"Don't Touch My Hair": Problematizing Representations of Black Women in Canada.

AuthorBrown, Shaunasea
PositionHuman Hair: Intrigues and Complications - Report

They don't understand What it means to me Where we chose to go Where we've been to know--Solange, Don't Touch My Hair If you want to know about a woman, a black woman, that is. Touch her hair. 'Cause our hair carries our journey, 'Cause that's where we carry all our hopes, all our dreams, our hurt, our disappointments, they 're all in our hair.--Trey Anthony, 'Da Kink in my Hair Introduction

The artistic creations of singer/songwriter Solange (2016) and playwright Trey Anthony (2005) uniquely articulate the importance of hair to Black women. As self-identified Black women, their ideas contribute to ongoing discourses that outline the meanings attached to the kinks and curls associated with Black women's hair. The hopes, dreams, journeys, that they do not understand alludes to the (mis)reading of Black women's hair and styles. The internalization of these ideas facilitates complex relationships between Black Canadian women and their hair. The analysis of these complexities within a North American context predominately reflects United States based experiences (Banks 2000; Byrd & Tharps 2001; Rooks 2001; Walker 2007). This paper therefore expands on the sole full-length book sharing Canadian perspectives: Althea Prince's The Politics of Black Women's Hair (2009). The expansion of Prince's (2009) foundation will consist of research findings from fieldwork conducted in 2016 with twenty self-identified Black and mixed race Canadian women, two case studies relating Black hair to respectability politics in the workforce and lastly highlight Canadian contributions to the development of the Natural Hair Movement.

Black Canadian women's online engagement with the virtual spaces comprised as the Natural Hair Movement and the embodiment of the image of the Naturalista reveal the nuanced ways that Black women publicly relate to each other and their hair. A Naturalista is a Black woman who is passionate and knowledgeable in natural Black hair care. This image also requires a sense of pride and the unapologetic public display of the kinks and curls of her hair. The image of the Naturalista operates within the imagined yet highly political space of the Natural Hair Movement (NHM) that circulates within the social media sites of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Established in the early 2000s, the NHM redefines broader understandings of African diasporic aesthetics through self-defined perceptions of Black beauty in relation to Black communities.

The NHM is also outlined as a movement that creates bonds through sharing hair secrets and styles while using Black hair to further promote the personal acceptance of oneself and others (Madison, 2015, para. 7). This promotion of acceptance is also understood through the context of cyber activism that, from the perspective of the NHM, facilitates the promotion of self-love, beauty and Black presence. Cyber activism is defined as a process that uses the Internet to facilitate place-independent virtual organization (Cheta, 2004, p. 188). These online developments also translate into the concretization of safe spaces for Black women offline. These mechanisms for place making are imperative to challenge the existing anti-Black structures within dominant Canadian society.

Framing Black Presence in Canada

This study of hair shares similar notions to Paul Dash (2006) who situates Black experiences within the wider context of the African diaspora (p. 36). This diasporic position is used in a figurative sense that allows for the possibility to "... make inventive demands on existing political, institutional, and epistemological constraints" (Chariandy, 2006, The Legacies of Diaspora section, para. 8). Nevertheless, the complexity of the overlapping histories of Black presence in Canada requires an acknowledgement of the constraints that arise when either term, Black or African, is solely prescribed. Wisdom Tettey and Korbla Puplampu (2005) illustrate the complexities of defining this group due to the heavy contestation of African origins within this country. They also demonstrate that unpacking this term disrupts assumptions of a consensually implied meaning and other concepts of homogeneity that are typically reinforced (Tettey & Puplampu, 2005, p. 6).

