I grew up a mixed-race foster child in an all-White rural community in Yorkshire back in the 60s and 70s and being ‘high-visibility’ was something I had to learn how to handle alone. Not just my colour but my mass of tightly-curled hair also became a distinguishing feature; my White foster-mother struggled with it and I absorbed all her frustration and anxiety around managing it. As soon as I could, I started trying to ‘tame’ it; wrestling the thick, tight coils around prickly rollers that I would sleep in like a saint in a hair shirt. As a teenager a sore scalp and a sleepless night seemed a small price to pay for looking (or so I thought) less ‘ethnic’.
Then along came the rock musical ‘Hair’ and the Black empowerment culture from America and it seemed as if overnight the Afro was King. People were actually celebrating having hair like mine. Suddenly my kind of hair was so hot that it was cool. But it didn’t last. By the time I was living in America in the 80s, the Afro was frowned upon again. Americans saw it as a sign of bad grooming and/or a lack of self-esteem. Many Black Americans referred disparagingly to wearing your hair natural as being ‘nappy-headed’. Under pressure from Black friends, and if I’m honest, a little fascinated by the idea myself of ‘going straight’, I sat for five hours in a hair salon in Washington DC and with the help of heavy chemical solutions I saw my hair transformed from thick tight curls into a sleek, straight style. I hated my straightened hair from the moment I walked out of the salon and it began to fly about my face. I missed its volume, its control, its personality. I realised that despite what the world was telling me, my natural hair was a big part of my identity as a Black woman.
In Italy they were horrified by my hair and in India they laughed at it outright. Then one day I realised that I had spent a lifetime of people, politics, fashion and different cultures telling me how I ought to feel about my natural hair. I decided to create a presentation talking about the highs and lows of some of these experiences highlighting them with vibrant images and some great pieces of music. The presentation, Hair Apparent – a journey around my roots takes a quirky look at the issues of race, femininity, sexuality and the social politics surrounding natural black hair.
These days a lot of companies and government departments have ‘diversity modules’ that you have to complete on-line. Tick the right boxes and you get the ‘all-clear’ from line-managers; you are now officially ‘diversity aware’. It’s true that e-learning and videos are great knowledge-building tools but along with the facts, figures and simulated scenarios, live interaction can often achieve ‘education by stealth’ by being entertaining, thought-provoking and even inspirational. According to my audiences so far, Hair Apparent- a Voyage around my Roots is all three of these. I’ve presented it at arts festivals, community groups and schools, and also as diversity training to staff at the College of Policing, the professional body for the police in England and Wales. Whatever the audience young or older, the energy and immediacy of Hair Apparent provokes lively and productive discussion around race, identity, self-esteem and the history of growing up Black in the UK.
In the image-conscious world of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook there’s a world of people out there telling us how we need to look and be. This makes it harder than ever to appreciate our own natural attributes. In just fifty minutes of stories both poignant and funny, Hair Apparent tracks a personal journey of shame, joy and confusion to a destination of unapologetic celebration. It’s one woman’s personal journey to creating her own identity and growing to be as versatile and resilient as her own kinky hair.
Born and educated in England, Tina Shingler has worked in the US and the UK as a Government communications specialist. She is a published author interested in unravelling the adventure of the Black-British experience to new audiences. You can find out more about her on www.tinashingler.co.uk and you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org