Black Hair in the British Media
This month is Black History Month, and we want to celebrate black identity in all its beautiful intricacies. The depiction of black people in the media has long been a point of contention.The media has always played an instrumental role in normalising certain things and ideology in society. This is why people have often pushed for diversity both in front of and behind the camera, as representation leads to normalisation. For decades or if not in the last century, western features and hair was seen as the beauty standard, as all white casts saturated mainstream media and ‘black’ shows were categorised as more niche. This had implications on how black features, hairstyles and textures were perceived.
As time goes by, we’ve seen an increase in conversations about representation in the media. With black female leads becoming increasingly prevalent in the mainstream media, it has brought exposure and attention to beauty outside of western norms. We’re seeing women like Issa Rae in Insecure, Tracee Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi in Black-ish, and Sanae Latham in Netflix’s ‘Nappily Ever After’ on our screens. All of them donning their natural hair.
Representation has even permeated into animation with ‘Hair Love’. An Oscar winning short animation about an African American father learning to do his daughter’s hair. It’s a beautiful and moving story, be sure to have your tissues at hand whilst watching it. Nonetheless, we still hear of negative reports regarding black hair in mainstream media. For example Gabrielle Union was told her hair was ‘too black’ (whatever that means) by producers on America’s Got Talent. The work is definitely not over. However, have you noticed something? All of these examples are American. What about black hair in the British mainstream media?
As black women our hair is intrinsic to identity politics, which is and has always been strange to me. Nonetheless, black people have had to fight for anti-discrimination laws and so that the equality act within UK includes protection against hair discrimination. One way black british people have protested this is through arts and media.
Through books like ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ and ‘Slay in Your Lane’ discussions about identity politics and black beauty have been explored. Wofai Je produced an outdoor dance theatre called ‘Scalped,’ which explored black women’s hair in the work space and in western society. With more black creatives pushing boundaries of the definition of beauty, it’s forcing us to have those uncomfortable conversations, and bringing them to mainstream media.
It was just last year that Glamour magazine featured an array of black women and did a three part series on black beauty. One of the episodes spoke about black women and their hair. To me it was liberating to see black people express their definition of beauty according to their own standard. Whether that was having a buzz cut, an afro or wearing a wig. They were being unapologetically themselves.
With that being said, I don’t feel like we’ve attained or even come close to an acceptable level of diversity and representation in British mainstream media. When I thought about writing this topic, I genuinely believed the research would be quick and easy. In fact I struggled to find diversity within the conversation. It seems over the last few years British publications in particular, have been unable to progress the conversation past why black women’s hair is so politicised. Yet, little solution within the mainstream media has been found. Leaving black creatives trying to force their way out of the niche category into the mainstream media, in order to bring out that diversity.
Off the top of my head when I think of diversity in terms of just afro hair on British television, the only ones I can think of are Michaela Coel (who’s doing a phenomenal job) and the series version of ‘Noughts and Crosses’. That’s not to say there aren’t more out there (those were the ones that really stuck out to me). I can’t help but feel like in the UK we’re playing catch-up with our American counterparts.
Having diversity within mainstream media is what will unlock the normalisation of black hair and debunk stereotypes. It will help young black girls not get excluded from school because their afro is ‘too distracting.’ Or, black women being concerned that their natural hair will be deemed as unprofessional. The UK has a long way to go but each step gets us closer to that goal.