The Psychology of Black Hair | Johanna Lukate | TEDxCambridgeUniversity


Translator: Amanda Sany
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs When we meet a person, it only takes a second for us
to form a mental image of who that person is. It’s what you did
when I walked onto the stage. It’s what I did when I looked around
the room to get a sense of who you are. Identifying and categorizing people,
it’s part of human nature. From categorizing people
into black and white, men and women, to adults and children. But when it comes to aspects such as intelligence,
attractiveness or confidence, we rely on much more subtle cues, such as hair. The power of first
impressions is such that if I show you the image
of a person for only a second, you will not only be able to tell me
that this is a young woman of color, you will have also formed an impression
of how open-minded a person she is. The psychologically
really intriguing thing is that your impression
would have been very different, had you seen this image instead? One woman, two hairstyles, two very different impressions
of who that woman is. These are the findings of a study
conducted by Marianne LaFrance at Yale, and in their study, they showed people
images of three men and three women. Each of them were depicted
with five different hairstyles People were then asked to rate each person
on 10 different scales, including confidence, intelligence,
attractiveness and self-centeredness. And while you might expect results
to look something like this, the truth is that our impression
of the woman’s intelligence, it’s very much dependent
upon her hairstyle. And the effect is even more pronounced if we look at it ratings
for attractiveness. So hair matters,
and it matters to all of us, because it is a form
of non-verbal communication. But it also matters because when you meet a person in the street,
at work, at an event, you make a judgment about
whether to talk to that person, whether to hire that person,
whether to promote that person, or whether to go
on a date with that person. For me, as a social psychologist who studies identity
and inter-group behavior, I was not only interested in understanding
how hair matters to all of us, but how it matters differently
for women of color. And so for the past four years I have studied hair salons
and hair events, and I have traveled between
England and Germany to listen to women
of color’s hair stories. Today, I will tell you
some of these stories to illustrate how hair matters differently for women of color. Now, we have a term for a day
when everything seems to be going wrong, and your hair just doesn’t want to look
the way you want it to look like. That is when you’re having
a “bad hair day.” But the idea is that
you’re having a bad hair day now, and it is going to pass. For women of color,
it is not about a “bad hair day,” but it’s about prevailing standards
of beauty, race and gender that have us think of long, straight
and wavy hair as good and beautiful hair, and kinky or curly hair as bad and ugly. As one woman told me, “I’ve gone as far as calling
in sick to do my hair. Like I said, ‘I’m taking the day off and gone to the hairdresser to make sure
I’ve been able to have a weave.'” So hair matters differently
for women of color because when you’ve made it
this far in your job, you might take a look around the room and realize that there aren’t
many people that look like you. As women of color,
you are part of at least two groups that are generally
underrepresented in the workforce and marginalized in society: women and people of color. Of the Fortune 500 companies,
32 were led by women last year. Of the 32 women, only two were of color, and none was black. Now, we may not all aspire to be CEOs
of Fortune 500 companies, but as the “Good Hair” study published
by the Perception Institute has shown, people – and this is true
across races and genders – are biased towards
natural afro-textured hair. They find it less attractive, less beautiful and less professional. And so women of color
may have a very good reason to emulate a straight-hair look by using a chemical relaxer
to break the texture of their hair, by covering their hair with a wig, or by wearing a weave, which means to have artificial
or human hair extensions sown or glued into your hair. And yet you might argue, Is straightening your hair
or wearing a weave really this different
from people of all shades and color dyeing their hair to cover gray strands? After all, we not only live in societies
that value whiteness, but that also values youth. Now, I would argue there’s another reason why hair matters differently
for women of color. Because we’re not just biased towards
the natural texture of afro-hair, but we have also formed
usually negative stereotypes around hairstyles
that are particularly suitable and less damaging
to natural afro-textured hair. I want to name two. The first hairstyle is the Afro, which some of you may remember
from women like Angela Davis, fighting for the rights of women of color
in the 1960s and 1970s. Because of its history, the Afro
for some of us is a political statement, a reminder of the US civil rights movement and people of color’s
