My afro isn’t superficial — it’s political

Angela Davis
Angela Davis

Not since the civil rights movement has the afro been so visible, but now its purpose isn’t just political — it’s aesthetic. Designers now use “natural” models regularly, countless black-owned online stores and care sites have sprouted up, and even mainstream cosmetic brands have developed product ranges catered to kinks and coils. For me, however, the journey to my afro definitely was political. It was also deeply personal and a way to solidify and explore my identity as someone with black heritage.

I grew up in a small village on the south coast of England, where I was the only mixed girl and one of only three black people in my school. Despite not having a white parent, I was born with a form of partial albinism, which gave me white skin and green eyes. The only “black” feature that remained was a wild kinky mass of hair atop my head that set me apart from everyone and made me a perfect target for racial bullying. I was beaten up and had gum put in my hair on buses — but it wasn’t just students who were doing the bullying. My head of year (i.e. the teacher responsible for my grade), Miss Fearon, referred to me as “you with the hair” until my parents complained. My other year leader, Miss Ellard, called me into her office one day to yell at me about daring to wear a “provocative” hairstyle to school. I experienced this kind of treatment literally every day until the age of 16, when I left school and my mother allowed me something I’d wanted since I was a little girl, that every other adult woman on her side had: a chemical relaxer.

Relaxers are strong, alkaline chemicals that soften the structure of the kinky hair shaft, permanently straightening strands and allowing submission into Caucasian styling and ease of brushing. What no one tells you is that the process causes damage and breakage, chemical burns on the scalp, and requires top-ups every three months to keep the roots from looking odd. But I didn’t care, I smiled at myself in the mirror — the smile widening when my stylist told me I’d look just like Beyoncé when she was done. Not for the first time, I bit my lip and squirmed in the seat, trying not to think about the burning sensation creeping across my scalp.

And there it is. How many celebrated black women in the mainstream have their natural kinks and curls on display? Since colonialism and slavery, “nappy” has been used as an insult, and slaves used anything they could to flatten their hair — from butter to kerosene. Upon their separation from their tribes, hair practices like intricate threading, braids, and tools were lost and the concept of “good” and “bad” hair was formed. The dominant, Eurocentric beauty standard reigned supreme and black women spent billions trying to achieve it. It still reigns. Again, think of “Queen Bey,” probably considered the most beautiful black woman in the world… Who is also never seen without her waist-length, straight, blonde wig. It’s no coincidence.

Soraya Heydari with straightened hair, before her revelation in China
Soraya Heydari with straightened hair, before her revelation in China

But I loved not standing out. I loved that men no longer stopped their cars to throw cans at me and scream about my hair, or corner me in doorways just to tell me how stupid I looked. I actually felt pretty for once, which made the scabby scalp and intense fear of rain (it’s hard to avoid the frizz in England!) all worth it. On top of the relaxer, I used my heated straighteners to fry my withered strands into bone-straight, brittle submission, so it always broke before it passed an inch past my shoulders. But who cared? I looked the way pretty girls looked.

After a couple of years working and not fitting in at college, I decided to fulfill a dream of mine and moved to Asia. By chance, I ended up in China. The experience was intense and exhausting but taught me a lot about myself and culture. I was a nanny to a wealthy family and during the school day I had the freedom to explore the city I lived in — Hangzhou — browsing stores with make-up departments that displayed huge blow-ups of artificially lightened models.

I was struck by the extent to which colourism affects Asia — something I hadn’t considered before living there. On the way back up to my floor in the apartment building my host family lived in, there was a poster advertising skin lightening, with painful-sounding procedures and ominous creams promising to give women with darker skin a face lightened by several shades. My initial reaction was scorn, thinking one would have to be very vain to consider that, but then I began to really look at myself in the mirror. How exactly was I working to dismantle the white beauty myth with this all of the tedious effort every day? I was just reinforcing it.

I left China some months later, as well as the boxes upon boxes of relaxer I’d squirreled away at the back of my closet in anticipation of a drought. I was done.

I relearned my hair, healthy practices, and products. I threw away my straighteners and my blow dryer and began to transition, fear and excitement growing with every fresh, curly inch. I moved to Mexico where I worked full-time as a freelance writer, and from there followed a friend to Los Angeles, where I found a creative environment full of incredible looking, inspirational black women, rocking their hair on the street, and a boyfriend who adored my hair, for once. After a year, my hair was a half and half mess of relaxed and curly, so he offered to cut it off for me. As each tress was trimmed, my hair sprung outward with life, framing my head like a halo. As he brushed the loose hairs from my back, I burst into tears with shock. It took weeks to feel comfortable, but after adjusting I felt freer than I had in a long time.

My partner cutting the last vestiges of limp, faux-caucasian locks off for me
My partner cutting the last vestiges of limp, faux-caucasian locks off for me

White women might say “it’s only hair,” but the intense shaming women of colour are exposed to — both within and outside the community — around natural hair is staggering. Like many mixed people, I experienced some hostility from both sides, and was occasionally subjected to other types of slurs, this time from groups of black men seemingly put-out I was wearing my afro outside, as well as online, where the opinions I expressed in natural hair groups on social media were derided as coming from a “half-breed mongrel” with a “wig.” The afro also “exoticized” my look, and strangers in the street started touching my hair without asking, including a restaurant owner, who dug his hands deep into hair murmuring “beautiful, beautiful,” leaving me stunned, standing in the doorway of his restaurant.

