Not 'just' hair. For Black women, hair is about our ancestry, our being, our identity.

For a Black woman, her hair can be her crowning glory, an expression of pride in her appearance. But it can also be something more, something deeper – something rooted in culture and a complicated history.

So, if you ask a Black woman about her hair, be prepared to hear about more than dreadlocks and perms.

She might tell you about beauty standards, about workplace culture, about the pressure to assimilate. She might inform you that historically, so-called good hair, i.e., straight hair, has been prized within the Black community. (Does that mean that Black hair in its natural, tightly curled state is "bad"?)

She might share memories of not swimming (or learning to swim) because she couldn't risk getting her (straightened) hair wet.

She might talk about the time a colleague/acquaintance/stranger asked to touch her hair − or did so without permission.

As Debra Stanley put it recently, "It ain't just our hair. It's everything."

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My talk with Stanley was one of several recent conversations I've had in the South Bend area with some Black women about their hair. They were discussions mixed with laughter about trying (in vain) to avoid burns from the red-hot straightening comb as a child. The talks sometimes took dead-serious turns into uncomfortable situations at work because of having hair that was perceived as "different."

Charea Frazier works with a client Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at her salon, The Loc Shop, next door to Barnes & Noble in Mishawaka’s University Park Mall.
Charea Frazier works with a client Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at her salon, The Loc Shop, next door to Barnes & Noble in Mishawaka’s University Park Mall.

Conversations (and controversies) surrounding Black hair aren't new. But my discussions were sparked in part by former first lady Michelle Obama's recent assertion that she straightened her hair during her husband's tenure in the White House because Americans were "not ready" for her natural hair at the time.

Obama's statement reminded me of the time many years ago when my big sister, then in her early 20s, was hired as a waitress. She wore her hair in braids when she interviewed for the job. But after she was hired, her employers told her that she'd have to remove the braids to keep the job.

I also thought of the friend who, after years of perming, or "relaxing" (straightening), her hair, went natural. The change was fascinating to one of her co-workers, who attempted to touch her hair, belatedly asking for permission when my friend moved out of reach.

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Obama's hair conversation also resonates with Stanley, executive director of the nonprofit Imani Unidad Inc. She is familiar with the pressures many Black women have felt over the years to assimilate, to straighten "our tightly coiled hair."

"The standard of beauty was long, flowing, blond, blowing-in-the-wind hair,'' she said.

Stanley fell in love with natural hair years ago, and wears her hair in a close-cropped style. But when she was a child, her mother would straighten her hair with a hot comb: "She burned my neck, forehead and everything else," Stanley recalled with a laugh.

Her long, straightened hair earned her plenty of attention, which Stanley didn't appreciate. "I never liked my hair. I didn't want it (straightened)."

Even in its natural state, Stanley's hair got noticed. "When I had my first child, my hospital roommate was a young, white female. And her mother would come early in the morning so she could watch me pick out my hair. She was fascinated with my Afro. I just never understood the fascination with hair."

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The extra pressure to 'fit in'

Elonda Wilder-Hamilton has seen a range of reactions to her hair, particularly when she started wearing dreadlocks before many people were doing so. "It took some time for people to get used to it."

Wilder-Hamilton recalled that years ago, when her now-adult son was in the Boys & Girls Club, that the little girls there "loved my natural hair."

Elonda Wilder-Hamilton's hair through the years. Her current style, pictured right, is a close-cropped Afro.
Elonda Wilder-Hamilton's hair through the years. Her current style, pictured right, is a close-cropped Afro.

"I remember one girl said she didn't even know what her natural hair was like because her mom had been pressing it."

Wilder-Hamilton wasn't offended when white acquaintances would ask if they could touch her hair. "I'd tell them that they could. And I took it as a teachable moment to explain Black hair."

The now-retired Wilder-Hamilton, who today wears a short Afro, said she didn't have any issues with her hair in the workplace. But Black women are 30% more likely than other women to receive a formal grooming policy and to be sent home due to their hairstyle in the workplace. In addition, nearly 20 states have enacted the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles.

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Angel Ash remembers the apprehension she felt when contemplating going natural as part of a health-related decision to avoid chemicals. "I started having anxiety about how I would be treated. Will I get kicked off certain projects? And how will this impact my ability to go into a new workplace? I eventually came to the decision that I needed to do what was best for my health."

Angel Ash sits in her home Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in South Bend.
Angel Ash sits in her home Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in South Bend.

Ash, now a South Bend Community School Corp. employee, recalled an awkward moment during a meeting while working for a different employer. A colleague had passed out individual gift bags, which included hair care products that weren't meant for natural hair like hers.

Ash, the only Black woman at the meeting, felt extremely uncomfortable, and tried to make light of the situation. She joked that she could probably give the brush to her son, who is multiracial and has a different hair texture. Later that day, the colleague sent her a scathing email, telling Ash how uncomfortable she had made her feel. "No acknowledgment of the position that she put me in. None at all."

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She said part of the problem is a standard of beauty that fails to include black women. "America has always wanted us to look one way ... and anything different is a big deal."

It's put extra pressure on many Black women to "fit in," Ash said.

And Black hair is big business:

  • In 2018, Black consumers spent $473 million on hair products, which is 11.3% of sales for the $4.2 billion hair care industry.

  • Black women spend $1.1 billion annually on wigs, weaves and extensions.

  • From 2016 to 2018, Black consumers' spending on shampoo and conditioner grew 12.2% and 7.3%, respectively.

  • In the United States, Black consumers spend 18% of their annual income on hair care and beauty products.

"We have a continuum of beauty, whether a woman is natural or not," said Ash, who remembers defending her hair choice − at the time, her hair was permed − to another Black woman. "I said, 'Isn't that the purpose of feminism, women's liberty, is to choose? So why would you want to take my choice away?' "

Ash explained, "It's not just about the hair. It's about our life, it's about our ancestry, it's our being, our identity."

And that's a lot for anyone to carry around on their shoulders.

Alesia I. Redding is The South Bend Tribune's audience engagement editor.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black hair is Black history. For many it connects culture, identity.