5 Singaporean women and men of colour share the discrimination they face based on their natural hair
Hair Ye, Hair Ye
As resident beauty veterans at Buro. Singapore, we're used to getting our fair share of skincare- and makeup-related questions. Some enlightening ("is exfoliation the worst thing you can do for skin?"), some baffling ("should I consider a vaginal steam?"), and some downright bizarre ("can I contour my privates?"). Eccentric as they might be, nothing is quite as exasperating as, "Why do you try so hard to look pretty? You don't have try so hard to get attention."
Our frustration stems from many things, the underlying misogyny in such a question being one of them. It mostly has to do with the maligned rep beautification has because the way someone wears their nails and makeup can hold much deeper significance and meaning. Take hijabs, which denote the Islamic rules of modesty, or hennas, typically worn by brides of Hindu faith to commemorate their entry into matrimony. From expressing one's cultural identity to making a political statement, there is more to beauty than just looking pretty.
In fact, what we choose to do about our physical appearance prove weighty enough to incur real-life consequences, materialising in various forms of discrimination in employment and housing, to name a few. This shows most prominently in a specific facet of beauty: hair. Especially, natural hair.
Natural hair is hair that has not be altered by chemicals. Natural hair relates almost exclusively to that of black and brown men and women, because they have for decades, taken to chemicals to change the structure of their hair, more specifically to straighten them, so their hair appear more "mainstream" and widely accepted by a society which has long stereotyped their natural hair to be unruly and unkempt.
A wide range of hair would be considered natural hair, from locs, cornrows, twists, fades, and braids, to Bantu knots and Afros. Translated loosely in Singapore terms: hair that doesn't follow the fine, pin-straight locks as sported by the majority. Living in an ethnically diverse, multi-cultural community, it comes as no surprise that we are frequently exposed to a wide variety of hair textures and styles. What is surprising, however, is our lack of understanding about them, leading to misinformed conversations that lead to biased behaviour, acts of micro-aggression... even acts of outright aggression.
Natural hair advocate and ex-culture editor of Buro. Singapore, Adibah Isa, elaborates. "To have hair like this, you're always singled out as being different, strange, or not aesthetically appealing. This [prejudice] applied to my parents as well at one point, because none of them had hair like I do. My mum would say, 'You look like a crazy person', or she would try to straighten it. When I was in secondary school, my friends called it pubic hair."
And that's just one of the many infuriating stories gleaned in the multiple interviews we've conducted over the past several weeks. This, naturally, brings to mind several questions. Namely, is hair discrimination prevalent in Singapore? And for those of us who see the beauty in natural hair, is there a line between complimenting and fetishizing natural hair? What can we do to reverse decades of racism? Is that possible? If you feel a little overwhelmed, breathe easy, we're here to unpack this for you just as we're unpacking it for ourselves. Below, a handy, step-by-step guide as to what not to say (or do) to brown and black women with regards to their hair — because ignorance is never a good look no matter the year. Let's get schooled, folks.
1. You should never say that her hair is... unprofessional.
Hair discrimination is no less evident in the workplace, where prejudiced grooming policies, harassment, and outright firing of employees over their hair is not unheard of. An issue made prevalent in recent times, this year alone sees black news anchor, Brittany Noble, dismissed after she asked her boss if she could stop straightening her hair during broadcasts. Though initially agreeable to her request, he insisted she change her hair back a month in, claiming it was "unprofessional" and that the station has received "negative feedback." She was later fired when she refused to comply. Numerous instances of such targeted behaviour in the US, however, has led to action in the form of a hair discrimination ban in California and New York. As of 1 July 2019, the Crown Act prohibits both employers and public schools from banning natural hairstyles such as braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks.
Just because hair-based discrimination in the workplace is not openly addressed — or felt quite as keenly — in Singapore, that's not to say it doesn't exist. "I have a lawyer friend whose boss told her to straighten her hair so she will appear 'professional'," Adibah shares. "If your definition of professional is straight hair, you have a problem. It's not us who is the problem. It's your restricted world view of what professionalism is." Indeed, it is an approach commonly seen on our shores, where discrimination rears its ugly head in a subtler, though no less insidious form.
