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Untangling the politics of black hair is tough – and trying to explain it to those who have never experienced the intrigue, the questioning, the barrage of unwanted comments, the weird looks and the uninvited hands being plunged into their own hair…is even tougher.

As my acceptance of my own curls has grown over the years, naturally so has my understanding of how to take care of them as well as my knowledge of black hair. I owe a significant amount of credit to one of my best friends who I met at University; a British-Nigerian girl who got me started on the path to really understanding my hair, aged 20. (Thanks Abi!). Because it’s only now I realise four years later as I’m on a quest to find out my own roots, (literally), that I realise all that time spent disparaging my hair was probably down to the fact that I was trying desperately to fit in with what surrounded me and denying my own self in the process.

The history of black hair

Black hair has historically been a politicised issue for women — far more so than straight hair. And the reasons for this are rooted in slavery and colonialism. In early 19th century America it was once illegal for women to wear their hair natural in certain states. British colonialists classified afro-textured hair as closer to sheep’s wool in texture than actual hair.

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At the start of my natural hair journey, aged 20

And after the Emancipation, straight hair was still held as the optimum look for access to social and professional opportunities — and to an extent still is today. In the 21st century black women are  still  being sacked, bullied and discriminated against for wearing their natural. And as the new black civil rights movement rages on in the face of populist and right-wing movements, the natural hair movement is also enjoying a defiant resurgence. And for me, it’s come at a perfect time.

My natural hair journey

Although the natural hair movement isn’t without its flaws (images of darker-skinned women with tight coils and ‘fros earn gain less exposure and sponsorship), I’ve managed to learn a lot from Youtube videos and Instagam bloggers after growing up with no hair models.  If I could go back in time and carefully prise that not-so-lovely box of  Dark And Lovely hair dye from the hands of my younger self…I totally would. Because I spent SO much time trying to change my natural hair, which by extension, meant I was desperately trying to change myself.

AND IT WAS A WASTE OF MY GODDAM TIME AND BRAIN CAPACITY.

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M natural hair journey; the orange weave phase, aged 18

At 14 black hairdresser agreed to use relaxer on me after I begged my Mum to help me achieve naturally straight hair. My hair snapped and broke and never reached past my shoulders again as the death-by-relaxer phase lasted around two years. I also inflicted further  hair-horror on my curls by regular singeing them, courtesy of my beloved GHD straighteners. I also sported a heinous block fringe during my emo days, had several dye-disasters whilst trying to lighten it at home and later, a Beyonce-inspired-but-highly-orange weave. When I look back at my younger self, all I can see is utter confusion.

Hair and identity

For me, it’s clear to see today that my insecurities about my race and my position within a white community manifested themselves in the way I FOUGHT against my natural curls and frizzy hair for YEARS. Growing up every teenage girl will likely experience social pressures to alter their appearance as womanhood  rears its soft, pink head and starkly reminds you that yes,  now, you need to waste time worrying about looking good, fitting in, staying thin, attracting a partner etc.

But as an ethnic minority in a white world, there’s an added layer of difficulty to deal with; Eurocentric beauty ideals are everywhere and mirror images of people like you are not. And as an ethnic minority in a white family and community, within a white world, having no visual role models as a teenager was sometimes really hard.

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At the start of my natural hair journey, four years ago

Teenage me was aspiring to have a media career, so I was acutely aware of the lack of black and brown faces that reflected my own appearance on television. I acknowledged the beauty hegemony that dominated my favourite magazines. And I lamented the fact I would never look like those people. But even though I had incredibly loving having friends and family, because no-one looked an inch like me, I didn’t feel as if I could voice my concerns over my appearance — and my hair. So I tried to fit in by changing it. 

Braids and other “black” hairstyles were out of the question; I was never able to align myself with black culture after being raised white and I didn’t want to either. However, I remember my parents helped me deal with my curls as a child; combing it out, brushing it through and taking me to a black hair salon in Croydon for advice on how to deal with it. I had a special, white, wide-toothed comb and my parents used it on my hair religiously, every week. My Mum styled it in plaits and pigtails as a kid and I continued to sport this style up until I was about thirteen when I started abusing it on my own terms. But one thing we never spoke about was why my hair was different, who I’d inherited it from and why I was so desperate  to to change it. Those topics were off limits.

