With the outset of Black History Month, UT has hosted numerous lectures, conferences and other events to highlight the obstacles facing Black Americans and strides made towards racial progress. On Feb. 9, students and faculty came together once again to discuss natural hair and beauty in the Black community.
For centuries, hair has played a large role in self-expression and identification for Black Americans. It has been exercised as a means of resistance and empowerment and yet, there remains much misunderstanding and institutional bias surrounding the subject.
Rocky Topics, a lecture series sponsored by the Department of Psychology, Office of Multicultural Student Life and Office of the Dean of Students, offered a Natural Hair and Beauty discussion Wednesday night, emphasizing the mutual experiences of women of color.
Associate Dean of Students and Director of Inclusive Excellence Crystal Hardeman-Ikem kicked off the event by taking a historical deep dive, detailing vital movements that made way for embracing and appreciating the versatility of Black hair, such as the Natural Movement and Weave Movement.
More currently, California passed the Crown Act in 2019, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of hair style and texture. Even so, only 13 states have passed the law, not including Tennessee.
As 53% of Black women today continue to experience biased comments that their hair is “unprofessional” or “inappropriate,” Hardeman-Ikem urged attendees to spread awareness and fight for the induction of such laws in Tennessee to grant women of color more respect and equality in professional environments.
Carmanelette Rawls is a staff member at UT and works in the Office of Multicultural student life. Having been familiar with Rocky Topics for years and a Black woman herself, she expressed the importance discussions like this have for women of color.
“This topic drew me in because it’s something I deal with everyday — not just during February or Black history month,” said Rawls. “These are challenges I have faced on a day to day basis from concerns about what hairstyles would be deemed ‘acceptable’ in my community to finding the right products or hair stylists. Learning your hair is a part of learning about yourself and how to care for your body, so it’s important to have these conversations with students.”
With her zealous and welcoming spirit, Hardeman-Ikem continued to create a safe space to give light to silenced voices. One by one, students and other attendees explained the challenges of having limited resources, not being educated on their hair type or how to take care of it and the troubles that came with navigating their hair transitions.
Janelle Coleman, Executive Director for Diversity and Engagement, has experienced her own complex hair journey from relaxed hair to natural and even hair loss. Having experienced difficulty in maintaining her hair, Coleman offered insight on what it meant to open up with others about similar experiences.
“It was good to hear from the students and what they’re specifically dealing with now and how challenging it can be for a new student in Knoxville to access those resources — hair care products, guidance — not a lot of people in the area with experience with our hair,” said Coleman.
“It can be difficult and isolating and it showed me how needed these events and we, as professional women, who wear our natural hair proudly.”
Upon the conclusion of the event, attendees offered to swap various products including shampoos, sprays, masks and more that could be beneficial to other Black women there.
Regardless of the choice of hair, whether it be natural, dreadlocks or “the big chop,” Hardeman-Ikem and her colleagues concluded the event by reminding the young women of color that hair care is a process — it starts with reminding themselves that they are enough and that their hair is beautiful regardless of how they wear it or how it is perceived.