"When I wear my natural hair at work, I do tend to get certain comments that border on offensive." Monica Saranya Selva De Roy, actress on Vasantham and owner of 'massive, telephone-cord wire hair' claims. "It's not so much what they say, but how they say it. It's slightly repulsed, you know? I try to give them the benefit of the doubt because I don't know if it's because they're used to seeing me in a certain way, and then there's this jarring difference when I appear totally different to them."
2. You should never say that her hair is... messy or unkempt.
A longstanding assumption about textured hair? "That it is dry, coarse, knotted, or messy," explains Khatijah Bte Mohd Marican. "My pet peeve is when people touch my hair, and go, 'oh, it's actually quite soft' or 'oh, it's not that bad'. And it's just so frustrating, because why is that the immediate association when it comes to natural hair?"
A crazy stereotype to some of us, it is one that women of colour often face from supposed hair professionals. "Hairdressers would always say that my hair is messy and frizzy," Adibah points out. "I'm always having to explain to them that it's the texture. It's genetically not meant to be straight. I can't change it, because it's a part of me."
Such misguided notions are precisely why men and women with textured hair remain wary of local hairstylists. "I haven't gone to a Singaporean hairstylist in years because of all the bad experiences I've had." Ben Byrne, content producer and proud owner of a natural Afro, quips. He is of Irish, Dutch, Indonesian, and Peranakan descent. "I remember calling up all these hairdressers and asking them if they knew how to cut curly hair, and the look of shock on their faces when I turn up with... this [gestures at hair]. I get comments from them all the time about how messy it is, how wild... It doesn't get to me much, honestly. I've accepted a long time ago that I can't permanently change what was naturally given to me." Then, with a snort, "Now, if only they understood that, though."
While it is heartening to see that most have found woke stylists and various methods of coping — Ben credits maintenance of his 'fro to his regular hairstylist hailing from New York, as well as his aunt — the lack of awareness surrounding natural hair proves worrying considering Singapore's multi-ethnic population. The fact remains that it is problematic that those born with natural hair have to go to great lengths (pun-intended) to receive (non-discriminatory) service that the majority take for granted.
Monica sums her predicament: "I have two hair stylists — one is an Indian guy who does my cut, and the other is a Chinese woman from a very well established hair salon. She colours my hair well, but she always cuts my natural hair in a way that is really unflattering. I've mentioned it to her before, but she just doesn't get it. It's exasperating that I have to go to someone else to cut my hair, because a hairstylist should work as a doctor would, right? Any GP should be able to treat my sore throat and my headache. The fact that I have to find someone of my race to do something as simple as cut my hair is troubling. The fact that supposed professionals believe in stereotypes about my hair — that it is messy, and unkempt, or hard to handle — is troubling."
3. You should never say that her hair is... not 'normal'.
The pressure to adopt the fine, straight locks rocked by the majority in Singapore proves overwhelming, with the prevalent mindset — reflected in advertisements and mainstream media — upholding a certain beauty standard to live up to. Namely, one where anything outside the 'norm' is deemed inadequate or worse, ugly.
"Straight, silky hair was labelled as 'beautiful' in every single one of the ads I saw in my teens," Khatijah recalls. "And those ads define beauty for me and many others for the longest time. It is precisely because of them that I rebonded my hair for years and years, because I thought that's how beautiful girls looked like."
Adibah echoes this sentiment, addressing the harmfulness of straight styles being painted as a benchmark of beauty. "When you're growing up, you always want to fit in. That's what society tells you, what your parents tell you. And growing up with hair like mine — that was seen as unkempt, dirty, and not normal — obviously gave me a complex. There was a lot of self-hating going around back then."
Thankfully, it is a tide that is turning in 2019. Slow-moving as it is, the natural hair movement is picking up speed in countries such as the US and the UK, in part thanks to podcasts (Snatched Edges), movies (Nappily Ever After) and Instagram pages (@naturalhairloves) dedicated to flouting them curls and girls. And just as with most Western trends, it seems only a matter of time before they cross transatlantic borders and onto our shores.
