Owning Black Hair: The Pursuit of Identity and Authenticity in Higher Education

Owning Black Hair: The Pursuit of Identity and Authenticity in Higher Education

Saran Donahoo (Southern Illinois University, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5942-9.ch004
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Concentrating on Black women, this chapter examines microaggressions directed at members of this population through and because of their hair. Recognizing higher education as White space, this chapter considers the treatment, instructions, and even backlash that Black women receive as they assert their individual and cultural identities through their hairstyles. This chapter draws upon data collected from 30 Black women affiliated with higher education as students and/or professionals to illustrate how hair microaggressions affect their experiences on campus. The responses provided by these Black women illustrate how their hair attracts attention, has the potential to challenge or conform to White appearance norms, and illuminates higher education continuing to function as White space.
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History Of Black Hair And Hairstyles

Differences in hair texture and presentation were among the first things documented by Europeans traveling to Africa. Early European visitors admired the skin, hair, and appearance of the Black women that they encountered (Camp, 2015). Independent of European influence, African cultures proudly styled and adorned Black hair in ways that accentuated its natural texture including cornrow braids (Banks, 2000; Camp, 2015; White & White, 1995). While generally regarded as unappealing and unattractive in mainstream society, Black hair mattered to slaves and slave owners alike. Despite any individual interests, owners expected slaves to be presentable (especially those working in the plantation house) because poor grooming gave others a negative impression of the slave owners (Byrd & Tharps, 2014; Patton, 2006; White & White, 1995). Cutting hair and head shaving also allowed owners and overseers to use Black hair to enact punishment, limit physical attractiveness, and deny the cultural and personal pride of enslaved women (Bromberger, 2008; Byrd & Tharps, 2014; Lake, 2003; Patterson, 1982; Patton, 2006; Weitz, 2004; White & White, 1995). Straight hair was also present among the slave population as a result of miscegenation or even the use of lye cleaning solution, which would both straighten the hair and severely damage the scalp (Byrd & Tharps 2014; Collier 2012; Johnson 2013). Indeed, in Hudgins v. Wright (1806), Jackey Wright used her long, straight dark hair as evidence that she was mixed-race White and Indian instead of White and African as asserted by her slave owner Houlder Hudgins. Citing her straight hair as proof of her Indian heritage, the Virginia High Court of Chancery ruled that Wright was not Black and therefore, could not be a slave, thus freeing Wright and her two children from Hudgins (see also Collier 2012). Exhibited by the Hudgins decision, straight hair gave Black women partial access to whiteness.

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