BLACK HAIR

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Carol Crouch ’14 has natural hair.

She wears it in a big Afro.

And people at Yale are constantly commenting on it.

“Wow, it’s crazy,” they say. “It’s like a jungle in there.” They ask if they can pet it, poke it, stick their fingers in it. They ask questions. “Can you comb it?” “Do you wash it?”

“Some questions are kind of silly and lacking in common sense,” Crouch said. “There are some times when people say something, or they ask to touch it, and it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. But it’s just them purely not knowing.”

Crouch says she went to a high school where people were used to her hair. They didn’t see it as unusual. Now, she said, she tries to remember that many people at Yale have never been exposed to hair like hers before. They’ve never had black friends. They’re curious; she answers people’s questions in order to educate them.

But sometimes their comments — comments like “forest hair” — are hard to swallow.

“When they see hair that’s really different, it’s like they forget there’s a person there, too,” she said.

The majority of black women, at Yale and around the United States, “relax” or “perm” their hair, chemically straightening it. But Crouch is one of a handful of black female Yalies who wear their hair “natural,” choosing not to remove the kinks.

Crouch knows that people at Yale recognize her because of her hair — she’s, you know, one of those quadruplets, the one with the big Afro. Her sister, Martina Crouch ’14, gets the same kind of response. She has long, thick braids with strips of yellow, lime green and purple fabric woven in. People regularly come up to her, tell her how “wild” it looks. She says she can’t help but view these comments through the lens of race, reinforcing historical stereotypes of black people as uncivilized or barbaric.

“It’s weird to think that these casual, sort of jokey comments get translated into this bigger picture,” Martina said. “And I think most often people link hair with race.”

Two Decembers ago, Carol, Martina and their two brothers were all accepted to Yale early action, the first set of quadruplets in recorded history to do so. The story was all over the news; a feature and accompanying photo of the four of them appeared on the front page of the The New York Times.

“When we were, like, all over the news and stuff, we all wanted to make sure that we kept our hair, you know, natural, the way we’ve always had it — not press it down or do anything to suppress it or cover it up or hide it,” Martina said. “And a lot of people noticed that.”

In comments on the news stories, people pointed out the Crouches’ hair. Martina and Carol both remembered reading a comment on the New York Times website suggesting that the quadruplets were only accepted to Yale because of their “nappy hair.” (That comment has since been deleted from the website.)

Carol said that comments like those made her think twice about coming to Yale. Perhaps people saw her hair and assumed that she was “just a big affirmative action thing.” She wondered if Yale had accepted her and her siblings because the school “wanted to show off a certain image.” In the end, she said, she decided not to let people’s comments about her hair change her feelings toward Yale.

Still, comments about hair — comments that often have racial undertones — have become a regular part of Martina and Carol Crouch’s life here on campus, especially because they keeps her hair natural. The choice — to relax or “go natural” — is a decision fraught with cultural notions about what it means to be black. Carol says that she thinks about hair a lot more now that she’s in college, and she believes that she is not the only black student to feel this way.

BLACK HAIR 101

Dilan Gomih ’13 gets a lot of questions about her hair, too. She loves them.

“I love explaining my hair care regiment to people,” she said. “It gives me so much joy to bestow the teachings of black hair onto others.”

Like most black women on campus, Gomih regularly applies a “relaxer” — an alkaline cream that strips away the proteins in hair and causes the curl to straighten out, or “relax.” For most black women, it’s a painful process. The white cream is applied to the root of the hair and left to marinate for a few minutes. Then, the itching and burning sensations begin. While the relaxer dissolves parts of the hair shaft, it also starts burning through the skin on the scalp.

The chemical has about the same pH-level as Drano, the stuff you pour down your drain to eat away the gunk in the pipes.

A woman having her hair “relaxed” usually sits with the chemical in her hair until she can’t stand the burn any longer — usually about ten minutes. After the relaxer is washed out, the hair must be conditioned immediately or else it will start to break off just above the root. Soon after, raw spots on the scalp begin to ooze with blood. A couple hours later, scabs form.