Fast forward to today: It’s been years since I’ve used heat or permanent chemicals on my hair. I use black-owned, store-bought leave-in conditioner and mineral or coconut oil. My hair, now waist length when wet, has never been healthier. I’ve never felt better or more confident about the way I look.

Soraya Heydari
Soraya Heydari

Let me be clear, the state of a black woman’s hair has no bearing on her “blackness.” Black women might love the ease and the look of straighter hair, or need they might to keep it that way for professional reasons (employers discriminate massively — for a long time the US army, for example, disallowed certain braids that are essential to black women’s hair care), and that is up to them. But for me, my natural hair helped me embrace my identity and sow the seeds for me to learn more about black feminism and politics.

All I ask is that white women don’t use words like “nappy,” or “frizzy” as an insult. The next time you see Oprah or Beyonce wearing rocking their weave, ask yourself why that is, or give Chris Rock’s fantastic documentary, Good Hair, a watch.

It might seem superficial, but to me it’s political — it’s about throwing off the lingering colonialism that blights the lives of women of colour, making them feel second best. My hair is who I am.

Soraya Heydari is a Black Anglo-Iranian writer, living in LA and working in the music industry.

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  • oneclickboedicea

    I must admit to having a love of a short cropped afro on a woman. Like the pixie cut for white women of a certain age, I think it looks fab and defiant plus being easy to look after!

    • Soraya

      God this is the dream, I don’t think I’m brave enough to let my features just hang out like that but I’m working my way to being brave enough.

  • Gardenia

    I throroughly enjoyed this article and I can’t tell you how much I relate! I, as a mixed girl, also had the wish to relax my hair when I was younger, but I actually wanted to go beyond that.
    I remember when I was about 8 years old and at school a girl had made a derogatory comment about my skin color. When I got home I hid in the closet for hours because I didn’t want to tan at all and I somehow thought it would make me white. It didn’t help that a year later a guy I liked said that he didn’t like me because I was too dark for him. Needless to say I was very sad and insecure for a very long time. As I got older I slowly learned to accept myself and I also wear my hair as it is naturally.
    I am so happy that you learned to fully accept yourself as well!
    Solidarity! xx

    • Soraya

      Colorism has always floored me, especially because in my family the black women compete when they tan on vacation to see who can get the darkest. It breaks my heart that you went through that, as personally I’ve always thought darker skin was a lot nicer than pale. If that picture is you then I’m glad you’ve come to accept yourself because you look gorgeous.

      Solidarity!

      • Gardenia

        Aww thanks! You are gorgeous as well. 🙂

  • therealcie

    Your natural hair is beautiful!
    It isn’t the same thing, but my hair started going gray when I was 27. I dyed it until I was in my mid forties. My hair is very thick and doesn’t tend to absorb color well, so I started bleaching it. It became brittle and was falling out.
    I finally decided that I was no longer going to destroy my hair to appease those who have been brainwashed to believe that gray hair is bad because it means being old and being old is deemed ugly in Western society.
    I also decided that I was going to keep my hair long, because I’m not going to pander to those who feel that women over a certain age “shouldn’t” have long hair.
    Again, I’m not attempting to compare racism and ageism. However, women’s bodies as public property does come into play in both cases.

    • Alienigena

      I never comment on anyone’s appearance including their hair. I think it upsets certain people but I just don’t. People are weird about hair though … dead modified skin cells receive a lot of attention, too much really. My hair crime is that I let it grow uncut for months (with thick (in sense of lots of individual hairs, the actual hairs are fine in texture) curly (actually kinked to the point of being self tangling) hair that is probably considered a crime). My hair is actually turning white (still has pigment and shiny oil slick-like affect of hair with colour) not gray, I had white blonde hair as a child, and darker hair as an adult and now I have hairs of a variety of colours (red, so dark that it looks black, white blonde, strawberry blonde, brown) … don’t ask me as to why. I have natural streaks of light hair. Never dyed my hair just seems an unpleasant and pointless process. I didn’t know what African American women went through … it sounds like torture. Hairstylists have suggested that I straighten my unruly hair so I can imagine the bad advice and suggestions they make to women of African descent. Some people ‘envy’ my naturally curly hair. I think not listening to other people is best. Mostly they offer bad advice and personal prejudice. I like others on this forum always liked afros (short or long). But I understand the impulse to control ‘unruly’ hair because sometimes I get very short cuts so I don’t have to deal with the curl.

  • fragglerock

    Appearances take on a special meaning for mixed-race people. When I was younger, I felt a certain ambivalence about being mixed and still feel that today. People make a lot of assumptions based on appearances, not the least of which are shared social and political views. I don’t feel like those things should be related, but they are and they’re definitely worth reflecting on.

  • Soraya

    Thank you!

    Another thing I’d note as a half Iranian woman is the reclaiming of the word ‘Aryan’. As someone with literal Aryan blood (Iran translates as the “land of Aryans”) I resent that my other culture has been taken and warped by the West to simply mean Western European features. Good Hair was definitely just scratching the surface from a man’s point of view but like you said, at least it triggered the discussion among people who probably never thought about hair and all it means before.