Patchouli Oil or, Maybe, Weed: Black Women's Hair and the Politics of Resistance

Sonasha Braxton I Race & Ethnicity I Analysis I April 10th, 2015

E!'s, Fashion Police may not carry service pistols or be under intense global scrutiny for their chronic casualty infliction on innocent Black and Brown bodies, but they have brought attention to themselves recently for engaging in behaviors that, like the US's Police Force's actions, appear to be founded in prejudice and racial bias. Dr. Jason Williams, The Hampton Institute's Criminal Justice Chair states, "policing in America has always been one of color/class-consciousness…American policing at its foundation is inherently protective of the status quo" [1]. Even the most apolitical offerings of are happy to include amongst its definitions of policing, "regulation and control of a community".[2] Arguably, both of these definitions are also applicable to the Fashion Police. However, to enforce and maintain the color and class status quo, their weapons of choice are not Glock 19s, but microaggressions.

On February 23rd, 2015 the cast engaged in their normal "poking fun at celebrities in good spirit" on Oscar night. [3] The show judges A-list celebrities' sense of fashion, informed inevitably by collectively constructed Euro-centric standards of style and beauty as perceivably embraced by American culture. Veteran, Italian-American Giuliana Rancic commented on 18 year-old biracial Zendaya Coleman's choice to wear her hair in locs (dreadlocks)[4]. Giuliana's edited remarks were the following, "Zendaya is more high-fashion. The hair to me on her is making her a little more boho". The non-edited remarks continued as… " I feel like she smells like patchouli oil…or weed" pre-empting her remark with how much she normally likes the actress's short, straight hair. [5]

And the show went on. The writers wrote. The actors read and ad-libbed. The audience cheered. The co-hosts did not interject (except for Kelly, based on her friendship with Zendaya). The editors edited. The producers gave it the okay. Therefore the comments, as potentially benign as they might be argued to have been, did not reflect solely the off-brand humor of a single individual, but multi-leveled microaggressions, which Columbia University Psychologist Derald Sue defines as "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them". [6] While it may not represent the kind of overt racial epithet that many people incorrectly use to gauge the quantity of racism in existence, it warrants notice because such comments reflect the subtle ways in which elements of Black culture are unfailingly ridiculed and devalued. Giuliana's comments reflected not only age-old stereotypes about locs, and their relationship to "deviancy," but a wider cultural bias about Black women's hair, sanctioned the moment the cameras kept rolling and the episode aired. Navigating a world of consistent microattacks often constitutes the very regular experience of many Black women.

Zendaya is biracial. Her father is Black and her mother is White. The most common identifiers of race are skin tone and hair texture. Zendaya, in her choice to wear the natural style of locs, made a statement about her "Blackness". Locs on Black people are grown through "a process of 'matting', which is an option not readily available to White people because their hair does not 'naturally' grow into such 'organic' looking shapes and strands". [7] In other words, let's be honest, locs look very different on Black and White people. While the locs were not her own, they represented the shape and texture of locs as often appear distinctly, when grown by Black people. Giuliana's statement that Zendaya was too high fashion for the look cannot possibly be misinterpreted. For her, locs and high fashion were mutually exclusive. So Black hair, in this particular representation of its original state, could not be beautiful. Zendaya looked like a young Black woman with a distinct texture of locs. While her skin tone might make her race appear somewhat ambiguous to some, her hair worn as locs, did not. They stood in confirmation of her "Blackness". Giuliana's message, coated thickly in "style- talk", was that Zendaya's natural Blackness was not fashionable, was not beautiful, and was in need of regulation and control.

For Zendaya, her choice to wear her hair in locs for the Oscars was, "to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough".[8] And that was an act of resistance. It was pointed. It was purposeful. When notions of beauty have been white washed, historically, anything existing outside of that norm becomes an act of resistance. Black women's hair, whether styles are chosen for aesthetic, cultural or convenience reasons, transforms into a message that we are passively or actively emitting to the world. It serves not as an obligation but an invitation for Black women to embrace resistance to archaic Euro-centric beauty norms.

Why Hair Matters

Many of us African-American women grew up with some conception of what "good hair" or "bad hair" was. I, for example, was never told I had bad hair, but I honestly often dreamed of having hair that would be easier to manage, that didn't hurt when my mother combed or braided it. I remember using my tiny allowance to go to Sally's Beauty Supply to buy a bag of braiding hair, that I would hide in my bookbag and attach to my ponytail in the school bathroom. I begged for a relaxer because my friends had them and what was beautiful on TV was long, straight hair that would blow in the wind. Like any pre-adolescent, I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be accepted and acceptable, and that for me, without being told explicitly, was "good", long, tossable hair.