Repeat every six to eight weeks.

Gomih first relaxed her hair when she was 14 years old. When the hairdresser started to rinse the creamy chemical out of her hair, patches of hair on the back off her head fell out into the sink.

“It freaked me the hell out,” Gomih recalled. “Luckily, my hair grows pretty fast. But I knew it wasn’t there. It took about a year and a half to get it all even again.”

But that bad experience didn’t deter Gomih from continuing to relax her hair. Now, she keeps it sleek, shiny and straight. She schedules a three-hour chunk of time every week to style her hair, usually after her last class on Thursdays. She keeps a portable hair dryer in her room. She has a specific playlist on her iPod just for when she’s doing her hair. (Lots of Kings of Leon, Fleet Foxes and that new album by Adele.)

When she first arrived at Yale, none of Gomih’s suitemates knew anything about black people’s hair — how it works, how it’s styled and maintained. They asked a lot of questions. They watched her while she stood in front of the bathroom mirror, applying different oils and serums and keratin infusions, setting her hair in curlers, blow-drying, straight-ironing. When they went on trips to the pharmacy together, she would take them through the black hair care aisle. They wanted to see it wet, because they never see it wet — Gomih, like most black woman who straighten their hair, only washes it about once every 10 days.

“At first, they tried to look at me like I was nasty,” Gomih recalled, laughing. “But I had to explain to them that that’s just how black hair works.”

That kind of instruction came with romantic relationships, too. Gomih’s boyfriend is white. He had never dated a black girl before. The first time he tried to run his hands through her hair while they were kissing, she gently pulled his hand away. The second time he did it, “it became more of a slap,” she said.

“Any guy who dates me knows that you don’t touch the hair,” Gomih said. “There’s no ‘Ooh, lemme see it messed up, lemme see it wet.’ I love you, but you don’t touch my hair.”

Gomih is not the only black girl on campus who has found herself giving her suitemates and boyfriends a lesson in Black Hair 101.

For Taylor Vaughn-Lasley ’12, it was concerns about hygiene that prompted the hair questions.

“I definitely had to explain to my suitemates that I don’t wash my hair every day,” Vaughn-Lasley said. “Basically, what I will say to them is that the amount of time that it takes for a white person’s hair to get oily, which is like two days, takes a black person’s hair more like two weeks.”

Vaughn-Lasley has straight dark brown hair that hits below her shoulder in layers. Her suitemates, like Gomih’s, are fascinated by the intricacies of black hair care.

“I wrap my hair every night around my head and hold it with bobby pins, and my suitemates have always just thought that it’s really comical to see me walking around with my hair pasted to my head.”

For most of her life, Vaughn-Lasley wore her hair natural, or in little twists. She began straightening her hair at the end of high school, right before prom. She liked it. She could change her hair whenever she wanted, to whatever she wanted — bone-straight, curly, wavy. She could add extensions and make her hair longer, sleek and flowing.

“When I had a ’fro, I felt like I was the girl with the ’fro. When I had the twists, I was the girl with the twists. And I think I didn’t want that to be the defining factor of who I was to other people,” Vaughn-Lasley said. “So when I started getting my hair straightened, which is seen as a more normal way of presenting one’s hair, I sort of felt like I could craft my own image after that.”

For Vaughn-Lasley, maintaining straight hair is time-consuming and painful — her hands cramp up, and she accidentally burns herself with the straight iron. But it’s worth it to have hair that makes her feel beautiful and confident every time she walks out the door. She does not feel like herself with natural hair.

She recalled a time at the end of her sophomore year, right around finals, when she was too busy writing papers and studying for finals to take the time to straighten her hair. So she washed it and wore the kinky hair up in a sort-of bun. Her confidence took a big hit. Every time she walked out of her door, she said, she felt unattractive.

