When I was little I would often spend part of my weekends at the hair salon. I straightened my hair and put lots of chemicals in it. I was celebrated, called pretty, and well put together when I had the perfect hair. My sacrifices were the long hours of heat and intense pulling to “fix” my hair. Sometimes I would not participate in my physical education class in school so I would not sweat and ruin my hair. But what was in it that needed to be fixed? Why would it be necessary to change the way I look?
Before you go ahead and criticize my parents for allowing my behavior, I want to let you know that when we grow up as Black women we are fed these advertisements that tell us to straighten our hair, that we need to look skinny or more “Latina.” The ideal Latina you wonder? Lighter-skinned than I am for sure, with straight hair, more voluptuous, strong-willed, and determined.
What would you do as a parent? If you have been taught that by looking a certain way your children will have better opportunities, experience less discrimination, be more accepted?
We are unconsciously taking in these messages from movies, books, advertisements…and so did our parents, and our grandparents. In 2015, I stopped straightening my hair. It came as I struggled to treat my own hair, trying to apply heat or chemicals myself. It was not because I was ready to embrace and love my afro but because I could not keep up with my hair. It was during my first co-op that I asked my supervisor whether it was okay for me to come to work with my afro. My supervisor, confused and surprised, could not understand why I thought it would be a problem. I redirected the conversation and walked away.
I started questioning my own standards of beauty, I started looking for answers. Why did I prefer straight hair over my afro? Why would I feel shame for showing my afro to others? The year 2015 was also when I started learning about the history of colonization on Turtle Island, particularly in what we know today as “Canada,” and in my country the “Dominican Republic.”
It took me years, but I realized that my understanding of beauty was very influenced by my upbringing. In many cases, my parents would want me to look “polished” so I could get the job or stay out of trouble. To be honest, they still call me to this day and share their concerns. They remind me that the way I am perceived can affect my business, the clients I work with, and how people treat me. Would I really lose clients if I wear my afro? What if we could turn things around?
By late 2017, I questioned myself even more. Instead of looking at beauty with our pre-set mentality, could we challenge our ways of thinking? Showing up with my afro, could it not bring more awareness and representation to my workplace? Girls with afros can be business owners as well, you know. We can code, we can use 3D printers, we can talk about money. At that time, I was working with a young group of girls by providing them with a safe environment to learn about technology and entrepreneurship through Science Venture. I was also working with a tech startup and starting a social enterprise focused on bringing accessible financial literacy to communities. If I can show up as myself, fail in front of my girls, embrace the way I look, it would certainly shape the way they see themselves and their future. I wanted to be the person I never was when I was growing up.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against straight hair, but I believe there is a lot of strength in our authenticity. There is strength in dismantling our thoughts and ways of being.
Today, my afro is the core of who I am. It is a synonym of power, determination, and resilience. Power because it reminds me of my heritage. I think of everyone who came before me and had to stand against some type of discrimination to just be. Resilience because of all the ways we have found a way to move through history, holding up our heritage — sometimes even losing part of our identities and traditions to survive. Determination because we are still here, I am still here.
I used to see my hair as a weakness. Today my hair is my greatest source of power. This is our power.