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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

Hair is a Big Deal

In honor of Black History Month and all of the Black Women out there…

One aspect of Senegal that I have admired since the day I got here is the plethora of black women. If you are not black, you might be thinking, “why on earth is this one of her favorite things?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Living in the US, and more specifically, coming from a predominately white school and neighborhood and going to a University like Princeton which didn’t start accepting black students until the middle of the last century, I don’t and will not get to see many black people every day. Even rarer, it is not every day that I see black people (and even rarer black women) fully embracing their differences and not trying to assimilate into white-American culture. So anyway, being in Senegal and seeing all the beautiful black women of all shapes and sizes and hairstyles and shades is a constant reminder that “black is beautiful” instead of the constant “black is ugly” I get from mainstream media in the States. I especially love the hair world here in Senegal. It is similar to the hair world in the States but coming to Senegal, one of the countries of the “motherland” has been even more of a phenomenal experience. I have gotten my hair braided five times here. Sometimes, my “bajun” (aunt) does it, sometimes a friend of a friend, and sometimes I go to a salon. I love coming home on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when school is out and seeing one of my homestay sisters getting their hair braided. Whenever my 4-year-hold homestay sister Sehni gets her hair braided into a new pattern and an array of colors, she flaunts her head to everyone in the house. Her beauty radiates. It is an honor for me to see this confidence in her; it is one that is often crushed in young black girls by the time they are teenagers.

Black hair exists where there are black women. It is Senegalese and African American. It is headscarves and it is braids. It is natural hair and it is weave. It is bold and it is wild. It is and always will be a world of complexities and wonders connected to a broader community, and various cultures around the world- each one unique but at its core: black and beautiful.

Black women, whether here in Senegal or back in the States, have a thriving hair community but this community is not without its struggles. With white beauty standards penetrating the mainstream culture, as well as the ridicule black women face for wearing their natural hair or other “exotic” styles- this black hair life can be a hard one.

That is why cultural appropriation can be a painful sight for many black women. Cultural appropriation is “often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.” Take the classic examples of Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, or Bo Derek. Every now and then, I’ll see a white woman with box braids in the touristy parts of Senegal. While I cannot judge these women, especially since I have no idea if these white women are conscious of the cultural significance of the braids they wear or not, for me, it is a constant reminder of the prevalence of cultural appropriation. White people will selectively take from black culture something that has been in existence for centuries and then society will deem it “trendy” or “cool” just because it was done by white women. Society will never fully embrace or accept black culture from black people.

For centuries back women have been and continue to be told their hair, their bodies, their minds, their whatever, are not good enough. White culture ’s simultaneous admiration and despise of black culture hurts young black women like me who are just trying to find themselves.

I’ve learned through conversations with my Bridge Year peers, hair isn’t that significant to them- and for black women, and for me, it is a big deal. It is tied to a cultural and historical context that still exists and still affects us.

Unfortunately both in the US and here in Senegal, black women, still aspire to a Western beauty standard of long hair and lighter skin. Women spend insane amounts of money trying to attain this standard. Newsflash for anyone who was unaware: black hair is not naturally long and flowy. It is kinky and curly and thick. Trying to attain this white beauty standard it not only unhealthy, it is just plain unrealistic.

This desire is not as simple as black women wanting what they don’t have, in the way that white women will want box braids because they are “cool”. It’s more complicated than that. To draw that conclusion is a depoliticization of the issue. White women are not told they are not beautiful for their white skin and straight hair. Black women- both marginalized for being black and women- have been told they were not good enough since the moment colonizers came and whitewashed our minds.

I am still fighting every day to love the parts of myself that society raised me to shame. As I continue to embrace my brown skin and curly hair (whether it is straightened, in braids, or in an afro), I am reminded of a quote from Audre Lord, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

To gain more of an understanding of the history of black hair, I encourage you to watch this short documentary on Youtube called, “Braids and Appropriation in America”.