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My natural hair journey; now I love braids and cornrows

Acceptance

As I’ve slowly accepted my natural self and uncovered that yes, I am mixed-race for a reason, I’ve started to get to grips with my hair, too. (Although when I started out experimenting all I did was slather coconut oil on it and it looked like I’d bathed in Vaseline). Braids and twists and other protective styles have become a part of my routine and I’ve finally learned how to retain length!

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Hair in 2016 (spray-on dye)

Taking care of my hair in the past five years or so has inspired me to dig into my own background and start asking questions about my identity that should have been answered years ago.  And I’m finally getting answers.

Hair and identity are inexplicably linked for me and so many others. And while I wish I realised it a little sooner, continuing to care for my hair and explore different black hairstyles is one way that I’ll begin to accept who I actually am.

I’m lucky that a black hair renaissance is taking place on social media that’s helping me make serious progress and which has also inspired me to write about hair trends in mainstream media outlets. But for anyone else struggling with any component of their identity (whether it be related to hair, skin colour or family problems) try and surround yourself with the change you want to see in yourself. Whether that means finding role models, occupying new spaces, or having difficult conversations; self-acceptance doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a gradual process and you have to work hard at it.

However once you move into a space in which you  start embracing your natural self – I promise you won’t look back.

26 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your Guardian article, thanks for sharing. Yours is a unique experience. I would have been furious with my mother too in that situation! I suppose it was a different time but, well… that must have been difficult to forgive. Your father looks and sounds like he was a great man, a terrible loss I’m sure but at the same time you must have been lucky to have him. I’m afraid I’m that custodian of unearned privilege that is white middle class man so I’ve no valid observations such that my structural advantage does not negate. I like your blog all the same 🙂

  2. Julian Bond Reply

    Really nice writing Georgina. Thank you for your insight. I found your writing from your article in the Guardian. I’m sorry about the loss of your Dad. Reading about your experience growing up helped me understand some aspects of the challenge that you had to deal with. So thank you!

  3. Paul Beckford Reply

    Excellent post. You are not alone, many in the African diaspora share your struggle with identity, and for many black women, like yourself, much of that struggle for identity revolves around their hair.
    I’m a middle aged black man of Jamaican decent. Growing up in the UK, especially in the 1970’s I was told to go back to my own country. Well this (the UK) is my home country, I was born here. To add to this I have an English surname, that can be traced back to Wiltshire. My family is Christian and the only language I know is English, although amongst the Jamaican community we also speak patios, a dialect of English that mixes in grammar and vocabulary from West Africa. Cultural differences like patios, and reggae music were hugely important to me growing up.
    In 1978 the whole family went back to Jamaica to live, and it was an eye opener. It all started on the plane. As strange as it sounds seeing pilots and stewardesses that looked like me filled me with a sense of pride I had never experienced before. Before that moment, all the black people I knew worked in menial jobs; second class citizens.
    Growing up in the UK as a black person was tough, but I could see that it was even tougher for mixed race people. Most literally had to choose a side…. and in the process deny half of who they are!
    I could say a lot more, but I just wanted to let you know you are not alone, and to say welcome. Your hair is beautiful by the way, and if you don’t mind me saying you’re beautiful too.
    When reaching out to fellow blacks you may find some that are less welcoming then I have been here. Don’t despair, this is because some struggle with identity also just like you, and the fact that you may sound different and act different whilst looking the same, may challenge their own fragile sense of self.
    Bringing us back to Jamaica is the best thing our parents ever did. I’m now self assured and cocky in a way that only Jamaicans can be! Anyone who has been to the Island will know what I mean. Even so, I recognise your journey and I know how tough it can be. People of all races can be insensitive and cruel, but again I want to let you know that you aren’t alone, and there are people who look like you that are eager to embrace you as one of their own! Welcome.

  4. It took courage to write about your search for your identity. I would like to make 3 observations, if i may. Firstly the man you knew as your father was exactly that – he loved you, cared for you. Secondly – you can be whoever you like. We are all unique – we are all blends – and end of the day we all come from Africa! Lastly there is a book called The Far Pavilions/M M Kaye/ set in India at the time of the Raj, of a boy brought up as an Indian until the age of 10 by his Ayah who saved him from the Indian Mutiny but is then plunged into English White Victorian education system/society. . .he fights to find who he is. He does find himself. I took have had my own searches…….so applaude you writing this.