“That saddened me because I still have the same face, and I still am the same person, and I still do all the same things, so why should wearing my hair up in a curly bun, like, make a difference to anyone or to myself?” Vaughn-Lasley asked.

“I don’t know that it did to anyone,” she said. “I just think it did to myself.”

‘PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE’

Up until her junior year of college, Kayla Vinson ’11 had been relaxing, or “perming,” her hair every couple of months since she was 12 years old. But once she came to Yale, she realized that there had to be another way. She wondered if she could become a part of Yale’s small, but growing, community of women with natural hair.

Vinson feared the long-term effects all that chemical processing on her hair. Relaxers can cause hair-thinning, and sometimes even baldness.

Moreover, she said, she was tired of feeling dependent on straightening treatments in order to feel confident in how she looked. After each perm, she said, “you think your hair looks really nice and pretty. And then maybe five or six weeks later, you need a perm but it’s not time yet.”

“It’s that awkward, ‘I don’t feel pretty, why even put on nice clothes, my hair is not going to look good.’”

Vinson is a sociology and African American studies major, so she uses a lot of seminar-speak and phrases like “gendered racial identity” and “black cultural capital” and “hegemonic forces of power” when she talks about the reasons why she decided to stop straightening her hair.

“There are certain hegemonic forces of power at work,” she says, “that I feel have a negative impact on the black community as a whole, and I think one of the many things that would fall underneath that category would be a kind of psychological warfare, for lack of a better term.”

Wait, what?

Vinson tried to explain it in simpler terms.

“I think that, like, it’s a contradiction to tell someone they’re beautiful just the way God made them, but every six weeks you need to go to the beauty salon and make sure your hair looks like the white person walking down the street,” Vinson said. “I just think it’s a contradiction.”

Vinson also had examples to follow. She says that she saw more women at Yale with natural hair than she ever saw back home in Atlanta. She believes that this is because black women in academia are more likely to understand the connotations of their hair, and the ways that a relaxed hairstyle can be construed as “trying to be white.”

So, she started to consider “going natural.” She agonized for most of her junior year.

The problem was that “relaxed,” chemically straightened hair never returns to its natural state. New, curly hair just grows in at the root. If Vinson wanted to go natural, she would have to start from scratch — cut off all the old, straightened hair, leaving only the new growth from the last time that she had applied a relaxer.

She avoided making a decision by holding off on relaxing her hair, instead keeping it in twists or braids so no one would see the roots growing in. She wondered: How would it look? Would she regret cutting off all her relaxed hair? What would guys think?

Then, one morning at the end of spring semester, she woke up and knew what she wanted. She made an appointment for a haircut the next day. She didn’t tell anyone except her mother about the impending, life-altering decision. She arrived at the salon.

“I want you to cut my hair off,” she declared to the hairdresser.

The woman begged Vinson not too make such a drastic decision.

“Cut my hair off,” she repeated.

Vinson said she had anticipated that she would cry when the hairdresser started to snip off strands of hair. But instead, watching herself in the mirror, she burst into a smile.

“When she started cutting and I saw the first three inches of my hair sitting on my shoulder, I couldn’t have been happier, which is not at all how I expected to feel,” Vinson said. “I kind of wish I could go back to that day, and have that feeling again.”

Vinson says she believes her natural hair is more reflective of who she is inside, of her beliefs in black pride and empowerment. And she feels prettier now, more comfortable in her own skin. She loves her new Afro, likes to touch it and play with it. She likes that she will never have to sit down with a relaxer burning into her scalp again.

“When I look in the mirror now I feel like I’m looking at myself,” Vinson said. “And I didn’t realize until I cut my hair that I didn’t feel that way before.”

But most of all, she says, she likes the idea that she has become a role model for other black women who struggle with having to straighten their hair.

“One of the biggest impetuses for me to really go natural, besides the fact that I should do it for myself, was that I wanted little girls growing up to see someone with natural hair,” Vinson said, “to see that if you wanted to wear your hair the way it grows out of your skin — imagine that! — then that is fine.”

