Emma Dabiri wearing Nigerian Yoruba suku braids
African Modern & Contemporary Art

Emma Dabiri on the Politics of Black Hair

By Mariko Finch
Emma Dabiri is a broadcaster, author and academic who recently published Don't Touch My Hair — a book that charts the shifting cultural status of black hair from pre-colonial Africa through to Western pop culture and beyond. Ahead of the Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in London on 15 October, in which a number of works depicting traditional African hair are offered, we sat down with her to discuss the history of hairstyles.

Mariko Finch: When did you decide that you wanted to turn your research into a book?

Emma Dabiri: In around 2016. The conversation about black hair had been happening for a while at that stage but I was finding it often quite repetitive. There is so much more to engage with through hair, so I wanted to do that research. There is so much more to engage with through hair; social history, philosophy, metaphysics, mathematical expression, coding, maps...

This topic has recently made it to the mainstream media; through Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, Kim Kardashian and the issue of cultural appropriation. It is very timely to have that debate anchored in something historical.

I felt somewhat exasperated by the way people’s frustrations around cultural appropriation by celebrities were being disregarded and dismissed as just something very superficial; as if those weren’t valid or legitimate concerns. I wanted to provide the historical context for why this anger exists. Let me show that it’s not just vacuous, or petty policing of culture. There are like very strong historical antecedents as to why these emotions run so high.

Emma Dabiri wearing Nigerian Yoruba suku braids
Emma Dabiri wearing her hair in traditional Yoruba suku braids. Courtesy of the author.

It seems to be currently very fashionable to talk about black hair, with a lot of people weighing in. Is there anything you find problematic about that?

Firstly, I think it’s great that it’s being spoken about, and it’s something that has changed drastically and it’s a change that needed to happen. But as I detail in the book, I do find the use of traditionally black styles that black people are still discriminated against, particularly by white celebrities, who are then celebrated for wearing them, pretty galling. But in terms of where the conversation is at, there’s been a lot of progress. I wouldn’t say there’s been as much progress in terms of texture discrimination as I would have hoped.

My blackness and my hair texture was a very defining feature of growing up in Dublin... my hair was treated very much like it was an affliction

The natural hair movement was in large part as a kind of rejection of Euro-centric beauty standards. But what happened often was that there was very much the emergence of like an idealised type of natural hair, which still conforms to Eurocentric norms. I would like there to be more disruption of the hegemonic beauty standard and more appreciation of the hair that was the most stigmatised of the black hair to begin with.

Your book covers academic arguments surrounding these things and the culture surrounding these topics, but it was born from a very personal place. What was it like for you growing up in a larger white society as a person of colour?

The term person of colour is quite generic; I feel like if I’d been a person of colour who had straight hair I would have had a very different experience than somebody who was racialised as black and had extremely Afro-textured hair. My blackness and my hair texture was a very defining feature of that experience, and my hair was treated very much like it was an affliction. Certainly something to be ashamed of. I didn’t see anybody with this type of hair, so there was very much a sense of "why have I been sabotaged in this way?"

Emma Dabiri, Don't Touch My Hair, Published by Allen Lane. © The Author.

Growing up in Dublin, the expertise and the products that were required to maintain my hair were sorely absent. My Mum would bring me to the UK occasionally and I remember when I was 12 she brought me to Tottenham, and I got a Jheri curl. When I was 17 I got my hair properly relaxed in a salon and had all this weave attached for like the first time — honey blond tracks, I was overjoyed. It felt like salvation.

Did you feel more comfortable in your own skin because of that?

Yes, because I had straight hair with blond highlights. That was the Holy Grail. I went back to Ireland and everyone said: “oh you look amazing!” as if to say: “finally you’ve like sorted it out”.

Let’s go back to the cultural appropriation thing for a moment: there’s been lots of controversy and offence around this, not just with black hair of course, but a standout example is Kim Kardashian. People said; “if she wants to have braids in her hair then let her have them…” and famously, Solange Knowles was on the front cover of ES magazine and they had airbrushed out her braids. Why is black hair so politicised?

I went on Newsnight to discuss Justin Beiber’s dreadlocks. To be clear, there are lots of different examples of cultural appropriation from different cultures. So I am talking specifically about black culture, and it’s not just about the hairstyles. At this stage, we have had 500 years of the extraction of resources from Africa and from the descendants of Africans, for the benefit of Europe, and the Western World, let’s say.

Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber wearing hairstyles that sparked controversy over cultural appropriation.

And those resources have been material and physical resources, but also cultural resources. Hairstyles are part of a far wider picture, where there is the extraction of something that comes from black culture and the creators of it don’t in any way benefit from it. Not only do they not benefit from it, but they’re often stigmatised and penalised for it. And they’re rarely the financial beneficiaries of these often very lucrative innovations.

Are we in a very different place today with the representation of black people in visual culture? Has there been a significant shift?

I think there’s been a representational shift, and I’m not saying representation is irrelevant and meaningless, but I think people often mistake representation for systematic change. The concentration of power hasn’t really shifted, but there is a recognition that “diversity” is ‘on brand’. There needs to be more of a shift in terms of power.

It’s interesting to think about that in the context of the representation of black people — and specifically black women — in art history. There has always been objectification, starting in painting with the idea of the ‘exotic other’, and moving on to the fashion, film, music, television and advertising of today. What’s your take on that?

The consequences of centuries of that type of objectification have laid the foundation for numerous stereotypes and opinions that are held about black bodies and about black women more specifically, although these pressures affect black men as well. We have entered into a period where there is some resistance to that solely objectified representation, but because there’s such a long history of it, the consequences are still very potent and very present in how black people are perceived.

In the book, you explain that the language used to describe Afro hair is described as coarse, defiant, unruly and unmanageable, and you make the comparison between that and the historic language used to describe the behavior of slaves. How did you arrive that conclusion?

I wouldn’t say it’s just enslaved people, this was the language used to describe black people generally. It’s a response to any form of black resistance or black power or attitudes to black people. We see it in descriptions of black people as angry, aggressive and uncivilised, and this vocabulary continued to exist for a long time after slavery. Anyway, it got me thinking that all the words about hair were pejorative. I realised that all the words to describe my hair texture were negative.

Was there anything that surprised or shocked you when putting the book together that you didn’t know before?

What was really new to me was a lot of the last chapter, which is called Ancient Futures Maths Mapping and Coding. There was a Nigerian mathematician Muhammad Ibn Muhammad who was part of a continental-wide group of mathematicians and astronomers who met in Cairo and produced all of these mathematical texts. Learning this history and how some of the mathematical coding and design was expressed through hair braiding patterns was a pretty new area of research for me.

And in the same chapter, there is a section on how hair was braided as part of an intelligence network for escaped slaves. In Colombia specifically, maps and messages were braided into people’s hair to help them along escape routes. The Spanish couldn’t decode them, so it was hiding in plain sight.

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