Posted on April 11, 2011

Black Hair

Martine Powers, Yale Daily News, April 8, 2011


Dilan Gomih ’13 gets a lot of questions about her hair, too. She loves them.

“I love explaining my hair care regiment to people,” she said. “It gives me so much joy to bestow the teachings of black hair onto others.”

Like most black women on campus, Gomih [Dilan Gomih ’13] regularly applies a “relaxer”–an alkaline cream that strips away the proteins in hair and causes the curl to straighten out, or “relax.” For her, like for most black women, it’s a painful process. The white cream is applied to the root of the hair and left to marinate for a few minutes. Then, the itching and burning sensations begin. While the relaxer dissolves parts of the hair shaft, it also starts burning through the skin on the scalp.

The chemical has about the same pH-level as Drano, the stuff you pour down your drain to eat away the gunk in the pipes.

A woman having her hair “relaxed” usually sits with the chemical in her hair until she can’t stand the burn any longer–usually about ten minutes. After the relaxer is washed out, the hair must be conditioned immediately or else it will start to break off just above the root. Soon after, raw spots on the scalp begin to ooze with blood. A couple hours later, scabs form.

Repeat every six to eight weeks.

{snip} She schedules a three-hour chunk of time every week to style her hair, usually after her last class on Thursdays. She keeps a stand-up hair dryer–you know, the ones that look like suspended astronaut helmets–in her room. {snip}

When she first arrived at Yale, none of Gomih’s suitemates knew anything about black people’s hair–how it works, how it’s styled and maintained. They asked a lot of questions. They watched her while she stood in front of the bathroom mirror, applying different oils and serums and keratin infusions, setting her hair in curlers, blow-drying, straight-ironing. When they went on trips to the pharmacy together, she would take them through the black hair care aisle. They wanted to see it wet, because they never see it wet–Gomih, like most black woman who straighten their hair, only washes it about once every 10 days.


That kind of instruction came with romantic relationships, too. Gomih’s boyfriend is white. He had never dated a black girl before. The first time he tried to run his hands through her hair while they were kissing, she gently pulled his hand away. The second time he did it, “it became more of a slap,” she said.

“Any guy who dates me knows that you don’t touch the hair,” Gomih said. “There’s no ‘Ooh, lemme see it messed up, lemme see it wet.’ I love you, but you don’t touch my hair.”


For Taylor Vaughn-Lasley ’12, it was concerns about hygiene that prompted the hair questions.

“I definitely had to explain to my suitemates that I don’t wash my hair every day,” Vaughn-Lasley said. “Basically, what I will say to them is that the amount of time that it takes for a white person’s hair to get oily, which is like two days, takes a black person’s hair more like two weeks.”


“I wrap my hair every night around my head and hold it with bobby pins, and my suitemates have always just thought that it’s really comical to see me walking around with my hair pasted to my head.”

For most of her life, Vaughn-Lasley wore her hair natural, or in little twists. She began straightening her hair at the end of high school, right before prom. She liked it. She could change her hair whenever she wanted, to whatever she wanted–bone-straight, curly, wavy. She could add extensions and make her hair longer, sleek and flowing.


For Vaughn-Lasley, maintaining straight hair is time-consuming and painful–her hands cramp up, and she accidentally burns herself with the straight iron. But it’s worth it to have hair that makes her feel beautiful and confident every time she walks out the door. She does not feel like herself with natural hair.


Up until her junior year of college, Kayla Vinson ’11 had been relaxing, or “perming,” her hair every couple of months since she was 12 years old. But once she came to Yale, she realized that there had to be another way. She wondered if she could become a part of Yale’s small, but growing, community of women with natural hair.

Vinson feared the long-term effects all that chemical processing on her hair. Relaxers can cause hair-thinning, and sometimes even baldness.

Moreover, she said, she was tired of feeling dependent on straightening treatments in order to feel confident in how she looked.


Vinson tried to explain it in simpler terms.

“I think that, like, it’s a contradiction to tell someone they’re beautiful just the way God made them, but every six weeks you need to go to the beauty salon and make sure your hair looks like the white person walking down the street,” Vinson said. “I just think it’s a contradiction.”

Vinson also had examples to follow. She says that she saw more women at Yale with natural hair than she ever saw back home in Atlanta. She believes that this is because black women in academia are more likely to understand the connotations of their hair, and the ways that a relaxed hairstyle can be construed as “trying to be white.”

So, she started to consider “going natural.” She agonized for most of her junior year.

The problem was that “relaxed,” chemically straightened hair never returns to its natural state. New, curly hair just grows in at the root. If Vinson wanted to go natural, she would have to start from scratch–cut off all the old, straightened hair, leaving only the new growth from the last time that she had applied a relaxer.

She avoided making a decision by holding off on relaxing her hair, instead keeping it in twists or braids so no one would see the roots growing in. She wondered: How would it look? Would she regret cutting off all her relaxed hair? What would guys think?

Then, one morning at the end of spring semester, she woke up and knew what she wanted. She made an appointment for a haircut the next day. She didn’t tell anyone except her mother about the impending, life-altering decision. She arrived at the salon.

“I want you to cut my hair off,” she declared to the hairdresser.


Vinson says she believes her natural hair is more reflective of who she is inside, of her beliefs in black pride and empowerment. And she feels prettier now, more comfortable in her own skin. She loves her new Afro, likes to touch it and play with it. She likes that she will never have to sit down with a relaxer burning into her scalp again.


[Carol Crouch is] worried her Afro might scare guys away. Perhaps it intimidates them. Or maybe the type of black women who are most often considered beautiful–the Beyonces, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbells of the world–rarely wear their hair natural.

“A lot of people don’t know what to do with it, because they’re more used to black women with relaxed hair or a weave or braids,” Crouch said. “If you’re a woman of color, I don’t think guys are seeking girls with natural hair, whether they’re a black guy or a white guy.”

But Vinson says she has had the opposite experience since going natural. It’s been less than a year since she started rocking an Afro, and she said that in that time period she’s received more attention from guys of all races than in her other three years of college combined. She wonders if the cause of that new attention is her new hair, or if it’s more about her newly acquired self-confidence.


Carol Crouch is currently a freshman, so she has a while before she needs to worry about how her hair will affect her employment prospects. Still, she remembers how she felt before her interview for Yale: she made a point to wear her natural hair. She hopes that three years from now, when she’s looking for a job, she will make that same choice.