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Black women and identity: what’s hair got to do with it?

For many black women, hair is intimately connected to their identity and sense of self. The cultural and historical significance of black hair has been shaped by centuries of oppression, discrimination, and cultural appropriation.

1.Historical & societal issues

Historically, black women's hair was often considered "unruly," "unmanageable," or "uncivilized," and was subjected to various forms of Eurocentric grooming and styling in order to conform to white beauty standards.

Today, many black women have reclaimed their natural hair and reject the idea that their hair needs to conform to any specific standard of beauty. For some, wearing natural hair styles like afros, braids, and locs is a form of resistance against societal pressure to conform.

For others, wearing wigs or weaves is a way to protect their natural hair while still expressing their personal style. However, the politics of black hair are complex and can vary depending on personal experiences, cultural background, and societal expectations.

Hair can be a source of pride, but it can also be a source of anxiety, especially for those who feel judged or stigmatized for their hair texture or style. Black women's relationship with their hair is deeply personal and can reflect broader societal issues around race, identity, and beauty standards.

2.Personal identity theory

Personal identity development theory and the concept of multiculturalism are closely intertwined. According to the theory of identity development, there are five stages in total.

The first stage is the identification with the mainstream culture and a lack of awareness of one's own marginalized culture.

The second stage involves experiencing some form of injustice related to group identity, which leads to questioning. In this stage, individuals gradually become aware of their group identity.

The third stage is the affirmation of belonging to a particular cultural group and considering that culture to be superior. Individuals in this stage of identity development tend to be hostile towards other cultures and believe that their way of thinking is being hijacked by other cultures. A specific example would be someone using postcolonialism to defend their own nationalism.

The fourth stage involves the ability to critically reflect on a certain cultural centrism. At this point, individuals can objectively consider the relationships between cultures and have a higher tolerance for other cultures.

The fifth stage is characterized by a clear understanding of one's own identity and the awareness of the difference between personal identity and group identity.

Based on the fact that various forms of inequality exist in identities, individuals go through different stages of understanding their own identity. However, in certain social groups, there tends to be a single dominant voice, which can prevent many individuals within that group from having the opportunity to develop their own identity.

This means that many people in the first, second, and third stages of identity development are suddenly overwhelmed by these established norms. This can lead to severe withdrawal and a refusal to engage in further discussions, resulting in them staying within their cognitive comfort zone and rejecting the potential for further development in their understanding of identity.

However, there is a contradiction here. If open discussions are encouraged, it is certainly expected that everyone engages in rational thinking. If this cannot be achieved, the ultimate result may resemble many internet controversies where individuals end up isolating themselves and sticking to their own opinions.

3.Inequality and western standards

In situations of power inequality, aesthetic inequality is also highly significant: being gazed upon is a form of control. As men occupy positions of power, they are able to derive a sense of power and pleasure from the act of gazing upon women. Moreover, to a certain extent, this gaze can manifest as aesthetic principles, becoming part of collective norms that reflect the control of the powerful over the weak.

Black girls living in Western societies have to learn to straighten their hair from a young age in order to be socially accepted and appear more similar to white people. However, the natural afro hairstyle is actually the most authentic look for these black girls. Just because they don't conform to white beauty standards, does it mean that black women cannot be themselves?

There is a popular hashtag on Twitter, #BlackWomenAtWork, where black women can share their experiences of discrimination in the workplace. A significant portion of these experiences is related to their hair. Due to these frustrating daily encounters, black women living in Western societies often feel anxious about their hair.

They particularly hope that more successful black women can come forward and proudly wear their natural afro hair, serving as role models for other black women. They also want the public to realize that discriminating against others based on their natural hair is a wrongful behavior.

4.Cheer up and be yourself

Self-gaze among Black women is also an important component of “white gaze”. This self-gaze can be seen as a form of self-objectification. In order to gain advantageous positions and access to better resources in a white-dominated world, black women often conform to various strange and stringent standards, engaging in self-sabotage and even internal conflict within their own community.

However, those in power are never satisfied. By relinquishing control over judgment criteria to them, black women will only struggle with the fear of being replaced or discarded, and then true liberation will never be achieved. The black community is already powerful enough and has its own vast space. The aesthetic standards of black women should come from each and every one of black ladies, as black women yourselves.

You are a powerful woman, whatever you do is whatever you want. Whether wear wigs or not is your choice, not any others’ decisions. If you feel happy to wear different kinds of wigs, then follow your heart and continue. If you cannot feel satisfied through such behaviour, then stop it. Don’t judge others, don’t judge yourselves.

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