Interview by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Mariah Miranda
In a society that values whiteness and one’s ability to approximate it, hair can be a battleground. In Hair Stories, we wrestle with what it means to love yourself through your relationship with hair and others’ perception of it. Through interviews with our editors, contributors and community members, we journey through what beauty means in different cultures and the narratives woven into our locs. Where do our hair preferences and grievances come from? What does our hair tell us about our family history, our culture, our people? In this series, we interview and photograph people from different diasporas, to get the root of their hair story. We ask them; what does your hair symbolize to you?
This month, we interviewed Mixed Mag Advocacy & Politics Editor Elizabeth Thompson, who tells us about how her Creole-Ghanaian background shaped her understanding of self.
I’m half Louisiana Creole and half Ghanaian, from the Fante tribe. My parents met through mutual friends in college while my dad was in the US on a scholarship from the National Institute of Health. I was born in Baton Rouge, but over the span of my childhood, I lived in Ghana, and eventually my family moved to Maryland. Most of my mom’s family still lives in Louisiana, and most of my dad’s family still lives in Ghana – though the younger generation of cousins are moving to places like London and the US.
Hair texture in Louisiana Creole culture is a complex web. Louisiana Creole generally means a person of mixed colonial French, African American, and Indigenous descent. Historically, my elders and ancestors were Franco-African Americans. With so much racial mixing, there are a lot of different ways these genes express themselves. My mom has six siblings, and while there is strong resemblance between them, they all have different ethnic features. This is true of many other Creole families I know and grew up with. Anything from red freckles, to light-colored eyes, deep brown skin, looser and tighter curl textures were just the norm in a single family.
But given all the ways anti-Blackness shows up in a “post colonial” society, there are tiers that prize certain features over others. Lighter skin, looser hair curl, more Eurocentric features have given status to many, particularly in a subculture where “passing” and the “one drop rule” had great significance. The Tignon Law, enacted in 1786 in Louisiana, forced Black women to wear a headscarf in public in an effort to distinguish them from White women in the racially ambiguous society. According to some histories, it was enacted because Creole women’s dark, curly hair was deemed too beautiful and alluring to White men. It is a loaded history, to be sure, but the message is clear: the farther from kinky, curly hair, phenotypically Black hair, the better.
This was turned on its head when I considered West African beauty standards, but I wasn’t really exposed to those standards until later in life. All I knew was that I did not have the signature wavy, loose curl pattern associated with Creole people, and I assumed it was because I was half African. There were very few West Africans in Baton Rouge at that time (as compared to Maryland, where we later moved, which has an enormous population of West Africans) so I already felt like an outsider, to some degree. I was texture-ambivalent as a small child, but as I got older, I became more and more aware that it was a really important part of my feminine identity. At some point I realized that society considered my hair type as the least desirable.
I have four sisters – no brothers – and I can remember the marathon of getting ready in the morning for school, or on Sundays for Mass, or any other holiday because there were “so many heads to comb.” As a small child, I felt confident in general, because my parents explained in great detail that our self-worth should come from the things we do in life, not the way we look. I worked really hard in school and wanted to be known as intelligent, rather than beautiful, because I was taught through popular culture that one person was rarely both.
But as I got older, I became more and more aware that my kinky hair was seen as difficult and time consuming to manage, and like most young Black girls in the 90s, I spent my childhood with back-to-back relaxers and hot combs to straighten it. My mom has very loose curl pattern hair – silky to the point where it doesn’t hold much of a curl. She likely felt a bit out of her depth with a child whose hair was so different from her own. I give her grace on this, but every now and then she let her frustration slip and I felt awful for it. My sisters generally have looser curls than me, and that began to shake my confidence a bit as we all got older and more consumed with being “conventionally” attractive.
I keep my hair in protective styles most of the time, because my curls are very delicate and subject to breakage. I’ve learned so much over the years via social media and YouTube videos on how to care for my hair, and there are more options on the market geared towards nurturing 4C hair. I love box braids, twists, and the occasional wig moment for a little variety. My favorite days are always deep conditioning days, where I can lounge with a sweet smelling hair custard for a few hours and feel pampered.
I have worked in environments where my natural hair would have been seen as unprofessional, or exoticized to the point of discomfort, but I’ve always enjoyed switching up my look. I did a “big chop” in 2011 and that garnered a lot of attention, and letting my natural hair grow out since then has been an awesome experience. I don’t think I’ve experienced privilege because of my hair type, but I also know I went to great lengths to “professionalize” my looks throughout the years, which meant straightening my hair and mimicking the ways White women wore their hair in the office.
My hair journey is always evolving. I love learning about new ways to care for my hair and appreciating the history woven into each coil. I also love discovering new trends in styles to try out. I have a wide gray streak of hair on my crown, and I dyed my hair black for years trying to hide it. A lot of my cousins on my dad’s side of the family were salt-and-pepper or fully gray by their 30s. I recently decided to stop dyeing my hair and the effect is that I have a lot of gray now! It is beautiful and I’m learning to embrace it more fully, and so I’m looking forward to watching the silver fox in me arrive!
Elizabeth (she/her) is a Creole- Ghanaian writer and educational equity researcher residing in Washington D.C. and editor of Mixed Mag’s Advocacy & Politics section. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership with a focus on inclusive practices for alumni engagement at private institutions.