According to Ingrid Banks, Associate professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, "hair becomes a marker of difference that Black women recognize at an early age, particularly given media representations of what represents beauty".[9] In relation to what has been popular in mainstream media, we've loved our hair, hated it, cut it, fought with it, bleached it, weaved it, sewn it, braided it, cursed it, and praised it. To achieve certain looks, our hair requires upkeep, maintenance, and money. Each of us has some kind of relationship with our hair. ALL women have learned in some way, at some time, to associate beauty with the presentation of our hair; however, for Black women, those who do not have our hair have consistently defined that association. And it is often our buying in to this image of beauty, that we have not created, that has defined how we have viewed and entered into a relationship with our own hair.

Hair also exists as symbolism. "Desirable" hair, for a long time, has consisted of long, straight hair. We have achieved this with weave that is long, "Brazilian", "Indian", "Malaysian", "Peruvian". Images of Black women in the media, though they are beginning to shift, continue to be saturated with long, straight hair which is much closer in resemblance to the texture of "White hair" than "Black hair", thus espousing an ideal of beauty which is much closer to Euro-centric norms than anything else. It has been argued that adhering to such norms of beauty, by replicating these styles and images is symbolic of self-hatred; embracing and loving a constructed Euro-centric ideal of beauty instead of cultivating and acknowledging one's hair in its natural form. While this argument is certainly reflective of our collective conditioning in multiple areas around "white is right" and European beauty as better, as a lingering psychological effect of slavery (also reflected in our valuing of certain skin tones, eye color, and body types) it most certainly does not account for all personal aesthetic choice. Ingrid Banks argues that hair forms part of the social construction of the body, it takes on social meaning as it is "an important medium by which people define others, and themselves as well. In a sense, hair emerges as a body within the social body and can reflect notions about perceptions, identity and self-esteem".[10] It is at once public and personal, and thus matters because it is symbolic of how we view other Black women and how we view ourselves.

A VERY SHORT History of Natural Hair

Hair has always paid a central role in perceptions, identity, and self-esteem. As far back as ancient Kemet (Egypt), hair represented kinship, status, age, religion, and ethnicity. A Stone Age rock painting in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara dating back to 3500 BCE, showed a woman with cornrows feeding her child.[11] In the early 15th century hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies. For ethnic groups such as the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo and Yoruba, for example, "hair was an integral part of a complex language system". [12] Ever since the existence of African civilizations, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person's marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, geographic origin and/or rank within the community. The Kuramo of Nigeria could be identified by shaved heads with a single ruft of hair left on top. Young unmarried Wolof young girls often wore partially shaved heads. Hair could communicate desires, Nigerian housewives in polyamorous society created a hairstyle intended to taunt their husband's other wives called the kohin-sorogun (turn your back to the jealous rival wife).[13] Thus hair existed historically as a medium of communication for Black women.

Yet for others, hair even transcended communication with other persons, to act as communication with God. Mohamed Mbodj, Senegal native and Chair of the African and African-American Studies Program at Manhattanville College in New York indicated the power hair held in pre-Colonial Senegal, commenting that "the hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine", and that this relationship between hair, the body and the divine was "communication from gods and spirits…and was thought to pass through the hair to get to the soul". [14] For hundreds, if not thousands of years, prior to European colonial influence, Africa experienced the valuation of hair not just as related to the individual but the individual as he or she related to the world and to God. Similarly, Rasta philosophy and spirituality concretized hair as a mystical link or "psychic antenna", connecting Rasta with God and his mystical power, or "earth force", which is immanent in the universe. This tradition stemmed from: the biblical laws of the Nazarites that forbid cutting hair, the hair styles of Ethiopian priests and warriors, and as a symbol of the lion's mane.[15] Therefore the historical comprehension of natural hair is one, which has recognized it as being not just hair, but communication, personal and spiritual power.

Hair as Social Control

As natural Black hair has served as the container for communication and power it has also been manipulated institutionally to control and regulate that power. Under South Africa's racist White apartheid government, the Population Registration Act required the non-White population be classified into distinct categories to facilitate a successful "divide et impare" strategy. Under apartheid, the classes, Colored, Indian and Black were each allowed specific access to power, and those classified as "Blacks" relegated to the lowest rungs of South African society. Because race is a social construction, tests too had to be constructed as an effort to classify and separate people whose phenotypes were less stereotypically "African", into manageable groups. Race tests had the capacity to give power, or to take it away, to allow access to certain fundamental human rights or to deny them. One of these tests was the "pencil test" in which a pencil was stuck in the hair of a person whose race was considered ambiguous. If the pencil fell, the person "passed" and could be classified as White, if it fell only after shaking his or her head, that person would be classified as colored, if it stuck despite shaking his or her head, he or she was considered Black.[16] There were different versions of such racial testing, but this particular one distinctly displays how hair was used directly as a means of social control by the minority White apartheid government. It is a clear example of how the state practice of racial classification explicitly recognized the malleability and constructivist nature of race, which created the capacity for control and policing of Black bodies, class, status, and lives.