struggle for recognition. For others, the Afro
is a fashion statement, a cool, hip and trendy style. And so what do you see when you see
a woman of color with an Afro? Do you see an activist? A troublemaker? A radical, black feminist, maybe? Or do you see a woman
interested in fashion, enjoying and expressing
herself through her hair? Do you see both? And more importantly, to what extent are your impressions of her going to shape the way
that you will interact with her? Let’s talk about another
hairstyle: dreadlocks. The person probably more famous
for wearing dreadlocks is Bob Marley. And again we have formed very different
understandings of what dreadlocks mean. For some of us, seeing
a person with dreadlocks means seeing a person who’s asserting
her cultural or religious roots. But for others, it means seeing a criminal or a person who smokes marijuana. And so I ask you again, What do you see when you see
a woman with dreadlocks? What images and ideas do come to mind? Are they positive, negative
or are they prejudiced? And most importantly, to what extent are your impressions of her going to shape the way
that you will interact with her? The fact that stereotypes like, “She wears an Afro so she
must be a political activist” exist around certain hairstyles, can have profound implications for the lived experience
of women of color, as illustrated by this story
from a woman from Germany. She told me about how
she was talking to one of her relatives about having a lot of problems
in Germany with racism. So she’s told, “If you already have so many
problems with your skin color, then don’t make it worse
because of your hair.” But she also said that “I knew that if I wanted
to work in this area, it would be difficult with dreadlocks, and so I agreed with him,
and I simply cut them off.” The two stories that I have told you
so far are similar in that they’re both
about impression management. Because the wonderful thing
about hair is that we can alter it. We can cut it, we can dye it,
we can straighten it, we can cover it. And so knowing that your hair is going
to shape the way other people look at you, many women of color
will alter their appearance to influence the thoughts and feelings
that others have about them. It’s something that
we actually all do every day, from telling a friend that you’re fine,
even though you’re very sad and lonely, to dyeing you hair blonde
to be seen as “sexy.” We are all, every day,
some way or another, managing other people’s impressions of us. And yet you could argue the Afro
and dreadlocks are particular hairstyles. And we are equally prejudiced with regards
to hairstyles such as the Mohawk or women with short hair. That´s a fair point. So let me tell you another story of why hair matters differently
for women of color. I’m talking to them, and they’re like, “When did you get here?” and I’m like, “I was born here.” So my hair does relate to my identity,
but not just my hair – my hair, my skin, my whole appearance – because it indicates to people that, okay, I’m here, I’m talking to you
in a British accent, but my origins are other. I come from somewhere else.
I have a story. For me, this was really one of the most
intriguing findings doing this research: the way in which our bodies
and our hair are memory devices; the way in which our hair tells us
something about people moving and being moved around the world. And this is true for all of us because we have a tendency
to place people geographically, to assume that because
a person looks a certain way, she must come from a certain place. And so oftentimes we feel tempted
to ask a question like, “When did you get here?”
or, my personal favorite, “Where are you actually from?” But psychologically, such questions can be
really threatening to your identity. Because if you were born
in England or Germany, how do you answer a questions like, “When are you going back home?” “Where to? The town I was born at?” And so hair matters differently
for women of color because it allows us to place them within the histories
of slavery and colonialism and within contemporary stories
of migration and belonging. But it not only allows us to place them,
it also allows us to misplace them, to assume that they must come
from someplace else. And so some women in Germany told me that for them, straightening
their hair and dyeing it blonde was not just about managing
a marginalized identity in terms of gender or beauty, but about asserting their place
and identity in the German society. And so this really brings me
to my next point, which is that hair not only shapes
how other people see us, but it also shapes how we see ourselves. And yet, who we are
is who we are in the eyes of others. Our self-image –
mine, yours, yours, yours – it’s very much dependent upon the images
that other people have formed about us. And so for women of color,
being told over and over again by society, media, your families, friends that your hair – the way
it grows out of their head – is not beautiful, not attractive,
not feminine enough, not professional. Some women will take
a look into the mirror and ask, “Is it true? Is my hair not beautiful?
