I spent years perming my hair to look whiter — before realizing that was total BS
Straightening my hair didn’t make me more beautiful, and it certainly didn’t make me more white
by Yana Carr
Growing up, I had been told so often that straight hair was more acceptable and beautiful. I believed the only thing holding me back from the apparently enviable standard of whiteness was my coarse and coiled hair texture.
My genes bestowed me with a trifecta of Eurocentric features: light eyes, light skin, and light hair. I grew up in an almost exclusively white neighborhood, and went to an even whiter private school. Being half black and half white, constantly in an environment that idolized white features, I felt like I had to prioritize the white side of my identity to fit in.
In third grade I had a crush on a boy who told me I was “funny,” but that my hair “makes me ugly.” My classmates would stick pens in my hair to see how much it could hold, or mess it up with their hands because it could “hold its shape.” It was “gross” that I didn’t wash my hair everyday because it would strip it of its moisture, and my braids were “weird.”
As early as eight years old, I remember thinking that if I could just change my hair, then I would be beautiful because I would look like the kids who constantly singled me out for having curly hair.
For years I sat between my mother’s knees on Sunday nights, watching steam flutter off the flat iron as she pressed away my curls. At 13, my mother finally let me get a perm. I distinctly remember leaving the thick potent product on my hair for longer than the recommended time, letting the chemical sear my skin and leave scabs on my scalp because I wanted my hair to be bone straight. Damaged as it eventually became with constant chemical treatments and straightening, my hair was flat as can be.
The same year I finally got my perm, I was bullied for being black
Some white boys had begun calling me a monkey, bringing me bananas at school, and making monkey-like gestures whenever I came around. I eventually got them suspended, but was told by a horde of other white folks that what I did was fucked up because they “didn’t do anything wrong,” and “it was just a joke.” Years later, those same people would tell me I only got into Georgetown because I was black.
All my life I’d internalized the idea that being white was a matter of physical appearance, and that if I tried hard enough I could be just like everyone around me.
But the truth, as I’d come to realize, is that they’d never see me as one of them, no matter how much I tried to fit in. I wouldn’t be the girls I’d seen on TV, or read about in storybooks, or even saw in my classroom. I’d be black, no matter how white I looked.
As I matured, the question I began to pose myself was: if I can face all this racial discrimination looking the way I do, then what is like for darker-skinned people in the black community? For my mom? My younger brother? If I can’t even assimilate, then how the hell can they? It seemed selfish to pointlessly hide behind chemically modified hair and light features when the people in my own family didn’t have that luxury.
It was under this premise — besides the fact that my hair was a damaged mess — that I decided to cut it all off and start anew.
I’ve been growing out my hair for nearly a year now, and I haven’t straightened it once. Public perception of my race wasn’t altered by my decision to alter myself; it didn’t make me more beautiful and it certainly didn’t make me more white. Honestly, it just made my hair fall out.
In order to appreciate my hair for every curl and kink, I had to rid myself of the idea that assimilation automatically equated to success, and from there, that whiteness was even a standard worth pursuing. Deciding to start my natural hair journey was balanced on the recognition of my light skin privilege and the decision to love myself exactly how I am.
While I’m proud of the decision I made and happy with the person I’ve become because of it, it wasn’t at all met with support.
My mother and my grandmother cried when I cut all my hair off, and again when I came back from college with a budding afro. For them, it is a very real fear that how I look will limit the opportunities available to me, and that’s exactly what they raised me to believe.
Black children go through the school system being taught that the only notable or memorable aspects of their identity are slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Everything else about our culture is warped or subdued to be palatable for a white audience, so that we can fit into a world that has systematically told us we’re naturally not good enough.
For many black girls growing up, myself included, there wasn’t a single mainstream role model to look up to who let them know that their natural hair was beautiful and acceptable; the natural hair movement has only recently started to grow and it is so much more important than just hair.
With young women like Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg, Skai Jackson, and Yara Shahidi showcasing their natural hair, increased representation of women of color can show younger generations of black girls how naturally beautiful they are, and avoid them having to feel the way I did when I was younger.
As more women of color decide to wear their natural hair, we become role models in our own right by inspiring younger women to do the same. That is the epitome of #blackgirlmagic.