"I'm just thankful that more and more people are just embracing natural hair," says Keyana K, Singaporean model with a struggling (but progressing) relationship with her tight, afro-style curls. "The aim is for people to be truly comfortable with who they are, no matter their hair, skin, and what not. There's been some headway, that's for sure."
4. You should never say that her hair is... exotic, foreign, or anything that dehumanises and objectifies her.
On the surface, a compliment about natural hair may seem harmless. Perhaps wholeheartedly positive, as Ben chooses to see it. "For me, it's all about the intent. Is there any malice in it? And with a compliment — even when it's backhanded — most of the time, there is no intention to hurt." Then, with a laugh he added, "Most people don't know how to make polite comments anyway. If a compliment inadvertently offends you, at least you know it's done out of ignorance rather than cruelty."
It's a topic that has garnered significantly split opinion amongst people with natural hair. Some are accepting, while some choose to believe that certain praise veers scarily closely to fetishizing — something which Monica is still attempting to come to terms with.
"I'm not sure if this constitutes fetishizing, but I once dated a guy who said something a little... off. He once told me that when we were intimate, it felt like he was sleeping with three different women at once. It was in reference to my hair, because I'd have straight hair sometimes, and there's my natural hair, and my just-out-of-bed hair. I didn't mind it at the time, but I do feel strange about it now. Essentially, I felt like what he was trying to say that he was sleeping with a white girl with straight hair, a black girl with a crazy curly hair, and a brown girl with waves. There was definitely some sort of a racial connotation to it."
While there's no hard and fast rule as to when comments go from complimentary to creepy, the general consensus is to avoid remarks that objectify, dehumanise, or highlight the 'otherness' of their tresses. Read: calling them exotic, foreign, special, novel, and the like.
Ultimately, it boils down on where the comments come from, as Adibah points out. "To me, it depends on who's saying it. If a white guy says you're exotic, then it comes from a place of white male privilege and fetishisation, with the whole oriental observing practice. But if your fellow friends say that it looks exotic, it can be like a compliment, you know? Maybe they mean you're unique, or special. It always comes down to intention, and where it's coming from. If it's from a place privilege, or a place of trying to make someone feel like less of a person, then that's not acceptable. But if it comes from admiration, then that's a different story. I think this applies for everything, really. Not just hair."
5. You should never touch her hair without explicit permission.
The biggest no-no of them all is touching natural hair without explicit permission to do so. Keyana is quick to it out point out. "It's a known fact in America that you shouldn't touch a black woman's hair. Sometimes people here do, and I just let it happen because I don't want to come off rude, or to turn a situation negative. I'm never happy when it happens, though. To have people just come up to me and touch my hair without my consent... it can feel pretty violating."
Does this apply to brown women's hair as well? Monica believes so. "I've had people try to slide their fingers in the tight rings of my hair. It's not a big deal to me, mainly because I've ever associated it entirely with my race. It isn't quite as ingrained in me that when you're talking about or touching my hair, you're commenting on my racial profile. It plays out slightly different when you're a brown woman in Singapore as compared to a black woman everywhere else."
"It's different in Singapore," Adibah explains. "Hair is a more complicated matter in America because of the history with slavery. Black communities, they've been told that their hair is dirty, that they should shave off their hair... they were made to wear hair nets and headwraps and such. And now, it's treated in a different way — something that was so hated is now celebrated. It's like, 'Sh*t, man. You used to say you hate my hair, and now you're trying to emulate it?' Obviously, that comes with a whole other set of issues that I won't dare to touch, but it's certainly different with us in Singapore because our hair issues don't come with that history."
It is as complex a matter as any, one that comes with numerous nuances impossible to dissect entirely. When in doubt, treat natural hair as you would any other type of tresses out there. Ben sums it up succinctly: "It's just respect. You wouldn't want someone touching your hair or body without consent, right? Why should I — or my hair — be treated any different?"