The Black Hair Experience: An Identity Crisis
SUNY Jefferson
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The Black Hair Experience: An Identity Crisis

Margaret Taylor

           My father was a humorous man. He often told jokes. I don’t know where he got them. I’m not sure if he heard them from comedians, other people, or made them up himself. One of the jokes that I will always remember went like this.

           There were three men. One White, one Chinese, and one Black. It was the day that God was giving out hair to the human race.

           God told the White man to jump in the water and swim over to get his hair. And he did.

           God told the Chinese man to jump in the water and swim over to get his hair. And he did.

           God told the Black man to jump in the water and swim over to get his hair. And the Black
           man said why don’t you just ball it up and throw it to me. And that is why Black people
           have nappy hair.

           I first heard this joke from my father when I was a child. As an adult, I have shared the joke with select close friends who thought it was hilarious because it speaks to the trials and tribulations that Black people have with their hair—especially Black women. These women struggle to decide if they should force their hair to look straight with the use of chemicals and other techniques or to allow their hair to be in its natural state. The Black women’s journey of taking care of their hair is often a painful and extends into adulthood. It requires a great deal of self-reflection as one learns how to manage and create a loving relationship with their hair. It requires the exploration of one’s self-identify. This discussion of black hair refers to the hair of people of African descent. For the purpose of this essay, the use of the term Black is inclusive of anyone of African descent.

Hair Type

           In general, hair is categorized in four groups which are Type 1 for straight hair, Type 2 for wavy hair, Type 3 for curly hair, and Type 4 for kinky hair (Ellis-Hervey et al., 2016). Typically, black hair does not fall in the Type 1 category. When black hair is in the Type 2 and Type 3 categories, it is usually due to the mixing of race in which the person’s genetics has allowed for this hair type. For the most part, the majority of Blacks have hair that falls within the Type 4 category, and within this category are additional subcategories. For this essay, I will keep this simple and just focus on Type 4 hair.

           I remember as a child sitting on the kitchen floor between my mother legs as she hot combed my hair to make it straight. This technique of straightening black hair was commonly referred to as press n curl. The hot comb is a metal comb that is placed on heat to make it hot. My mother used the fire from the gas stove eye to make the comb hot. The heat from the hot comb is what caused the hair to straighten. As she slowly combed through my hair, I could hear the crackling, see the steam, and the smell of scorched hair in the air. On some occasions the hot comb would accidentally touch my ear or the nape of my neck, leaving burnt marks. In my teenage years, I moved to using hair relaxers which are chemicals that forces the hair to be straight. The relaxer is available in a box kit that you can purchase in stores to treat hair at home. There was also the ever so popular Jheri Curl in the 1980s which was prevalent during my teenage years. The Jheri Curl was a chemical treatment that caused the hair to have a wavy and curly look. At one point, everyone in my family had the Jheri Curl, including me.

           After graduating from high school in the late 1980s, I was preparing for the workforce in hopes of getting a job in an office environment. I was told by adults that I need to look the part in order to get the part. Not only do I need to focus on my attire but also my hair. My hair needs to be presentable; in other words, no braids or untamed hair styles such as afros. It was important that I presented an overall professional look that was acceptable in the workplace. In other words, I need to maintain a straighten hair style to conform to the Eurocentric look. As my career advanced and I gained more exposure to the culture of various workplaces, I begin to question: Why am I doing all these things to my hair? Why can’t I just wear my hair in its natural state in the way God created me? Why is it so difficult for society to accept people for their physical differences including their hair type?

Black Power Movement

           It was later in my adulthood when I obtained a better understanding of the complexities of the Black community and hair, and how it relates to the perception of outsiders, and how it may shape an individual’s social identity. In the article by Collins, she explores how the power relations within communities can influence social relations and develop political significance. This caused me to think about the Black Power Movement in the 1960s. The movement advocated for the civil and political rights of African Americans in the United States. The movement also promoted Black pride in which the Black community was encouraged to embrace their natural features. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” became popular during this time. As a result, the afro became a very popular hair style that displayed the natural state of the black hair. Not only was it a symbol of black pride but also a political statement in supporting the Black Power Movement.