Am I not feminine enough?” And so one woman in England told me
about how she started to internalize the images and ideas that she saw
around gender and beauty. She said, “I’ve always had this dream
of not having afro-textured hair, of having the kind of long, silky,
European hair that blows in the wind. And I think this really is something
that society kind of like pushes forward in terms of women’s appearances. Having long hair is seen
as something really – a sign. She’s a woman. That’s really feminine. It’s not that afro-textured hair
doesn’t grow long, but because of its
curl pattern, it shrinks. And so if you live in a society
that has a thing of long, straight hair as very feminine, what is at stake is women
of color’s ability to be seen as women. As Sojourner Truth
asked over 150 years ago, “Ain’t I a woman?” And so straightening your hair
and wearing a weave or wig, for women of color it’s also
about asserting their womanhood and finding a sense of femininity. Now, given how much I know
about how your impression of me is shaped by biases and stereotypes
around the texture of my hair, you might wonder why it is that I spent an hour defining
the curls of my hair this morning rather than straightening it. Like many women, there was a time
when I was very conscious about my hair, and there was a fear around
other people commenting on it. I was 15 years old
and enrolled at university. And when you are that young, and you don’t look
anything like the majority, you do not want to stand out even more
because of the texture of your hair. And so I would usually tie it back, and from time to time
I would straighten it with a hot iron. And then I was invited to a summer school. And in the first few days, I would get up
very early in the morning, and I would shower and dry my hair, and I would tie it back, and no one
could really see the texture of my hair. But then one morning – as it is for summer schools, you don’t
get much sleep, so I overslept – I only had time to shower
and there was no time to dry my hair. So my only choice
was to let it dry on the air, and naturally, it started curling up
like it did this morning, like it is right now. And for the whole morning
I was very conscious of myself and anxiously waiting for that moment
when someone would make a funny comment. But nothing happened. In fact, people started telling me
how much it suited me, how much they liked my curls. And so for the first time,
I started to feel really accepted as the girl who had been
to university since she was 15 and as the girl with curly hair. And so for me, this summer school
really became a turning point, after which I no longer felt the need
to hide the natural texture of my hair and to actually embrace
and be happy with my curls. In fact, most of the times
when I have something really important, like today, standing here on this stage,
I will curl my hair. Because this is when I feel
most confident and most true to myself. During my research, many women
have told me about their turning points, from being pregnant and no longer
wanting to use chemicals on your body to seeing old hair break off, leaving you with no other choice
than to shave your head. From finding love
and being told by your partner that you don’t need to hide
or cover your hair to be seen as beautiful or attractive to questioning why it is that
women of color put chemicals on their hair to adhere to Euro-centric
beauty standards. But for many women of color,
it was seeing an ever-growing number of women of color
with natural afro-textured hair in the streets, at work, on social media. And so for these women,
the natural hair movement has really paved the way to redefine
not only what it means to be of color, but also what it means to be a woman, for themselves and for others. So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the understanding
that hair matters. And it matters to all of us
because when you meet a person, you’re going to form a mental image
of who that person is, and hair plays a big part of that. But it also leaves us
with the understanding that hair matters differently
for women of color. Because for women of color, hairstyling –
from chemically relaxing your hair, to covering your hair with a wig,
or deliberately wearing it in an Afro – it’s about managing
a marginalized identity. It is styling your hair
with the understanding that you are not just judged
by what is in your control, whether you’re a good person,
whether you’re well read, but you are judged by physical attributes
given to you at birth such as the color of your skin
or the texture of your hair. And while hair is a form
of non-verbal communication for all of us, women of color are having
a different conversation. For women of color,
hair is part of a conversation about the history
of slavery and colonialism. It is part of a conversation
about the legacies of sexism and racism. And it is part of a conversation about contemporary stories
of migration and belonging. And yet, we can alter hair,
we can change it, we can manipulate it. And because of this,
it allows us to tell a different story and to engage in a different
conversation every day. Thank you very much. (Applause)