Immigrant Black Women on Hair and Fitting In

(Photo by Sally Nnamani via Feet in 2 Worlds)

Market research group Mintel found that in 2012 the black hair care industry made an estimated $684 million. (Photo by Sally Nnamani via Feet in 2 Worlds)

Black immigrant women from African and Caribbean countries add new intricacies and layers to the issue of black women’s hair in the United States.

In an audio podcast for Feet in 2 Worlds, reporters Miranda Shafer and Sally Nnamani talk to some women about the influence black hair has on everyday life especially as an immigrant as well as the different perceptions of hair between their countries of origin and the U.S.

For these communities, hair plays a crucial role when it comes to assimilating into American society. Some immigrant women style their hair to not “stand out.” Styling can mean using a relaxer to straighten hair or wearing a weave, which is fake hair woven into natural hair.

Some of the women interviewed have similar stories: straight hair is equated with “putting your best face forward, ” having confidence, being beautiful.

Nnamani has direct experience with using hair as a means of self-expression. She left Nigeria with her family at the age of 12, but not before her mother announced that, for the occasion, her and her sisters were “going to have to get your hair done!”

In Nigeria, having styled hair was a sign that you had money and that you came from a good home. Sally says, “We would get our hair done for big occasions. My mom wanted us to look our best and that meant synthetic hair.”

Nnamani’s stylist, who has Nigerian and Trinidadian roots, was surprised at how frequently black American women relaxed their hair – once a month versus the once every 6 months she was used to in Nigeria and England. African American women also tend to relax their hair earlier.

The reporters also talked to Natasha, whose family comes from Haiti. Her mom didn’t want her to look like she had recently arrived in the U.S., believing that without styled hair, her daughter wouldn’t find a job or a husband. For her mom and Haitians in general, Natasha said, outward appearance is very important.

“Your face is your passport,” she said.

Visit Feet in 2 Worlds to listen to the full report.

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