For Black Women Wearing an Afro Is Always a Political Act

by Stacia L. Brown for The New Republic

When I cut my hair last summer, I sheared 12 inches of chemically straightened hair from the coarser curls closest to my scalp. I had only an inch of hair in its natural state; at the time, I felt free.

I was working from home for a non-profit, so I didn't think much about how my "big chop" would be received by my co-workers. A few months after the haircut, though, my contract ended and I was on the job market again with a rapidly-sprouting afro. It was the first time in 15 years of professional life that I’d ever interviewed for office positions with my hair in its natural state.

I was wary enough to poll my social media feeds: Should I straighten my afro? Should I get braided extensions that could be styled into a neat, efficient updo? Or should I walk in unapologetically, my hair as free as it was on the day I cut it? Feedback was wide-ranging. One friend admonished me to avoid braids, suggesting I’d only be replacing one stereotype (“militant”) with another (“ghetto”). Others told me I was right to rethink walking in “with a bush.” A blowout was gingerly suggested. Eventually, I sauntered into those interviews with my TWA—teeny weeny afro—in part because I resented that I’d had to deliberate at all. That none of my interviewers mentioned my hair directly afforded me a few sighs of relief, but every time I apply for a new position, I return to those same aesthetic anxieties.

Last week, Allure reminded me of this when it published a feature on afros that entirely erased women of color (“You (Yes, You) Can Get An Afro*” the headline read, with an asterisk: “*even if you have straight hair”). In 2015, only particularly willful ignorance could account for an afro hairstyle magazine spread that treats the afro as a white woman's entitlement. "An Afro is not an introvert’s hairstyle,” they write, apparently uninterested in its political overtones. “This is confident hair.”

I am an introvert, and I owe whatever confidence my afro projects to the women and men of the ’60s and ’70s Black Power movement, who originated the style and provided me a template for how to deal with any backlash I might receive for wearing it.

For black women and those women whose hair is like mine—tightly coiled, not loosely curly—that confidence isn’t an aesthetic option. It’s a necessity, as we navigate professional and public spaces where our natural hair won’t always be welcome. The decision to wear an afro or any other “unstraightened” hairstyle is only as “ballsy” and “powerful”—Allure’s words—as our ability to obtain and maintain employment, navigate stereotypes and discrimination, and deal with microaggressions like unwanted hair-touching. (That’s not even to mention that to wear an afro means we have to convince ourselves that years of advertising positioning straight hair as necessary to either enhance our beauty or to boost our chances at professional advancement were wrong.)

Writer Bridget Marie addressed some of these affronts in a satirical post over at Medium:

Get ready to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about what others are thinking about your hair. Do they think you look “too ethnic?” “Unpolished?” “Too political?” Will a prospective employer be less likely to hire you if you show up with your Fro to a job interview? These are all real questions you’re going to need to start thinking through if you’re planning on rocking those curls.

Continue reading at The New Republic.

Photo: Shutterstock

Stacia L. Brown was born in Lansing, MI. She grew up in Baltimore, MD–the county, not the city. She graduated from Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) with a BA in English that didn’t really help her land any jobs. She worked a few office gigs, while trying to jump-start her writing career. At 27, she finished an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She spent the next six and a half years working as an adjunct writing professor first in Michigan, then in Maryland. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, Slate, and many other publications.

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