For those neo-soul fans, specifically the 2000s era, you’ll be familiar with India Arie’s popular hit, I am not my hair. Aside from being a cool karaoke song, it uses the connotation of black hair to address socially constructed forms of racism which portray black women in a problematic way. We’ve heard it all before, the stereotypic dialogues used when referring to black hair:
“Afro kinky hair is ugly”
“Dreadlocks smell like weed”
“Natural hair is unprofessional”.
As Arie puts it, “bad hair means you look like a slave”, in this case referring to the historical context of black people as slaves. Unfortunately, the correlation between bad hair and black people has echoed through time and has reached today’s “progressive” society. All these negative references regarding afro textured hair have led black women, including myself, to perceive their identity through a Eurocentric lens which consequently facilitates the culture of skin bleaching and hair relaxing. These biased ideas of beauty have consciously led artists like Arie to create music that calls out for help, that tells people “I am not your expectation” based on certain perceptions of ‘her’ appearance (‘her’ representing the black woman) and to just look at the “soul that lives within”. At who the person is regardless of the colour of their skin.
As a black Kenyan woman approaching my mid-20s, currently living in Kenya, but have spent 14 years in total living in the UK, I have constantly battled with these questions:
How do I define who I am? Is it by what society sees me as? If not, how do I succeed in portraying my own identity without the influence of others? Or is this even possible? We do not live in an isolated society so how can someone else’s opinion about me not matter?
Of course it is easy to say, “who cares what other people think? You create who you are”, and that is true but by embracing that notion you have to accept a certain kind of privilege that already exists. A certain kind of privilege that allows you to happily exist without the care of others. The privilege of self-confidence, the privilege of speaking your own truth, the privilege of fighting against the tide of society and the privilege of acknowledging that identity is fluid; who you are today does not necessarily have to be the person you were yesterday. However, it is difficult to live in your own truth when you are both female and black because we have to fight an identity already given to us by society who have their own predetermined notions of blackness. Even before we say ‘hello’.
The last time I relaxed my hair was when I was 20 years old and for 12 years, I practiced this on a regular basis. I grew up believing that straight hair is more beautiful, easier to handle, and sadly, more professional. As my relaxed hair started growing out and my natural hair took over (by this time I had graduated with my Bachelor’s degree and was looking for work), I heard comments like, “no one will take you seriously with hair like that” and “when are you going to relax your hair again, it was smarter that way”. This hindered my confidence when entering the corporate job market in London because I feared my hair would replace my CV. But as I grew into the person I am today, fully embracing my natural hair (which wasn’t intentional, I had always planned on relaxing my hair again but never really got back into it), I have realized the role my hair plays in forming my identity. Afro hair is:
Strong, resilient, diverse, bold and also sensitive. It redefines mainstream beauty and shouts ‘wow’. It draws positive attention and attracts anyone that comes across it.
So yes, I am my hair, if it means carrying all these qualities then I reject India Arie’s cry but instead, embrace it with confidence. My hair represents its historic narrative, how I am perceived and what other people like me go through. My hair means breaking through stereotypes and creating my own identity. No I am not saying that my hair makes up my whole being but it is an inherent part of my individuality. It is how others see me as black and most importantly, how I see myself as a black woman in today’s world. One thing I do agree with in the song is that “it’s time for us to redefine who we are” and we are all those positive qualities plus more. As we are currently in an era where conventional ideas of beauty are being challenged, may black women around the world shout out and say ‘I am my hair’.