The participants of this research reflect the realities of the more recent additions to the Black Canadian population who emigrated from various countries within the African continent and the Caribbean after the 1960s. The Black and mixed race Canadian women studied self-identified using a variety of terms in conjunction with their Canadian identities. These labels included other national (located in the Caribbean, the United States of America and the continent of Africa) and racialized (Indian, Indigenous, mixed raced, and 'Negro') categories. Their experiences are comprised of both first and second-generation Canadian perspectives, 5% and 95% respectively. Aged between 19-46 and located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), more than half of the participating women have a Bachelors degree as their highest completed level of education. Their thoughts are joined with perspectives from women who are graduates from both college and high school (Focus Group, 2016). To include their experiences within a broader context of Black Canada, they must also be tied to a long history of prior Black presence. With that said, Black Canadian populations also consist of Canadian born descendants of enslaved Africans, African American immigrants from the Civil War and Black Refugees (Mensah, 2010, p. 3-4).

This African diasporic perspective being framed within the category of Black follows Dash's (2006) view that being of African descent while living outside the continent facilitates an automatic labeling that forces concepts of race to become synonymous with political connotations (p. 28-29). Due to the ways in which stereotypes function in Canadian society, the question of agency becomes crucial to investigate the extent to which Black women's hairstyle choices translate into political forms of expression that are representational of race. Thus, the perspectives identified in this study as Blacks represent only the views of the Canadian women who choose to self-identify in this way. In addition, the study is careful to specify mixed raced perspectives as an alternative way to reflect on Black experiences as being multi-racial and intersectional (Crenshaw, 1991).

The paper acknowledges, then, that a utilization and acceptance of Black Canadian women's various identities promote resistance against colonial violence while creating further social and political alliances. These connections are founded on a heterogeneous collectivity rather than rigid, racist homogeneous constructs (Timothy, 2007, p. 173). The creation of reactionary identities and hybrid spaces such as the Naturalista and the NHM are examples of this resistance. They are a result of the designating processes that push Black women's bodies to inhabit spaces of marginality in Canadian society. This paper uses Black feminist theories to explore the relationship between these positions of marginality and existing notions of belonging and citizenship in Canada.

Theoretical Approaches

This analysis of hair-centred representations firstly considers how Black women identify with Canada as a space and place. This follows the perspective that space and place allows us to conceptualize meaning for Black lives in areas of which incorrectly construct Black geographies as ungeographic or undeveloped (McKittrick, 2006, p. xiii). With that said, the outlined experiences of Black women within the space/place framework concretizes their presence as valued Canadian citizens. Using Black women's hair to outline the presence of anti-Blackness within Canadian society simultaneously refutes the frequent construction of Canada as a multicultural and therefore inclusionary space/place. Furthermore, these tensions show how the prevalence of anti-Black racism continues to negatively impact Black women and girls.

The theorization of this impact subscribes to the key components of Black feminist thought as outlined by Patricia Hill-Collins (2000). As a Black, Jamaican-Canadian woman of African descent, I am cognizant of how informing this research through my own lived experiences can potentially undermine its credibility. The integrity of this study is maintained through my positioning as both a participant and observer. Like Hill-Collins (2000), embodying the position of a participant and observer is a crucial strategy to inspire and equip Black women to resist oppression (p.19). Hill-Collins' (2000) belief that empowerment lies within a woman's ability to think and speak about and for herself (p. 3) further supports Black feminist initiatives that articulate Black women's experiences while aiming to better them (Hill-Collins 2000, p. 31).

The politics of Black Canadian women's hair considers how the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability are simultaneously implicated in the various oppressions experienced by Black Canadian women. This intersectional approach also incorporates views from Bathsheba Opini and Njoki Wane (2007) who associate the very struggles that define Black women's experiences in Canada with broader societal structures (p. 178). The case studies and research findings both outline how these social structures operate as multifaceted systems of oppression that not only impact Black women's self-esteem, but also limit their employment opportunities. Hill-Collins (2005) discusses the causes and implications of these gender-specific burdens by revealing the hierarchies even within feminist discourses that further alienate the perspectives of Black women in academia. This results in a furthered masking of their existence and representation beyond the academic sphere. Providing evidence of this through her explanation of normative (white) femininity, Hill-Collins describes...

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