like I wake up everyday and sit in admiration of how perfect my every kink and coil is. But Instead, I love every kink and coil because it represents a greater story. I am just a little over a year of transitioning, or going natural, or returning to natural. I am thankful for the timing of my life because it allowed me to transition while in law school. This gave me perspective outside of my own experience.

So there I was, a newly minted natural in the summer of my 3L year, hopping from one natural hair blog to the next when I came across an article about a Court of Appeals in the 11th Circuit (Georgia, Alabama, and Florida) that unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling that an employer could condition a job offer based on the candidate’s hairstyle, and that dreadlocks are not a fixed or “immutable characteristic of black persons.”[1] To say that my interest in the self-determination of Black womanhood and the law peaked, is an understatement, but more on that story later. Something within me clicked and I realized that my hair, it’s not just hair. I see it more symbolically as something that is hardly ever worthy of legal protection. My research led to my ultimate disappointment in the judiciary’s lack of understanding, but I’m not surprised by it either. My experience transitioning from chemically-processed hair to natural has taught me that in a society where appearance management is pervasive, Black women cannot defend a part of ourselves we do not love or understand. But before we can even defend, we need to understand what Black hair is and what it means in a socio-historical context.

My goal in Part I is to highlight how cultural practices often come to be, because of biological needs. It is important to begin a discussion of “natural hair” with an explanation of what that means, both scientifically and socially. Before discussing any social implications about black hair, a brief biological description is worthwhile. This is our starting point. Natural hair is a nuanced term defined by life experiences. When a black woman says she “wears her hair natural,” she is referring to the fact that she does not chemically alter her hair. A discussion of Black women’s hair in America would also be grossly incomplete without a brief understanding of the intersection of hair and slave-trade history. Years of slavery incubated a transgenerational battle between black women and their hair.

Part II will focus on Black women being confounded with having to work against their hair in an effort to conform because they are not aware of their history how this history. Society does not understand how biological needs play out when intersected with corporate social norms and a brief review of the handful of cases that set the tone more than 20 years ago are resonating today. I conclude with my own perspective on how apply this information in my life.

 

 

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[1] A. B. Wilkinson, No Dreadlock Allowed, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/11/no-dreadlocks-allowed/506270/ (Nov. 3, 2016).