My hair was called a bird’s nest

By: Kiara Thomas

“El diablo, pero mira a ese pajon,” said a Subway worker to her coworker at Stony Brook University as she cut my herb and cheese bread.

I was with my boyfriend getting a sandwich after class last year. I didn’t notice her speak.  I was fixated on my sandwich and what toppings I wanted. 

After he ordered his food in Spanish, he said, “I have to tell you something, remind me.”

All week, I wore my hair in two curly puffs. I received a lot of attention when I started wearing my hair curly three years ago.  Women and men were in awe. Their compliments would give me confidence as I walked to my destination.  Earlier that day, when I gave my professor my assignment, he said he liked it when I wore my hair in two curly puffs.  I thanked him and couldn’t help but smile.  Although I get compliments, every now and then I get ignorant and rude comments.  A few days prior in Port Jefferson, when my hair was in an afro, a man asked if my hair was real when I stepped foot into his store with my friends.

When we paid and found a seat in the food court, my boyfriend repeated what the woman said and asked if I knew the translation.

“I don’t know.  Diablo is the devil. That’s all I know,” I said.  

I was confused as to how what she said related to us.  Then in an instant, I knew I would regret knowing what would come out of his mouth.

“She was talking about you.  She said, ‘The devil, but look at that bird’s nest,’” he translated.

Words to describe Black people’s hair, including nappy, rough, and bird’s nest, and the acceptance of European standards cause curly hair to be seen as unpresentable, even by other Black people.  The positive association with straight hair in the media and the rules and regulations put in place to discriminate against Black hairstyles can cause self-hate in the Black community.

In the media, actors with curly hair usually don’t showcase their natural coils on and off-screen. The leading actresses straightened their hair or wear wigs and weaves to hide their cornrows underneath. Until recently, we are now seeing Taraji P. Henson and Kerry Washington, who have been acting for decades, wear their hair natural. How long did it take for us to see Olivia Pope wear her natural hair? Even as a Black leading actress in the primetime television show Sandal her hair was straightened for the majority of the seven seasons. The lack of representation of Black women with coily and kinky hair reinforces the thought that to be beautiful, powerful, and successful your hair has to be bone straight.

In Alabama, Chastity Jones was told by a human resource manager at Catastrophe Management Solutions of Mobile that her locs were scruffy and that the company would not hire her because of them.  In the case filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers can refuse to hire someone because of their hairstyle in 2016. An employer to determine someone’s eligibility for a job based on their hairstyle is racist and illogical.  A hairstyle doesn’t make someone incompetent. This ruling allowed Black men and women to be targeted legally by companies because their hair doesn’t fit the standard of beauty of straight sleek hair.

What is described as scruffy for curly hair people is what people with straight hair would call “fly aways,” or loose strands of hair. Curly and coily hair is seen as unkempt, unprofessional, and violating grooming policies because the loose hair strands are curly or a little frizzy.  The assumption that Black hairstyles are unclean and that the person would be lazy to upkeep their hair is racist. Meanwhile, messy buns are socially accepted if it comes from someone with straight hair.  Hair discrimination is what causes some Black people to straighten or cut off their hair.  It is common to run into Black men and women, who cut their locs to get a job. Black people shouldn’t have to conform to a standard that ignores their culture.

Afros, locs, box braids, and other hairstyles can be seen in hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt, according to History.   Black hairstyles have a deep history rooted in Africa and the Caribbean and was used to signify their socioeconomic status. For people to create and enforce beauty standards that discriminate and ignore Black culture is disgusting and shameful.  Rules on how to wear one’s hair create self-hate and lead Black people with kinky and curly hair to chemically straighten their hair with harsh ingredients. When my mom used to relax my hair, I would lie and tell her my scalp wasn’t burning when it was.  I was willing to harm myself endure pain to be considered beautiful, even though my mom always told me I was.  Today, I refuse to suffer so someone else could be comfortable with seeing my hair in a “neat” state.  Curly hair is chemically identical to any type of hair and should be treated like so.

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