  5. It took courage to write about your search for your identity. I would like to make 3 observations, if i may. Firstly the man you knew as your father was exactly that – he loved you, cared for you. Secondly – you can be whoever you like. We are all unique – we are all blends – and end of the day we all come from Africa! Lastly there is a book called The Far Pavilions/M M Kaye/ set in India at the time of the Raj, of a boy brought up as an Indian until the age of 10 by his Ayah who saved him from the Indian Mutiny but is then plunged into English White Victorian education system/society. . .he fights to find who he is. He does find himself. I too have had my own searches…….so applaude you writing this.

  6. Hi Georgina,
    Just read your story on the Guardian website – I was touched at the obvious love and bond between you and your dad.
    Identity is such a complicated thing for any of us – we’re all touched by so many people and circumstances that affect who we become. We pick and choose, mix and match, and if we are lucky our inheritance and experience forge us into decent, happy people.
    I don’t know where you stand on the ratio of the nature/nurture thing but it seems to me that you got got your hair, your skin tone, maybe your eyes from the fella your mum had a fling with. But that’s all just the result of acids and complex carbohydrates.
    From your dad you got so, so much more than that.
    The looks, the smiles, the talks, the carries, the gestures. Far more than biology can offer.
    Heart and soul.
    Love!

    Have a lovely Saturday out on your travels,

    Jared Brown

  7. Hi Georgina. Came across your article on the Guardian and clicked right into your blog. I am Kenyan probably old enough to be your mum.. 🙂 and although i may not identify much with your struggles, i can offer my side. You have gorgeous hair, look, face. In Africa you resemble closely the Ethiopians who get to look mixed-race sometimes but we all consider Ethiopians very beautiful. Your hair would be gorgeous with their hairstyles.. here https://uk.pinterest.com/explore/ethiopian-hair/ . My hair is short and very curly, have to spend time in the salon braiding, cutting, straightening, curling cycles. So we all struggle with hair problems (i think its a female thing too) and i would give anything to have your head of hair.!

  8. OMG I just stumbled on your blog and it seems I’m going to be a regular! Xoxo

  9. Hi Georgina
    I read about you at The Guardian. It’s almost 2am here in Sydney & it’s been a long day. I should say from the outset that I’m old enough to be your nana, so you’re not about to hear anything cool & hip.

    My Dad used to say: ‘where there’s one, there’s two’.
    This woman, an American, is EXACTLY like you:
    fusion.net/story/185345/lacey-schwartz-didnt-know-she-was-black-but-her-black-friends-did/e.
    Here is the movie:
    http://www.littlewhiteliethefilm.com
    The internet being what it is, maybe you should start a group. Where there’s 2, there’s 3….

    There is one race: humans. I am as deeply offended by the terms ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed race’, as I am by ‘miscegenation’. You are maybe bicultural. Lots of people like that. Over here we call them ‘migrants’. My Dad was tricultural.

    It’s possible the people you are meeting who are surprised by your accent & colour were expecting either a local or an American.

    Do you know how many kids discover their Dad wasn’t related? & vice versa? Same colour, too. Adults who never suspected they were adopted. Perfectly colour matched. Many never find their parent(s). You’d be feeling just as lost & cheated, even if you were colour matched.

    And there’s no such thing as ‘white’ – unless you’re an albino. The colour north Europeans are is pink.

    Best wishes – and you should find that Lacey Schwartz. BTW, Schwartz is German for black. And she saw the irony.

    best wishes
    Deb

  10. Hi Georgina. Your Guardian article brought me here. I wanted to let you know that you are a lovely young woman who should feel “genetically” blessed given your genes and heritage. The pallid white inbreeding in the English Isles and Ireland makes for a lot of unappealingly looking people. You do not have this curse. Consider it all a blessing. You should also really appreciate your father’s love for you, given that he clearly and obviously knew you were not biologically his child. He’s a far better man than most would be in such a situation. Finally, I would like to wish you a lot of success on your journey to discover and establish your own identity, though I have to be honest, i find it personally overhyped. (for e.g. I’m “me” – my ethnic and racial background do not figure much into it). Sure you can say that is easy for someone ‘white’ to say who lives in a white dominated/majority world, but you know and I know that the world is changing. Racial and ethnic “variety” is IN. Inbreeding is out. Much luck and success to you.

