How long will we continue to be met with opposition for the hair we were born with? Within the Latino community, those with curly or course textured hair are sure to have heard the phrase “pelo malo” (a.k.a. “bad hair”) — a discriminatory phrase that’s existed for centuries.
But, when will the stereotypes, prejudices, social, and YES, economic discrimination–especially within communities of color–end? After having witnessed the televised and completely disgraceful butchering of the high school wrestler, Andrew Johnson’s locs this past December, I’m guessing no time soon!
I sat there disgusted and enraged as I watched the white team trainer butcher Andrew Johnson’s hair. I couldn’t help but notice what force she took when chopping Andrew’s dread locs; the look of satisfaction on her face. But what I couldn’t get over was Andrew’s face of defeat, even after winning the match for his team. Humiliation, and perhaps, a loss of identity…the problems with pelo malo are alive and well.
It was 1982 when my mother chopped my shoulder length hair into a teeny fro when I was seven-years-old. I. Was. Mortified. No tengo tiempo para bregar con ese pajón tan malo, she hollered at the hair dresser when she asked her to please reconsider cutting it off. I remember it like yesterday. I remember mostly how terrified I felt of what the kids in school were going to think of me, and of what they would say when they no longer saw my previously relaxed hair; the hair that defined me and gave me a place in society – free of ridicule. Those silky straight locks, like the ones I often saw on television commercials and on my white peers, they were all gone now. I lost a part of me that day. The term “pelo malo” or “bad hair” was the only term used to describe my hair, and so I spent my entire life disguising my kinky-coily hair. A slave to the salon, rain or shine, it was my only escape from that reality. And so when my young adult son came to me a few months ago asking for my advice on whether or not to he should cut his hair and put off dread locking his long curls until he got his dream job, I encouraged him to wear his hair whichever way he wanted to.
“Mom, you know I’ve been growing my hair all this time so that I can get dreadlocks, but I’m scared to do so. What if they don’t take me seriously? I really want this job and I’m afraid they won’t hire me if I get dreadlocks. I think it’s best I wait and prove myself first.”
Did I really hear this? I thought to myself. Is my son really telling me that his HAIR is what will determine job security and the pursuit of his desires?
It’s unfortunate that this truly is something that can determine whether or not you get a job in some places. But this is our reality as people of color. And this discrimination doesn’t only happen in the work force, but in our own families too.
“Mom, could you believe my dad’s fiancé wants me to cut my hair for their wedding? She doesn’t think it’s proper for me to have dreadlocks.”
I was appalled, but again, encouraged my son to keep his dreadlocks and wear his hair whichever way makes him happy!
There is no disputing the fact that disdain for coarse and textured hair persists today, and perhaps, will always be a point of contention. In 2014, the U.S. Army issued a new policy banning traditional black hairstyles. Fashion Police host, Giuliana Rancic stated that Zendaya’s dreadlocks during the Oscar’s looked like they smelled of “patchouli” and “weed.” NFL football player, Colin Kaepernick faced heavy criticism for his afro. And these are just some of the stigmas people of color face when it comes to their hair – as if a person’s hair has anything to do with their success. There is no reason we should be urged to comply with a grooming standard that instructs us to suppress our identity. Instead we be judged by our potential to perform a job or our actual ability to do it. I will never encourage my son to hide his cultural roots–whether that’s his hair or anything else. Proclaiming who you are should not be a choice you have to make.