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Oscar-winning ‘Hair Love’ helps detangle stigma around Black hair

Karen Rupert Toliver and Matthew A. Cherry accepted the animated short film award for "Hair Love" during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards.
Karen Rupert Toliver and Matthew A. Cherry accepted the animated short film award for "Hair Love" during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards.Kevin Winter/Getty

Texas teen DeAndre Arnold may not be able to walk in his high school graduation, but he walked the red carpet at the Oscars on Sunday.

Recently suspended because his locs are too long, Arnold is expected to cut the hair he’s been growing since seventh grade. So when Matthew A. Cherry won for “Hair Love," an Oscar-nominated animated short based on Cherry’s book of the same title about a Black father, his daughter, and her hair, he showed loc love to Arnold, too.

Cherry wanted Arnold at the Oscars to make a statement about loving and protecting black hair. Associate producers Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade helped make it happen. Union herself was reportedly told by “America’s Got Talent” her hairstyles were “too Black” for the reality show’s audience.

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Societal messaging around Black hair is not so different from dialogues around Black skin. The false but pervasive narrative is you can only be beauty if you’re also the beast.

At New York Fashion Week on Thursday, Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe discussed the evolving standard of beauty. All four are Black women and they each donned natural hairstyles ranging from big, beautiful curls to bold, box braids to chic, cropped coils. Yet they’ve all been told at one point or another to straighten their hair or wear a wig for better chances.

Oscar-nominated ‘Hair Love’ helps detangle stigma around Black hair
Globe culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt visits Vanity Loft to discuss what the CROWN Act and "Hair Love" mean for Black women and stylists who do Black hair. (Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe staff, Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Black hair is so discriminated against, we need legislation to protect it.

Last December, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senator Corey Booker were among the cosponsors who introduced the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act of 2019, a bill that will ban discrimination based on hair textures and styles associated to a certain race or nationality.

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In his Oscar’s acceptance speech, Cherry called for support of the Crown Act, too.

“We wanted to normalize Black hair,” he said. “There’s a very important issue that’s out there, the Crown Act, and if we can help to get this passed in all 50 states it will help stories like DeAndre Arnold, who’s our special guest tonight, stop happening.”

CROWN laws have been passed in California, New York, and New Jersey. The Boston City Council supports a similar proposal.

“I am so appreciative of their leadership on a local level,” Pressley told me. “It’s a bold step so people can stand in their truth and remove the narrative that says Black people should show up as anything else but who they are."

Yet some of the same hairstyles were once forbidden in the US military. These racist regulations were relaxed just a few years ago.

Kanessa Alexander and salon owner Pedro Aguirre at Vanity Loft Design.
Kanessa Alexander and salon owner Pedro Aguirre at Vanity Loft Design.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

While some of the most gorgeous women in the world take the crown wearing natural hairstyles, we still live in a country where Arnold can be punished for having long locs, where a New Jersey teen wrestler was forced to have his hair butchered or forfeit a match, where in 2017, a Malden charter school punished Black girls for wearing braids.

Haja Fatoumata Ba still remembers having one of her box braids pulled out by a classmate as a sixth-grader.

“It was funny to everyone around me, but to me it was super violent and super embarrassing,” says the Kipp Academy Lynn Collegiate senior. “When I tried to advocate for myself, they couldn’t understand the impact it had on me.

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"I don’t think people understand how powerful Black people’s hair is to them and how it feels like a personal attack to us and our identity when our hair is seen or treated a certain way. If you’re a Black girl or Black boy watching your hair be the topic of an argument for politicians, you think, ‘What’s so controversial about my hair?' ”

Everything. From the texture to the twist of the curl and the gravity-defying way it can grow up and out. Our hair is called distracting, unkempt, and tacky. But if a Kardashian wears wild colors, extensions, or braids, they’re hailed as icons.

Meanwhile, a woman like Kadeja Gaines will be told her beautiful curls look better straight. She only recently got the courage to wear her hair naturally.

“Times are changing but while it’s changing there are still unfair standards," says Gaines, 32, who gets her hair done at Vanity Loft in Roxbury. “People want to touch your hair and it’s invasive. They say things like it’s so crunchy or thick or nappy. It’s important to drive acceptance, especially in the professional sense.”

According to a 2019 Dove Crown Research Study, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. And 80 percent of Black women feel they need to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at work.

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This type of bias is why Pressley was intentional about her hair as a Black woman in politics. She knows our hair has always been political. So is our lack thereof. Known for wearing her hair in Senegalese twists, some perceived her style as militant. Recently, she revealed she has alopecia because she knew people would have questions when she revealed her beautifully bare scalp. There are 6.8 million people who suffer from alopecia. One-third of them are Black women.

“I didn’t feel I could authentically lead without being fully transparent about it,” she says of her hair loss. “I am the lived experience of millions of people. Being Black in America is the dichotomy of duality. It’s unique joys and pains. It’s Black Girl Magic while still being the most objectified and criminalized. Recently, I made remarks that I am still an abolitionist. My people aren’t free. People said, ‘How could you say that? You are in Congress, there was a Black president. Both can be true.’ We don’t want to be the exceptional anomalies. We want a cultural change shift."

Representative Ayanna Pressley speaks as a surrogate of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren in Ames, Iowa.
Representative Ayanna Pressley speaks as a surrogate of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren in Ames, Iowa. Matt Rourke/Associated Press

When she first went public with alopecia, Pressley said Cherry sent her his film as a show of support. In “Hair Love,” the mother has a bald head, too.

“I think the timing of everything that’s been happening around the short film, announcements like Ayanna Pressley, and the situation with DeAndre Arnold down in Houston and the CROWN Act legislation getting passed and becoming a law in California and New York and New Jersey has all been just really crazy timing,” Cherry said in a Q&A on Twitter recently. “We’re really happy to be a small part of continuing this conversation about natural hair. We hope that we’re able to get the CROWN Act passed in all 50 states.”

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Arnold already has taken a stand to protect his hair. No matter what the school threatens, he will not cut his locs. Everyone from Ellen to Alicia Keys have taken a stand to support him. And he proudly rocked his locs at the Oscars Sunday night.

“The film is about hair love and me and my hair kind of grew up together in a way,” he told CBS This Morning. “It’s like we’re best friends.”

Nurturing pride starts at home, but Kanessa Alexander, owner of Perfect 10 Unisex Salon in West Roxbury, says we also need societal normalization. She’s been doing hair for 22 years and says she has clients who have never worn their hair naturally.

“We need representation in order for things to change,” says Alexander, 43. “The issues go deep, generations and generations. Society has told us over and over our hair is not OK. So even if your parents teach you different, you go to school or work and the world is telling you the way your hair grows naturally out of your head is wrong. We have to have pride in who we are.”

When we look in the mirror, we shouldn’t have to worry about the ways in which we need to change our hair to make the grade, get the job, or just get by.

We should be able to love our hair and get a little hair love, too.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee