The Connection Between Hair and Identity in Black Culture
Senior Director, Online Qualitative Research
The expression of beauty through hairstyles has been a long-standing signature of Black culture. From the “fro” to hair wraps to braids, Black women use their hairstyles as a personal expression of who they are and to show the evolution of Black culture over time, an evolution which has brought us to a time when more and more Black women are embracing the natural beauty of their own hair. However, it doesn’t escape controversy. Beauty, and specifically hair, in Black culture has been a sensitive topic of discussion for decades with roots all the way back to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
Recently, the connection between hair and identity has once again gained attention and garnered much debate within the Black community. Shea Moisture, a Black-owned hair company, has found itself in the middle of this debate after launching a new ad campaign. Since its founding, the company dedicated itself to providing its consumers, specifically Black women, with a range of natural products that span all hair types — from loose, bouncy curls to tight kinky strands. Historically, the brand has prided itself on filling in the beauty gap, normalizing and bringing more awareness to Black beauty while providing Black women with products that otherwise could not be found in traditional retail channels.
Their recent digital ad campaign sparked outrage when the company looked to appeal to a more mainstream audience by including Non-Hispanic Whites (NHWs) while excluding any representation of their core Black audience. Specifically, the ads seemed to gloss over the history and social hardships Black women have experienced in association with black hair stereotypes when compared to other cultural groups.
As with any topic that garners passionate responses, one must look at hair and cultural identity within the Black community for context. Social oppression, abuse, and racial discrimination have historically forced many Black women to hide their hair. For example, before the emancipation, hair wraps were used as a sign of oppression/social status and a means for Black women to make themselves less attractive to their owners. Fast forwarding to when Black women entered the industrial workforce, many felt forced to adopt a more anglicized practice when it came to hairstyles (straightened, processed, and altered from its natural curl pattern/state). Even today, in certain places, industries, or workplaces, traditionally Black hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, are restricted and can be a cause for termination. An 11th circuit court of appeals recently ruled that banning employees for wearing their hair in “locs” does not qualify as racial discrimination.
To help in understanding the emotional significance hair has on Black culture and identity, one doesn’t have to look too far within our Black communities to understand the effects. Each woman has her own story or “hair journey” often marked by struggles stemming back to childhood. As a Black woman, I’ve experienced my own struggles to embrace my hair in its natural state and, to this day, consider it a vital step in accepting and defining my own cultural identity. As a young girl, I was often subjected to teasing because of my big “puffy” mane; however, my mom vowed to not ruin my natural curls with processed relaxers or straighteners. I’ll never forget one day when I came home from my aunt’s house with a fresh relaxer (that my aunt applied without permission). My mom was enraged and a bit heartbroken. She told me my hair was beautiful, and it would never be the same. At the time, all I wanted was “manageable hair,” and if I were brutally honest with myself, I simply wanted hair that would help me blend in with everyone else in my small Springfield, Illinois community. Looking back, what I think my mom was trying to tell me was that my hair, and specifically I, was beautiful without being altered. Throughout high school and into my first years of college, I continued processing my hair, in part for ease as well as to prevent any damage or breakage (a side effect of discontinuing these chemical products).
After continuing this vicious cycle into my junior year, I’d had enough of the damage/effects these chemicals had on my hair and looked to break free of my reliance on them by embarking on a journey to “go natural.” What proceeded me was countless hours of styling, researching and trying new products, and many hours spent in the salon to finally find what worked best for my hair type. Looking back, it was the best decision I made and correlated with a bigger milestone in my life, a sense of confidence and acceptance of the person I was becoming. Wow how empowering! It all came full circle when I took a trip back home after college with my natural curls in full force and someone said to me, “Wow you look beautiful, that hairstyle really fits you…Why didn’t you wear your hair like that back in high school?” And then I realized what changed was that I finally felt comfortable being “me” regardless of the opinions of others.
Ask any other Black women, and they will have their own personal stories, experiences, and journeys with their hair. Shea Moisture is a brand that has always embraced these experiences and emotional connections in their products and ads. When a brand disassociates itself from the attributes that have played such a major role in defining and establishing its identity, what exactly has the brand done wrong? In this case, the brand may have briefly lost sight of its roots, of its core audience, their values, struggles, and triumphs. Black culture embraces inclusiveness, but it also yearns to be heard and personally catered to. As market researchers, it’s our job to never lose sight of these core values, beliefs, and emotional connections that give brands life. History, culture, traditions, social struggles can’t be denied. When brands ignore the importance of these elements, they are denying the value of that culture’s identity, obliterating the very makeup of who the members of that culture are. Providing the space for not just Blacks, but all cultures, to feel accepted and celebrated for the things that make them unique is what it’s all about!
Join us as we continue to explore our own journeys in understanding our cultural history and how we define our cultural identities in a new series of blogs around culture and ancestry coming soon!