Why I have Black Women to thank for great curly hair.

Why I have Black Women to thank for great curly hair.

I’m not usually one to boast about the compliments I receive. I usually receive them awkwardly like a typical, dorky, anxious millennial, but if I was asked a direct question, which feature do you receive the most compliments about, it is my hair. I am lucky to have volume-rich, curly hair and as I try and tackle my own self confidence issues, it’s a feature I am proud of and like about myself.

What has this got to do with black women, since I am an average, 28 year old white woman? Well, a lot more than I ever gave thought to until about 4 years ago. I found out about the ‘curly girl method’ which is the shampoo-free method of keeping hair clean with conditioners only and avoiding a whole range of particular ingredients in haircare products, which produces far better results for those with curly hair.

It wasn’t until I started looking into this, that I found this method was developed off the back of black women avoiding the widely available shampoos and conditioners because they quite frankly, did nothing for black hair.

Now this isn’t an attack on all companies and in implication they were being intentionally racist, it’s just a statement of fact that due to the differences in the genetic make up of black people, the ingredients in most mainstream products did not work to keep their hair in good condition, said ingredients often just further dried out their hair etc.

You only need to look at a black person to see their hair is of a very different texture to the hair of most white or Asian people. Therefore it doesn’t take too many steps to get from that point to realising it might mean it needs different methods or ingredients to keep it healthy. The haircare companies weren’t being intentionally racist, but having made a product for the majority population and not ensured it worked on a more diverse range of people, it led to an unintentional oversight that led to unintended exclusion.

So black people, especially black women took matters into their own hands, started developing their own products and their own ways of caring for their hair that worked, and eventually these became product lines and companies, intended for black women to work with and not against their hair, that are becoming more widely available. After a while, white women and mixed race women with curlier, coarser hair realised that they may also benefit more from these products and methods than the ones that were previously being offered to them and the whole thing led to the place we are in now. Even in the 4 or so years I have been washing my hair this way, I have noticed that brands marketed at black women are becoming increasingly easier to get hold of in the ‘mainstream’ for want of a better phrase, and said ‘mainstream’ brands have seen competitors come onto the market, researched why these brands existed and have started making their own products to try and attract a wider customer base.

I am a member of a few Facebook groups for people using the ‘curly girl’ method and some of the most common posts on the groups are from white women who have mixed race or black children in their families and are looking for advice on how to best care for their hair. Neither this sentence or them posting is intended to cause, or met with shame. It is just people asking for knowledge, and others sharing knowledge. No one is left in a worse situation after these posts, and more people have more knowledge.

Yes, this is ‘just hair’ but it’s also one tiny piece of a big puzzle where unintentional oversight has led to unintended exclusion, but the crucial thing here is that in redressing the balance (which admittedly took a looooong time), no one lost out, but a lot of people gained.

And that can be applied to so many other areas of life, and not just to black people but where people are in a minority due to their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or disability. By talking to a wider group of people when designing products, organising events or whatever, you will understand better how the impacts will be different for different people and are presented with opportunities to work towards solutions. This doesn’t mean the majority are now disadvantaged, but means the minority aren’t disadvantaged to start with, are represented and often these solutions will have benefits for every person, not just those who were previously disadvantaged.

Diversity isn’t intending to exclude those who were previously in the majority, it intends to make sure that everyone is represented more fairly and that the impacts that are felt differently, by different people from reasons such as genetic make up to cultural practises are acknowledged, understood and positively worked through. No one is trying to take away from those currently in the majority, they are just trying to make sure everyone is benefitting.

And this is why it is important to understand people’s differences instead of treating everyone exactly the same. Differences are good and should be celebrated, they are the defining features about us, that make us more than just 7 billion soulless, carbon copy droids. Saying ‘I don’t see race/gender/sexual identity/disability/religion’ doesn’t really help, because if you refuse to see the differences you refuse to acknowledge that different things will impact people in different ways, even though a lot of that is unintentional, and this leads to never stopping to think about how these impacts could be different for different people and how to tackle that.

And the unintentional oversight that leads to unintended exclusion is what leads, eventually to institutionalised oppression. Constantly navigating a world that wasn’t designed with your different, but equally valid and often no more complicated needs in mind is tiring and demoralising. Over time, all those little things add up and become a constant reminder that you don’t matter quite as much, or you have to go out of your way every time to find things that work for you, or ensure you take extra, convoluted steps to stay safe and healthy.

Police brutality isn’t the only reason black people are angry right now, but it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. Does police brutality have anything to do with my experience of haircare products, well yes, believe it or not it does.

A lot of people in my friend’s list are being very quick to highlight that white people are, in actual numerical values, the group of people who are victims of police brutality the most and that no one cares about that. They make a somewhat valid, if ill-judged in terms of proportional representation and timing, point. Police brutality, no matter who the victim, is abhorrent and should be stopped and more white people in numerical value are killed by the police.

No, there isn’t an outcry when white people are also killed at the hands of the police, yes, there probably should be as that’s something we need to work on, but since black people are disproportionately targeted, surprisingly enough black people have had enough.

Yes, it is right to tackle the systemic racial issues that are at the heart of why black people are targeted in such a greater proportion, but tackling police brutality will bring benefits to everyone. Yes, the racism element will be tackled, but the whole nature of brutality will be tackled too, and the numbers for everyone will drop.

Much like black women’s haircare products became beneficial to other people and no one lost out by having these products available (except maybe the ‘mainstream’ haircare companies who lost sales and had to up their game), tackling this issue will bring benefits to everyone, so it’s strange to me why some people feel the need to shout so loudly in the face of these important conversations, when we are never really under any threat of steps people want to take to end police brutality (unless you’re a racist, abusive person working in the police, at which point, you probably are at risk of not having a job, but I can’t pretend I have much sympathy.).

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