           Some members of the outer group (White people) interpreted the Black Power Movement to be negative because it went against the cultural norm. As a result, Afrocentric hairstyles such as afros and braids were a symbol of the resistance of Blacks to conforming. In addition, the Black hair in its natural state was viewed as less attractive in comparison to straightened hair. The rise of the Black Panthers during the Black Power Movement era contributed to additional labels such as militant attitudes and radicalism which added more negative connotations to the social identity of Blackness. During the 1960’s, the national news media coverage of the Black Panthers helped to spread the radical image of this group which often overshadowed the racial and social concerns of the Black community.

           Still today, Afrocentric hairstyles in the workplace are frowned upon because they are viewed as too radical. These hairstyles vary from afros, braids, twists, and dreadlocks. In 2016, I was working at a university in Chicago. A colleague came to me for advice from one African American woman to another. She had already submitted her resignation and was planning to start a new position as an administrator at another university. Before starting her new job, she was taking time to travel to the Bahamas. Because of the trip, she wanted to braid her hair. As a result, she will be arriving to her new job with braided hair. Her mother told her not to do it because of how she may be perceived with braided hair on her first day of work. I completely understood her mother’s concerns. Me and my colleague had a candid conversation in which we discussed various factors for making an informed decision. I asked her a series of questions. Were the people that interviewed her Black or White, male or female? Did she see any Black females with Afrocentric hair styles? Did she feel that the environment was inclusive of diversity? After considering the location of her new workplace, the diversity of the employees, and the role of her position, we decided she could wear braided hair on her first day of work.

Identity Crisis

           The concern of black hair starts at a very early age. When my daughter was five years old, she asked me why her hair is not like White people. She went on to say that she didn’t like her hair. The hairstyles I did for her were Afrocentric because her hair was natural, and it was within the Type 4 category (very kinky). At her age, she wore braids and afro puffs. I went into my mommy mode to explain that all her features including her hair are beautiful as it is. She seemed doubtful. I wanted to show her images of herself so she could realize that her hair and how she looked extends outside of the family. As I searched through my personal inventory of movies and books, I realized that I didn’t have any that reflected her image. No wonder she was so confused. So, I went on a hunt to seek out picture books and movies that would reinforce her confidence in her own natural beauty. The most difficult task was finding an age-appropriate movie. It’s the year 2010, this shouldn’t be this hard. I finally came across the 1997 movie Cinderella featuring Brandy Norwood, Whoopi Goldberg, and Whitney Houston; and the movie also included a multicultural cast of actors. It was perfect. It provided a boost in confidence for my daughter to see African American women such as Brandy Norwood as the character of Cinderella with braided hair, Whoopi Goldberg as the mother of the prince wearing dreadlocks, and Whitney Houston as the fairy god mother with a curly hairstyle. This became her favorite movie.

           As my daughter became older, I eventually relaxed her hair. In her teen years, she started to take responsibility of taking care of her own hair. I allowed her the freedom to style it according to her preference. Of course, I provided to her guidance on what to do to keep her hair healthy. A couple of years later, she decided to forego the relaxer and go for a natural look. She has finally come into acknowledging and accepting the beauty of her hair whether natural or not.


           This essay is just a glimpse into the struggles of Black women and their hair. I believe the acceptance of Afrocentric hairstyles is slowly changing mainly due to the public images displayed in media and advertisement. I have noticed an increase in public images of people with natural black hair. It can be seen in various outlets such as TV commercials, news reporters, magazines, and billboards. These images are contributing to the micro level changes in perceptions of natural black hair. These positive public images in media are sending the message that Afrocentric hair styles are acceptable. In addition, these images help to familiarize the public with natural black hair styles. If you see it in everyday imagery as a physical attribute of diversity, it will become part of the norm.

           Although more Black women are embracing their natural black hair and displaying its beauty, many still face obstacles especially in workplaces that do not embrace culture diversity. It’s an individual choice to wear natural black hair or to straighten it. A Black woman should never be forced to alter her natural hair because others don’t like it. Everyone should have the freedom to wear their natural God given hair.



Collins, P.H. (2010). The new politics of community. American Sociological Review, 75(1),

Dawson, G.A., Karl, K.A, & Peluchette, J.V. (2019). Hair matters: Toward understanding natural black hair bias in            the workplace. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 26(3), 389–401.

Ellis-Hervey, N., Doss, A., Davis, D., Nicks, R., & Araiza, P. (2016). African American personal presentation:                       Psychology of hair and self-perception. Journal of Black Studies, 47(8), 869-882.