MAKING THE CHOICE

Carol Crouch said that since arriving at Yale, she has appreciated seeing fellow undergraduates such as Vinson walking around campus with natural hair and bold Afros. It makes her feel that her hair is not so strange. But still, she says, she grapples with the way that people perceive her hair and the comments she receives.

One thing she’s noticed, she says, is that while people like to ask questions about her Afro — to touch it and talk about it — she gets the impression that people don’t always think that it looks attractive. She said that when she braids her hair, the compliments that she gets from people are more stereotypically feminine. People call it “pretty,” rather than how they usually describe her hair as “crazy” or “cool.”

“Part of me realizes that not everyone thinks that Afros are pretty,” Crouch said. “Just because they think it’s interesting or sort of cool or fluffy, doesn’t mean that they think it looks pretty.”

When Crouch was younger, she said, she sometimes wondered if guys liked her better without her Afro. She sometimes felt that boys talked to her more when she had braids than when she had her out and natural.

She’s worried her Afro might scare guys away. Perhaps it intimidates them. Or maybe the type of black women who are most often considered beautiful — the Beyonces, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbells of the world — rarely wear their hair natural.

“A lot of people don’t know what to do with it, because they’re more used to black women with relaxed hair or a weave or braids,” Crouch said. “If you’re a woman of color, I don’t think guys are seeking girls with natural hair, whether they’re a black guy or a white guy.”

But Vinson says she has had the opposite experience since going natural. It’s been less than a year since she started rocking an Afro, and she said that in that time period she’s received more attention from guys of all races than in her other three years of college combined. She wonders if the cause of that new attention is her new hair, or if it’s more about her newly acquired self-confidence.

“I don’t know if it’s my hair or if it’s how I wear my hair, if that makes sense,” Vinson said. “But I think it’s how I wear my hair.”

Still, for black girls with natural hair, an added dimension of concern comes with the prospect of how their hair will be received in the professional sphere.

Vinson recalled an instance, after she went natural, when she went to get a haircut and came back with her hair blow-dried straight. It wasn’t her; she was planning on washing it out the next day. But when she ran into a friend on the street, he complimented her hair, saying that she looked “ready for the business world.”

“I wasn’t offended, but it reminded me why I wanted to go natural in the first place, to break that stereotype,” Vinson said. “I don’t think that he’s racist. But I do think that his attitude in a professional setting could lead to a racist outcome.”

Carol Crouch is currently a freshman, so she has a while before she needs to worry about how her hair will affect her employment prospects. Still, she remembers how she felt before her interview for Yale: she made a point to wear her natural hair. She hopes that three years from now, when she’s looking for a job, she will make that same choice.

“When I interviewed for Yale, I didn’t really think about straightening my hair or taking out my nose ring, because I didn’t want to present a sanitized view of myself,” Crouch said. “If they think I’m unprofessional because I wear my hair natural, then I don’t want to work there.”

Plus, she said, she thinks it’s important for her to continue wearing her hair natural, to change people’s notions of what it means to be a black woman at an Ivy League school.

“If you look at professional black women who have gone to high-ranking institutions, you generally see them with relaxed hair,” Crouch said.

She doesn’t think that natural hair is necessarily better than relaxed hair — both can look beautiful and empowering, she says. But she wants to help create an environment on campus where all kinds of hair are celebrated and embraced.

The thing is, it’s not really about the hair. It’s all about having the freedom to make the choice.

Correction: April 12, 2011

A previous version of this article suggested that Dilan Gomih ’13 stated that relaxing her hair is a painful process. She says that it is not painful. She added that she did not go bald. The article also failed to attribute information about the details of the hair relaxing process, which come from “The Black Woman’s Guide to Beautiful Hair: A Positive Approach to Managing any Hair Type and Style,” by Dr. Lisa Akbari. Additionally, Gomih owns a portable hair dryer, not a stand-up hair dryer.”

Gomih responded to the article in the following letter.

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