The oppressive roots of hair relaxer

Safiya Bridgewater

Contributing Writer

Happy Black History Month!

In Kroger supermarket, right now, on Broad and Lombardy streets, there is a display in the main aisle for Black History Month.

How politically/culturally conscious, right?

Upon closer inspection of the item for sale under the “Celebrating Black History Month” sign with a pretty Black girl with long, straight hair is—chemical hair relaxer. Hair relaxer? Yes, hair relaxer.

Is this what is equated with Black History Month and all of the empowering connotations that are supposed to be packaged with the term? It seems to me that if a national supermarket chain wanted to profit off this most un-commercial holiday while at the same time being culturally sensitive, the display would be more appropriate in maybe the peanut butter aisle.

But instead of choosing to market something (without even putting it on sale) that evokes educational images of black people in history, ironically the only thing being marketed is a toxic chemical concoction, which was originally promoted in the late 19th century as a way for black people to diminish their African roots to assimilate with White culture.

Today, one of the most talked about and politicized aspects of Black women, of all things, is hair. There are magazines, multi-billion dollar corporations and polarized political debates.

The last thing I want to add to the exploding politically-charged debate about the wrongs and rights of chemically-relaxed hair versus natural hair is another indignant opinion piece, but in order for the rest of society to understand just how frustrating such a sign is to this writer, there needs to be some background black history of how the relaxer came to be popularized.

In an attempt to assimilate into white society, black women in 19th century America found that the more European traits they had, the higher class they could be. The less apparent their African roots were — the more bleached and straightened their features were — the more refined (less savage) they could be considered.

It soon became popular culture to straighten kinky hair with greases, oils, straightening combs and hellish amounts of heat after a chemical hair relaxer was discovered and then marketed by an African American man named Garrett Augustus Morgan in the early 20th century. In this product’s beginnings, it was marketed toward both men and women, but because of gendered hair propriety, (women’s hairstyles typically being longer), and sexist/racist beauty standards – black women are generally considered beautiful the more fair and un-nappy they are.

The contemporary use of hair relaxer is marketed to and used predominantly by black women. In fact, the use of relaxer has become so ingrained into black culture that no longer is it really an option to relax one’s hair or not.

The process in the past few decades has become so prevalent that most black women have not considered its origins. Relaxer has been so normalized into American culture that many women no longer consider it a way to diminish their African roots in order to assimilate; they simply consider it the way to manage kinky hair. Some black women are in favor of relaxer because they say it simply makes hair more manageable.

As a poor and lazy college student who can’t seem to wake up for class until the very last minute, I can attest that the time and money spent on upkeep of relaxed hair (blow-drying, flat-ironing, hot combing, wrapping, greasing) seems ridiculous compared to the natural hair care regimen of doing absolutely nothing. But because most of us are raised in a culture where it is normal to spend so much money and time on the straightening of hair, I suppose I can see why no one else seems to think twice about such an insulting sign.

Even with the advent of the re-burgeoning natural hair movement in the black women’s community, relaxed hair remains a status of class. The more money a black woman makes, the more she is able to spend on her hair and so financially successful women show off their prosperity with the status symbol of salon-straightened hair.

Furthermore, a common conception about relaxed hair is that it makes it easier for one to be upwardly mobile. With unnaturally straight hair, it may be easier for a black woman to find and keep a good job and be received by society.

No doubt, residual cultural insecurities about natural hair remain in the collective conscious of American society. And where there is insecurity there is money to be made.

Even if the original inventor of relaxer was a black man, the people who make big time bucks from relaxer and other black women’s hair care products are white men. This flip of power turns profiting into profiteering. It is exploitation when those who are in power to perpetuate white standards of beauty are also the ones who become rich off the backs of black insecurity (and hence, eternal attempts at assimilation via products like hair relaxer).

Even if the Kroger supermarket chain doesn’t profit from their insensitive, ignorant, inappropriate product display, the exploitation of black women’s esthetic insecurities remains.

By that sign existing, sale or no sale, there is the heavy implication that out of everything there is to appreciate about Black History Month, the most important issue is the state of black women’s hair. It trivializes Black History Month by attempting to commercialize it. Even more disturbing, it ironically degrades Black History Month by attempting to profit off black women by pushing the hair industry’s racist standards of beauty.

Whether the display is the grand idea of the advertising executives from relaxer companies or the head honchos of Kroger, the idea for such a sign had to have been created, proposed, approved, and set into place by a number of people, all of whom failed to see the tragedy in the sign.

I know, I know, it’s not white people’s place to specifically care about the issues of black people, not even in the month of February. In business, it’s not of anyone’s concern to think of any deeper meaning than that of profit. In a grocery store, with a commercial product, it’s all about making another dollar at the end of the day, regardless of who is exploiting whom. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is quite feasible to keep intact the integrity of a month set aside specifically to acknowledge the accomplishments of black people in history that get swept under the rug in mainstream discourse: don’t put up Black History Month relaxer displays.

One Response to “The oppressive roots of hair relaxer”

  1. Has no one else read this yet?! The image of this “Kroger Promotional” is like a slap in the face for black women.

    Great work Safiya!