Hair used as a means of social control is ubiquitous. The history of legal and personal challenges to companies, institutions and organizations who have historically held Black people, especially women, to a European hair standard which denies their natural texture, curls and kinks, is a long one. They support the erasure of Black women's natural selves from sight, by creating policy regulations, which uphold "implicit demands that they [Black women] straighten their hair and then maintain that hairstyle through various processes". [17] Here are a few examples of the many instances of oppression of Black women's hair and of resistance:

1. Paula Mitchell was a hotel reservations operator working for the Marriott Hotel in 1987. She was threatened with termination if she did not remove her cornrows as braids were against company regulations falling under the prohibited "extreme faddish hairdos". Paula was given the option of wearing a wig with a "European" style hair do or taking out her cornrows. Paula did neither. As she put it, "to wear a wig under these circumstance… would be shamefully hiding a part of my cultural identity". [18] After legal involvement, Marriott was required to change their policy.

2. Cheryl Tatum and Cheryl Parahoo in 1988, were employees of the Hyatt Hotel coffee shop who also wore cornrows. This was found by management to be subject to regulation, as it fell within the category of "extreme" and "unusual". The women were told to wear wigs. Only after national media attention were Hyatt's policies amended by Corporate.

3. Janet Bello and Jackie Sherrill in 2010 and Markeese Warner in 2012 were denied employment with Six Flags because of their natural locs. Six Flags' policy in a statement issued to ABC news was that "Six Flags enforces a conservative grooming policy across all parks. The policy does not permit certain hairstyles such as variations in hair colors, dreadlocks…"(etc.) as it is considered an "extreme" hairstyle. [19]

4. The U.S. Army regulations rolled out Army Regulation 670-1 released in March 2014 which prohibited women from wearing locs and twists, and restricted the size of braids to 1/4 inch. Locs were defined as "any matted, twisted or locked coils or ropes of hair (or extensions)" inclusive of "unkempt" or "matted" braids or cornrows. The language and rules were slightly amended in September 2014 which redefined locs, removing "matted" and "unkempt" and allowed female officers to wear twists.

5. January 15, 2015: The Royal Barbados Police Department became subject to a section of the RBPF Policy On General Appearance Of Police Officers in which "Police officers are prohibited from wearing any style dreadlock or locks while in uniform or on duty in civilian attire…" [20]

6. March 2015, a friend, Sandisiwe Qweni, in South Africa posted on FB "my daughter told me a teacher told her that her short natural hair is not "wanted" in the school a couple of months ago… she tells me that they have been told that Afros and extensions are not allowed. I don't mind the extensions but Afros....the type of hair that grows out of her head is not allowed?... How do the "learned" people in my daughter's school not see that putting these restrictions and therefore forcing children to chemically or manually straighten their hair is a violation of black girls' bodily autonomy and right not to be exposed to harmful chemicals?"

As Ms. Qweni alluded to, such regulations are tantamount policing of black women's (and girls') bodies. To label what is natural to us as "extreme", "unprofessional", "unwanted" is an attempt to use power to enforce conformity to Euro-centric standards, to remove natural from the realm of beautiful, professional and high-fashion.

Natural Hair as Revolution

Black women's natural hair embodies resistance. It is resistant by nature, the same way it resists small-tooth combs. There is both beauty and strength in that resistance. An article appearing recently in The Economist featured Muthoni wa Kirima the only woman Mau-Mau fighter ranked as a field marshal. The Mau-Mau rebels in Kenya, known for their fierce anti-imperial resistance to British colonial rule became idolized in the 1960s in the hearts and minds of many freedom fighters globally. The trademark aesthetic associated with the Mau-Mau, and thus with African liberation, were locs. Ms. Kirima, still feeling shorted by the current Kenyan government said that she would not cut her floor-length locs, which she has been growing for at least 60 years, until she saw the benefits of independence from Colonial rule [21]. As an academic discourse, hair politics in Kenya has and continues to exist "as a symbol of resistance against attempts by the post-Colonial state to overwhelm intellectual and public sentiments about human rights abuse, poor governance, and indigenization of the Kenyan election system…embedded in the experiences of the Mau-Mau freedom fighters who put their lives on the line to battle British colonial rule. Their long, dreadlocked hair was and still remains a symbol of resistance to neo/colonialism…" [22] Intersected with gender and the roles traditionally women took up or were permitted to occupy in Kenya's liberation struggle, Ms. Kirima's resistance and her hair became and continue to be remarkably intertwined.

