Two weeks ago I was walking in Burnt Oak, in Northwest London with my little sister looking for an African hair salon that had Marley hair extensions. My hair was in a set of two-strand twists and my sister had her hair in faux dreadlocks. My sister and I had stopped in front of one of the many African Hair Salons in the area discussing which shop we would look into next, when all of a sudden, a Caucasian woman with stringy blond hair walked up to my sister and holding a small portion of her hair that was seemed somewhat stuck together and asked us if she had dreadlocks.
My sister and I were incapable of speech. We looked at the black men standing outside of the hair closest hair salon who were watching us and they looked back at us barely disguising their laughter. Eventually the woman walked away.
In the woman’s defense she didn’t seem to be entirely lucid. Her eyes were darting around all over the place and prior to stopping by my sister and I her movements had been a bit jumpy. That said, this is not something that is totally out of left field for many naturalistas. Whether it’s the fake afros worn for Halloween parties or the bantu knots and gelled baby hair look co-opted by Marc Jacobs for his fashion show, our natural hairstyles have often been ridiculed or seen as less than when on white people (praised as alternative).
We are told that our natural hairstyles are not professional enough for interviews or the workplace and that they are too unkempt for school. These messages that tell us that our natural hair and hairstyles are not good on us, has for a long time fuelled the hair industry, with black women and girls purchasing relaxers and other tools and products in order to make our hair appear straight. The growth of the natural hair movement has fought against many of these messages, but these ideas continue to persist even here in the UK.
The other day a friend informed me of a marketing campaign by Turtle Bay, a Caribbean food chain opening up throughout the UK. The campaign was called “Rastafy me” and basically asked their customers for their pictures so they could superimpose dreadlocks unto them. This rubbed me the wrong way immediately because people already have a limited and harmful understanding of Rastafarianism and the history of dreadlocks in the context of the cultures of those in African Descent.
Then when I found out that the chain is neither black-owned nor does it seem to have a significant number of Afro-Caribbean employees I was even more bothered. Much of their marketing campaign relies heavily on Afro-Caribbean vernacular and that combined with their auspicious hiring practices and the “rastafy” campaign has completely put me off. I highly suspect that if they had more Afro-Caribbean people involved in their business then this would have been completely avoided.
They have now taken down the campaign but considering the fact that instead of addressing the problems that they have with regards to hiring practices and marketing strategies they are blocking anyone who complains I do not think this signifies any remorse on the part of Turtle Bay.
Our natural hairstyles are not costumes. Our cultures, beliefs and practices are not things that one can just put on and take off whenever one is looking for a laugh on a night out. They are not tools for people to use to sell products or lend authenticity to the chain restaurants. They are a part of our identity and the images that they possess affect all aspects of our lives.
When you propagate the idea that dreadlocks are to be worn in a certain context in order to symbolize a fun night out, it affects how people with dreadlocks are seen in other contexts, and it makes it that much harder for them to shed the stereotypes and images associated with their hair.
The natural hair movement has done a great job so far of changing the way people view their natural hair. We have shown that we do not have to accept the status quo when it comes to the standards of beauty and respectability propagated by mainstream media. However, our work is not done. We need to continue to show individuals and institutions alike that our hairstyles in particular and our culture as a whole are not costumes.
So let me know what you think. Does the idea of “rastafy me” bother you? How do you think such images and stereotypes influence the image of naturalistas and others with dreadlocks and similar natural hairstyles? Let me know what you think in the comments below.