Introduction and Reflection on my JRSP Experience

When I applied for the Junior Research Programme, my topic of interest was not hair. It was around the Black diaspora in the U.K. I wanted to explore the identity of Black Britishness, especially in terms of what parts of our “indigenous” cultures we keep, what we adopt from Britishness and also the new things we create. I felt like there can be a lot of judgement when it comes to Black identity especially in terms of speaking our indigenous languages. After receiving assessment marks on essays where I’d begun to explore this topic and doing work in other areas on it, I started to lose enthusiasm for it. For some reason, it didn’t feel like there was as much to talk about as I had thought. There was something else that was beginning to stress me out. My hair.

Prior to this summer, I never really engaged in conversations around Black women’s hair. All I’d usually do was remind people that colonialism and white supremacy is to blame for whatever they felt was “wrong” with how Black women do their hair. I’d then conclude that despite this, Black women should be left alone to do whatever they like because we’ve been through and are constantly going through enough. This was usually in response to when Black men would ask questions such as “Why do a lot of Black women wear wigs on their birthday?” (I was asked this specific question two days after my 18th birthday which I had specifically ordered a wig for, and so felt very attacked.) Everything started to change, however, when I went to see Beyonce for the first time this summer.

I spent a good majority of that concert in awe. I wouldn’t say I was part of the BeeHive. I only knew about 4 songs from the Renaissance tracklist of 15 and couldn’t name a single song from her joint album with her husband. But Beyonce has always been in my life. She has been making music for 25 years, consistently releasing worldwide hits. I always told myself that I would have to see her. So when I was in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, high up in the stalls with over 60,000 other people, I was in awe. She had 5 sold out London shows alone meaning she was performing for 300,000 people. A Black woman having that sort of significance and reach, had me in awe. I knew the stats prior to this and I knew everyone knew who Beyonce was, but for some reason, being in the stadium had me shocked. When we think of some of the most influential Black women in the world currently alive, I think it’s fair to say Beyonce is in the top 5.

Google’s list of the most influential black women

Here’s what Google decided. As I was contemplating how influential she is, I thought about her hair. I’d always said that Black women should be able to do what they want but in that moment I started to ask myself if that was true. When I saw Beyonce perform she was wearing a straight blonde wig. This hasn’t been her look for the whole tour, but it is definitely a signature look of hers. It was then that I asked myself, what does it mean when the most influential Black women in the world are always seen with straight hair? Influential, mainstream Black women are barely ever seen in their natural hair. Michelle Obama even spoke about how she couldn’t wear braids as First Lady let alone her hair in its natural unstraightened state.

I myself, was wearing a red loosely curled wig that I had recently had installed. I had felt really cute in it and had been wearing my natural hair prior to it for the first time in a long time. But for some reason, while Beyonce was singing a song that I didn’t know, I was thinking about her hair choice and got a bit upset. Though it had been quite obvious, it really started to hit me that Black women are the only women whose hair is not widely acceptable or promoted in its natural state. Eventually a song that I knew came on, so I brushed away these thoughts and decided to make the most of my £150 concert tickets.

About 4 days later, something else happened and this was when I decided that I really wanted to explore Black Women’s relationship with hair. I used to work for a small recruitment firm. The wig that I was wearing at the Beyonce concert had been glued on my head for 10 days by this point. It was time to take it off.  So the night before, I took it off knowing that I’d be working from home the next day. I felt so free. I could itch my scalp, couldn’t feel glue pulling at my edges and slept so comfortably.

I didn’t have a call until 2, so I decided I was going to work in my room in just my under-wig cornrows (I could sort out my hair at lunch time.) Around 10, I went downstairs to make myself some breakfast so that I could work while I ate. I came back to my line manager asking if we could have a quick call about something. She’d messaged me ten minutes ago. I was worried that I’d looked like I’d been offline for too long, so I messaged back as soon as I saw it. She called me straight away.

I didn’t know where my scarf was and whether I should even wear it on the call (it was red and silky and I wasn’t going to be able to tie it neatly). The last time she’d seen me was in my red wig two days before and she’d even complimented it. But I wasn’t trying to put that back on because I hadn’t washed off the glue yet. My edges would suffer. I was panicking a bit. But something told me, just answer the call. So I did, in my under-wig cornrows, revealing my whole head shape. She didn’t react.

I should note that I worked for a company who were very big on DEI and wanted all their colleagues to be themselves at work. My manager spoke a lot about intersectionality and feminism and so I did have a certain amount of safety that I understand isn’t afforded to many Black women in the corporate world. I should also say that I did feel quite pretty in my cornrows for once. I have to admit that my lash extensions contributed to this, and my boyfriend affirmed me in my natural hair all the time. Even still, I felt quite proud of myself for going on the call with my cornrows. It felt like a tiny bit of decolonisation. And that’s when I started to think. Why did this mean so much to me? Why did it feel “decolonial” to wear my natural hair short and cornrowed, when I’d usually cover up, on a work call?

The truth was that I wouldn’t have met my friends with my hair like that or even gone to work in person like that. While I would never comment on another Black woman who had worn her hair like that, it was something that honestly, I had never felt comfortable doing. For me personally, being in my “under-wig” cornrows didn’t qualify as having my hair “done” and so therefore wasn’t appropriate for public view. It was then that I started questioning where these feelings, which I think is fair to say others likely hold, came from. There are specific societal norms or expectations for Black women’s hair. I decided that I needed to talk about this with other Black women and gather their thoughts on how they feel and whether we should be doing something about it.

At first I wanted to interview Black women in my community for this but felt that I would benefit from spending more time on constructing video interviews during my dissertation. So for the Junior Researchers Summer Programme, I decided to deconstruct various feelings I have towards my hair using an autoethnographic approach as well as existing discussions around Black women’s hair.

I chose the process of autoethnography as I believe that my personal experiences can help me understand elements of Black hair culture, especially the forces of power and oppression that may be at work within it. Autoethnography can be defined as “the process of figuring out what to do, how to live, and the meaning of [one’s] struggles” (Bochner & Ellis, 2006, p. 111.) This felt like the perfect form of research to undertake and it is also seen as a form of academic writing that is more widely accessible, especially to the communities it focuses on.

There is a wealth of literature on the politics of Black hair both in academia as well as the wider media. A few examples include the Good Hair documentary hosted by Chris Rock, reports done by organisations such as The Halo Code and Treasure.

Tress and more recently, a book written by Emma Dabiri entitled “Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture”. Most of my research for this writing has been inwards and I mainly only draw on Dabiri’s work to support my findings on my personal experiences.  The conversation around Black Women’s Hair is very wide and nuanced. I’d like to note that there is probably a lot that I “miss out” in this project. I have commented on personal feelings and experiences that have stuck out the most for me over the course of my life and based my writing around those.

You can read the rest of my project from the two additional blog posts below. The first will ask the question what it means for Black women’s hair to be “done”? The second will talk about natural hair, beauty standards and the effect of social media.

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