It is not simply locs, but any natural hair that defies mainstream cultural beauty norms that can be a tool of resistance. Take the 1960s for example, and the emergence of the Black Panthers, a progressive political organization formed to defend Black people against continued violent oppression of Black people in the United States. At this time Black people began to reclaim their hair's natural state as a purposefully resistant act. In 1968 Kathleen Cleaver, former Black Panther and current lecturer at Emory University School of Law described the natural hair movement at that time as the following: "we were born with our hair like this… it's a new awareness among Black people that their own natural physical appearance is beautiful … for so many years we were told that only White people were beautiful that only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful, and so Black women would try everything they could, straighten their hair, lighten their skin to look as much like white women… but this has changed because Black people are aware now that their own appearance is beautiful and proud of it".[23] The beauty in the naturalness of the afro, for example, "symbolized a reconstitutive link with Africa, as part of a counter-hegemonic process helping to redefine a diasporean people not as Negro but as Afro-American" [24]. Natural hair served as a redefinition of identity, not just liberation from White/Colonial oppression, but from internalized inferiority.

Natural Hair as Empowerment

Precocious 18 year-old Zendaya was certainly correct. We are subliminally hit regularly with microaggressions and overt statements that tell us our hair is not good enough. Empowerment comes in choice, and it seems that more Black women are now choosing to "go natural". In August, 2013, Mintel, the self proclaimed "world's leading market intelligence agency" claimed that relaxer sales in the last 8 years were down 26%. [25] There has certainly been a noticeably stronger embrace of natural hair amongst Black women. Black women can choose when we would like our hair to be an accessory, and how we present ourselves to the world. Yet we must accept that neither our hair nor our bodies, attached to this hair escape judgment. As Black women, we can use our energy to react to and mold ourselves differently based on these judgments, or we can embrace our hair as resistant to social control, or to gender norms that state that our beauty is defined by how men judge our hair. We can use our hair as a tool of empowerment as did Halle Berry, by filing a lawsuit against her White ex-husband for manipulating her daughter's natural hair by straightening it and lightening it as an effort to erase traces of her Blackness. Our hair can demand liberation.

We can allow our hair to be revolutionary without reducing the revolution to our hair. Angela Davis in speaking on the iconoclastic legacy of her afro said, "it is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion…". [26] We can learn from our elders. We can dis-allow our natural hair to simply become an acceptable mainstream fashion trend that needs the approval of or is swallowed by "mainstream society", one that is separate entirely from liberation. We can recognize the revolution of simply embracing our natural state. There is a space for Black women's hair to be revolutionary, to throw off ideals of beauty that we as Black women have been conditioned to believe were only accessible if we changed something fundamentally intrinsic and natural about who we are. We can redefine for ourselves, what is beautiful. We can choose to discontinue allowing our hair, and our bodies, attached to the hair, to be defined as "good" or "beautiful" on other's terms. We can, as Zendaya did, refuse to allow it to be policed. It may be just hair to some, but there are social and cultural messages about perceptions, identity, class, gender, communication, power, oppression and liberation that come with it, which we can choose to embrace as realities. As we have been historically conditioned to love and accept everyone but ourselves as beautiful, choosing to love ourselves and embrace the beauty of our natural state, truly exists a revolutionary act.





[4] The word locs is used here in place of dreadlocks, because it is said that the etymology of the word "dreadlocks" evolved from their characterization by European colonizers as "dreadful"



[7] Ferguson, R. (1990). Out there: Marginalization and contemporary cultures. New York, N.Y.: New Museum of Contemporary Art


[9] Banks, I. (2000). Hair matters beauty, power, and Black women's consciousness. New York: New York University Press.

[10] Ibid

[11] Willie, F. Page, ed. (2001). Encyclopedia of African history and culture: Ancient Africa (prehistory to 500 CE), Volume 1.

[12] Byrd, A., & Tharps, L. (2001). Hair story: Untangling the roots of Black hair in America. New York: St. Martin's Press.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Murrell, N. (1998). Chanting down Babylon: The Rastafari reader. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[16] Rasmussen, B. (2001). The making and unmaking of whiteness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

[17] Onuwachi-Willig , A. (2010). Exploring New Strands of Analysis under Title VII. Retrieved from

[18] Ibid



[22] Mutua, E. M. (2014). Hair Is Not Just Hot Air: Narratives about Politics of Hair in KenyaHair Is Not Just Hot Air: Narratives about Politics of Hair in Kenya. Text and Performance Quarterly, 34(4), 392-394


[24] Ferguson, R. (1990). Out there: Marginalization and contemporary cultures. New York, N.Y.: New Museum of Contemporary Art


[26] Ongiri, A. (2010). Spectacular blackness the cultural politics of the Black power movement and the search for a Black aesthetic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.