Symbol of the fight against racism, natural hair in the African-American community, without straightening treatments, is part of racial discrimination in the United States despite decades of lawsuits in court
It is no wonder that a conversation with Malaika-Tamu Cooper, 53, a hairdresser owner, starts with her hair and ends up addressing slavery. Being African American forced her to face a dilemma that women of other ethnicities may ignore: growing her natural, curly hair, or subjecting it to chemicals to tame it. What may seem like a trivial, even vain act to some, involves deciding how to “survive in white corporate America.” Wearing her dreadlocks is a kind of declaration of principles against “the Eurocentric beauty canons,” as she stated in one of her salons in Baltimore (Maryland) before the coronavirus crisis forced its temporary closure. When the salon reopened in late May, the largest wave of racial protests erupted in the United States in half a century. A movement that Cooper supports and is adamant about: “It’s not about law and order, but about oppression.”
Most black women use chemical lotions to straighten their hair. Many want to wear an Afro style or dreadlocks or braids, like their ancestors, but they don’t dare. They may be afraid of losing a job or the fear of being rejected, even by the elders of their families, who do not see free hair as an option. Symbol of the fight for civil rights, despite decades of lawsuits in court, natural hair in African Americans is still an excuse for racial discrimination in the US A systemic discrimination that has been around the world in recent weeks for the riots against police abuse towards the community following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white agent during a brutal arrest, on May 25 in Minneapolis. But that, in reality, it is a scourge that spreads to all corners of society and that can also be told through beauty salons.
Cooper’s mother, one of the first women in the Baltimore Black Panther organization, divided her little girl’s afro hair into two ponytails. But her grandmother – “a stoic Catholic,” she recalls -, with whom she lived half the year, ironed it for her. “My grandmother was born in the 1920s and her mother in the late 19th century. During that time they wanted to make sure we looked clean, that we had what they understood to be a healthy hair. This is a brainwashed generation of which there are still reminiscences, ”Cooper laments.
The Dreadz N Head Saloon is bustling with people on a Friday in February. The smell of shampoo mixes with that of fried chicken sitting in a takeout container on Cooper’s table. The thin dreadlocks of the woman reach one and a half meters in length. She did not always carry it that way. In the 1990s, she worked for the Picture People photographic company. According to her account, after 10 years as an employee, she informed her boss, white, that she would begin to wear an Afro style. “[Mi jefe] He replied that he couldn’t because it wouldn’t look professional. Either I would get the perm straight or lose my job. ” Cooper resigned and became a “master of natural hair.” She has been giving talks about the importance of valuing natural hair for almost three decades, an endeavor that has taken her to large capitals such as London and Paris, and African countries such as Nigeria.
Malaika-Tamu Cooper now owns two hair salons that specialize in styling characteristic African-American hair. The pandemic hit business hard in the first month, but now he says demand is higher than before. Chemical products are not used in their establishments, something that has helped increase their clientele, especially among the millennials. “They are redefining us because they are putting in value what we think is beauty, not what the TV says it is,” he explains. Wearing natural hair is also a bonus for your pocket.
The hair industry in the African-American community moves about 2.5 billion dollars (2.3 billion euros), according to the market research agency Mintel. This figure, from 2019, excludes what is invested in wigs, extensions and visits to the hairdresser, so it is considered a fairly conservative estimate. Protests against racism have had a first impact on police departments due to abuse allegations, but also on beauty product windows. The multinational Walmart announced in mid-June that it will abandon the controversial practice of keeping “multicultural” hair products under lock and key, which in practice are mostly consumed by African-Americans.
But the battle has not only been in beauty salons. For decades, U.S. courts have received lawsuits from African-Americans who were fired from their jobs for wearing natural hair, without domar. In 2010, Chastity Jones, an African American from Alabama, received an offer to work in customer service for Catastrophe Management Solutions. However, the requirement was that he cut his dreadlocks because “they tended to get messy.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Jones’ behalf in 2013 and lost. In 2016, an Appeals Court upheld the ruling and dismissed the case. The Supreme Court did not want to hear him. Like many, Jones refused to change her hairstyle because it is an expression of her “heritage, culture and racial pride,” as described by another plaintiff, who was fired for not unbraiding her hair.
Although women are the most affected in the United States, this problem also affects men. Malcolm X, the legendary activist for the rights of African Americans, recounts in a chapter of his autobiography, published in the 1960s, the first time a conk, term with which the chemical is known to straighten male hair. “It was my first big step towards self-degradation: when I endured all that pain [al echar lejía en mi cuero cabelludo]I literally burned my skin to look like a white man’s hair. ” Therefore, the film director Spike Lee decided that in Malcolm X, the film about the activist’s life, the first act of rebellion in his conversion was to show his natural hair again.
The case is reminiscent of J. West, 40, with dreadlocks that fall to her waist. He grew up in a military school where he was forced to keep his hair close to zero. “After I graduated, my hair became part of who I am, I stopped cutting it in 2007,” he says proudly in Baltimore. Similar situations of affirmation of identity have also occurred in various educational centers in the country. In early June, Kieana Hooper publicly denounced her 18-year-old daughter’s high school in Texas for prohibiting her from participating in the graduation ceremony if she did not remove her braids. In that same state, two mothers sued their children’s school at the end of May after they were suspended for wearing dreadlocks. One of them argued that she used them to honor her family, originally from Trinidad.
Despite the fact that this type of discrimination runs through the country, there are some states that have begun to take action. California, New York and New Jersey last year approved the ley Crown (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, creates a respectful and open workplace for natural hair), which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle, also in schools. Colorado and Virginia did the same in March and another score of states have introduced bills to sanction black hair discrimination in their respective state Congresses.
When an African-American woman abandons chemicals to leave her hair natural, she refers to the decision as “the journey.” It is a journey to self-love. That of Gillian Scott-Ward, a 38-year-old doctor in psychology, began in 2013 in a classroom at the prestigious Harvard University, where she is a professor. “Many black students came worried to ask me if their appearance was going to have a negative impact on their working life,” she says by phone a few months after the premiere of her documentary Back to the natural, which addresses the cultural value of hair for those from Africa and the discrimination they suffer in different parts of the world. “Not everyone has the privilege of being who they are,” he adds. Scott-Ward has been perming straight for as long as he can remember, but he realized the wrong message he was sending to his students and decided to leave his hair as it grows naturally: curly.
“The police abuse, the discrimination at work, the rejection of our natural hair, all of this is linked in the idea that blacks are less than human beings. This time, the protests [contra la brutalidad policial], being multiracial, can help heal this collective trauma ”, he adds. “We went from slavery to segregation, and now this. We have not healed ourselves as a country and to do so we have to accept everything that includes being black. What are people like in children’s books, what are their hairs like? ”, The psychologist asks. And is that the lack of references is an essential part of this story.