  11. Margaret Berry Reply

    Oh! honey you are beautiful. Your story resonated with me and I had to comment. I grew up in an orphanage and went through WW11 always had a hole in my heart from longing for parents. I am white and Welsh and live in Vancouver BC Canada now. I adopted two black children from Nova Scotia. The girl was 2 the boy 14 months. The girl’s mother was 16 and Irish. The father 17 Canadian and black. Probably West Indian or a descendant of a US slave as many fled to Canada. The grandparents persuaded the mother to have the child adopted. This was my daughter Darlene 2 years old. I decided to keep her first name and from day one she was told she was adopted. Why am I telling you this? I believe that had you been told the truth from day one you might have a better idea as to who you are. The hole in your heart grows bigger because of total confusion when a child. I am happy you had a wonderful father and mother. Your mother probably felt embarrassed about the sad circumstance of your birth especially if she was Catholic. I am not Catholic, but I was taught, in the many foster homes, that having a baby before marriage was a terrible sin. I am glad you are searching for your heritage. I have tried to persuade my two to do the same, but without success. James my son says “my mum sits right here” My daughter Darlene has been through bullying at school, now has 3 children ranging in age from twins
    11 and a 14 year old. She keeps saying she will look for her heritage but never does. We are not as close as I had hoped. I fell in love with her at two but she thinks I am just very disappointed in her. I keep telling her I am not disappointed in her. I am just disappointed in the fact she refused to take advantage of the many advantages I offered her. I think every mother wants the very best for their children. Only now with her first teenager is she finally beginning to realize what I wanted for her. That is what your mother wanted for you. We mothers do our best but we make mistakes along the way. Never give up and always look forward darling. You are gorgeous and have much to give.

  12. The very best to you, Georgina. Your life’s journey will provide all the answers. Observe with an open mind always!

  13. Michael Dent Reply

    Your story so reminiscent of the young woman in New England, who was raised in a Jewish family, and suspected she was mixed race, but parents wouldn’t talk about it. She finally confronted her mother as a college age woman, who confessed her biological father was black. She went through an almost identical path as yours.

  14. Dearest Georgina, family has nothing to do with skin colour. Yes, you came in an unplanned way, but your parents loved you all the same. Did your parents lie? I think not. You were theirs and they loved you. They protected you in their own way. I know it may be hard, but you should grow above what people think. People will always find something wrong with others. Especially when they feel threatened by them. Your biggest problem is you. Stop trying to be white. Accept and be yourself. You are Irish, different and special. You are beautifully and wonderfully made.

  15. Sean Sartor Reply

    As American from the African Disapora, You are one GORGEOUS Sistha and a beautiful Queen

  16. Hi, Georgina!

    Your story is both heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. I wish you godspeed on your quest.

    Just remember that “Platypi ain tryna be ducks nor beavers”. Your identity is what you think it is. If you’re not certain then make it up and stick with it.. Until you decide that it’s something else.

    As you alluded to in your Big Corn Island article, identity is mostly a feeling but can also be decided by the majority. It’s up to you whether everyone else’s vote counts or not.

    -Moses

    P.S.
    I love me a woman in cornrows! Definitely a good look for you.

  17. Cary Peterson Reply

    As a father I would have also raised you the same and for me I would love you regardless of skin color. As you grow older you will become like your father and mother in some ways and different in others but in the end when you have children you will love them unconditionally just like your father. Your personal journey of identity is your own, but remember you will always have a family to call your own.

  18. Nigel Bassett-Jones Reply

    Dear Georgina,
    I have just read your article in the Guardian. I am the Dad of a lovely boy who is half white and half Vietnamese. I am very proud of him as I am sure your Dad was of you. Like you he has experienced racist slurs such as slit ‘eyes.’ He is 11 and It obviously hurts. I encourage him to be proud of his heritage both white British and Vietnamese. Discovering your heritage so late must be very hard but you are doing the right thing and I wish you every success in your search. I also feel for your Mum. It must have been very hard for her too in all sorts of ways. I shall follow your blogs with interest as things unfold.

  19. Hi there, could not resist getting in touch; I felt like I was reading my own story when I read the Guardian article! I’ve never known anyone apart from the famous South African Sandra Laing have anything remotely like this. The part where you mention the throwback story resonates deeply with me. I really admire your bravery in the way that you’ve dealt with this. Alas, I have not discussed this with my father for fear of hurting him and the lovely relationship I have with him. I have however done the ancestry DNA which brought me to tears when I found out my genetic make up, English/African/Irish and a tiny part Scandanavian! At last I knew why I look like I do after 40 years of turmoil…. I can finally hold my head up high and feel confident as a black/mixed heritage woman and pass this knowledge onto my children. Best of luck to you Georgina, don’t leave it til you’re my age!

    • Georgina Lawton Reply

      thank you! and great to hear you’ve started your own journey

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