Black hair has always been personal and political – even when we don’t want it to be.
It’s never just the simple act of rocking a hairstyle because we want to without thinking about how we’ll be treated by others, the glaring stares as they wonder how our hair managed to change colour, length and style in the space of the day, or the dreaded stretch of a hand reaching for strands that took time to tease, wand curl or braid.
So many things come with wearing our hair just the way we like it that we take into consideration – and when it comes to leaving our hair in the hands of those who don’t know what to do with it, it can affect our self-esteem, mood and mental health and this is still happening until this day.
Former High School Musical star Monqiue Coleman recently shared that ahead of filming the hit Disney film franchise, she suggested that her character wear headbands because the hair and makeup team allegedly didn’t know how to work with Black hair.
“We’ve grown a lot in representation and we’ve grown a lot in terms of understanding the needs of an African American actress,” Coleman told Insider. “But the truth is [the hair stylists] had done my hair and they had done it very poorly in the front. And we had to start filming before I had a chance to fix it.”
Coleman’s comments come as no surprise to many Black women in and out of the entertainment industry, who have struggled to get access to the same level of care and consideration from brands and the industry at large compared to their white counterparts.
Last year, in an interview with Grazia, British model Leomie Anderson opened up about the many experiences she’s faced in the fashion industry as a dark skin woman and how she’s had to accommodate and create solutions for the inexperienced stylists who didn’t know how to care for Black skin and hair.
“When I was starting out as a model I’d always carry a basic kit with me and that would include a hair oil and a hairspray made specifically for Black hair. Often the go-to hairsprays backstage act like glue on Black hair,” she said.
“If you have Black hair you can’t simply wash products like that out. Sometimes a product as basic as hairspray can damage Black hair with a single coat because of the amount of alcohol that’s in there.”
Hair damage on set is something Taraji P. Henson also experienced when she was first starting out in the industry: “I was brand-new and didn’t have the power to request someone on set, but I knew for a fact I needed someone familiar with Black hair,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “This stylist put liquid root booster on my hair. He didn’t have any tools I could use to fix it myself, so I had to go through my shoot with helmet head.”
All of these experiences serve as a reminder of how far we have to go to eliminate the discrimination surrounding Black Afro hair and the need for more professionals and brands to cater to our hair types instead of remaining ignorant.
This comes after a new study released by Pantene revealed the discrimination against Afro hair in the UK is widespread, with at least 93% of Black people with Afro hair having experienced microaggressions related to their hair.
Of those surveyed, nearly half (46%) reported the type of microaggression they had experienced was uninvited hair touching, while only 7% of people without Afro hair were able to identify common microaggressions.
“Many Black women are subject to racial microaggressions throughout their life – from school all the way to treatment in the workplace – with discrimination against hair and a lack of self-acceptance being an almost universal lived experience,” said Agnes Mwakatuma, founder of Black Minds Matter.
“When Black people face this over time, it can be incredibly detrimental to maintaining mental health.”
While many of us continue to work from home, putting on our wigs for quick Zoom calls, or spending the day with our bonnets on and hair protected, we are reminded that some of us will eventually go back to offices and deal with the many microaggressions that come our way, or go back to film and theatre sets with poorly-educated hairstylists to entering schools where we’ll be told our hair is a violation of their policies.
What Coleman revealed is hardly a surprise – neither are the results of Pantene’s latest study. But it does remind others that negative connotations surrounding Afro hair remains and there needs to be additional action to see actual progress.
The Halo Collective – a group of young Black activists from the UK – are one of the first to take such action through the launch of The Halo Code which aims to prevent discrimination based on hairstyle or texture.
The organisation works with employers and professional bodies to protect employees who “come to work with natural hair and protective hairstyles associated with their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.”
By adopting The Halo Code, employers are taking a stand to ensure that no member of their community faces barriers or judgments because of their Afro-textured hair.
This type of action to create impactfully legislative change is something we need to see more of to ensure Black women can walk into their place of work or school and wear their hair how they want without the long list of thoughts that come with it before even entering the building.
We have a long way to go but the groundwork is being laid – now it’s time to build on it.
To find out more about The Halo Code, visit: https://halocollective.co.uk/halo-school/