My hair, my choice: Why I wear it natural

Exhibitionists host Amanda Parris addresses the challenges — and the joys — of rocking an afro on air.

Exhibitionists host Amanda Parris addresses the challenges and the joys of rocking an afro on air

Amanda Parris, host of Exhibitionists, on why she wears her hair natural.

On Nov. 10, City News reported that a Toronto District School Board principal had removed a middle school student from her classroom because she was wearing natural hair which she viewed as "too poofy" and "unprofessional." The principal allegedly told the student's mother that "no one would hire her with hair like that," and if "she was working in a store, no one would buy anything from her." When it was revealed that the principal herself was a black woman, I was enveloped by a rush of anger, disappointment, hurt and sadness.

"I would get e-mails from people within the black community saying, 'What's wrong with your hair? You're embarrassing us.'" - Former Much Music VJ Namugenyi Iwanuka  

It took me years to challenge the conventional standards of beauty I had internalized after years of reading Sweet Valley High novels, subscribing to Teen Magazine and watching countless TV shows and movies where the main characters had hair that blew in the wind and tucked easily behind their ears. It wasn't until I was in university that I came to love my hair's transitory textures, as well as the way it defied the laws of gravity.

Like so many others, I first began to challenge my straight hair obsession after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. Then Lauryn Hill arrived in a blaze of afro, followed by beautifully dreadlocked glory. On BET, music show 106&Park co-host Free Marie would regularly rock afro puffs, braids and more. However all of these visual markers came from south of the border.

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The first time I remember noting a black woman rocking natural hair on Canadian television was when former Much Music VJ Namugenyi Kiwanuka came on the scene with her big, unapologetically curly mane. Although her texture differed from mine, just seeing her rocking hair that was big and bold had a marked affect on me.  

At Much Music, Kiwanuka found a production team that recognized her potential and encouraged her to not only step in front of the camera but also to do so while embracing authentic markers of her identity. But the support Kiwanuka received is not shared by all black female on-air personalities. Last year Arisa Cox, host of Big Brother Canada, wrote an article for The Toronto Star discussing her own experience of needing to legitimize, defend and fight for her hair. She shared a story from earlier in her career when she was asked by executives at an unnamed news station to straighten her hair. She writes:

Host of Big Brother Canada Arisa Cox arrives on the red carpet at the 2014 Canadian Screen awards in Toronto, March 9, 2014. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

"I remember raging to my mother over the phone right afterwards, floored that a middle-aged white dude had the balls to tell me, a modern black woman, in a country as diverse as Canada, how to wear my hair. My stubborn streak exploded. I didn't care about corporate desires for me or my appearance. My hair — and all the identity and self-worth and cultural baggage attached to it — was not up for debate. I refused to allow my image to be controlled in some boardroom that I was not also in."

Although Kiwanuka's producers backed her decision to wear her hair naturally on TV, she told me the general public didn't always accept her nonconformity. Under the banner of respectability politics, members of the black community wrote e-mails to Kiwanuka about her hair, arguing that her curls cast shame on the entire community:

"I would get e-mails from people within the black community saying, 'What's wrong with your hair? You're embarrassing us. Why don't you straighten it? Why aren't you wearing a weave? Why don't you do something with it?'," she explains. "It did hurt because I thought that I was celebrating my blackness. I'm innately a stubborn person so I think the more people fought it, the more I fought for it. This is who I am and if I change that little part about who I am, what else am I gonna change? Where is it gonna stop?"

Several years later, the Global Television sitcom Da Kink in My Hair put the subject of black women's hair front and center. With main characters that rocked afros, twistouts, extensions and cornrows as well as colourful wigs and waterfall weaves, Da Kink made a concerted effort to draw a landscape that reflected the wide variety of aesthetic choices black women make with their hair.

"We were very conscious we were changing the face of TV," says Trey Anthony, the show's creator. "We definitely knew that and we didn't take that lightly. We knew that was a big responsibility for us because so many of us had not seen ourselves on TV. This was before Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Being Mary Jane. We were just hungry to see ourselves. So we knew that we had to do it right and represent it properly."

The diversity of styles demonstrated on the show also challenged the hierarchy that is often created in aesthetic choices.I cannot count how many times people — mostly men —have complimented my natural hair choices in an effort to sound deep and progressive, while simultaneously insulting and denigrating women who choose to straighten their hair and/or wear weaves and wigs. As Cox articulately noted in her article,

"Not all black women who wear straight hair are self-hating, just as not all black women who wear natural hair like afros, twists and dreadlocks have transcended vanity.Any woman should feel the freedom to wear whatever hair makes her feel good. It takes all kinds, and self-esteem as it relates to our hair comes in many forms."

University of Ottawa Chancellor and former Governor General Michaelle Jean takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, March 6, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The lack of black people on Canadian television means those of us who are present often feel overwhelming pressure to represent not only themselves, but also a larger community that is hungry for affirming reflections of their lives and experiences. Even The Right Honourable Michaelle Jean, who worked at the CBC for years before accepting her appointment as the Governor General, felt it. In 2012, she released a statement discussing her decision to return to wearing her hair naturally while in office and the impact this decision had on so many people:

"While in Office, I chose to return my hair to its natural state, fully aware that my gesture would be imbued with a powerful significance. And how wonderful it was to conduct diplomatic missions — State visits — to Europe, China, Latin America, Africa, fully assuming my blackness! Black women drew inspiration from my choice and found the strength to overcome the alienation caused by caucasian standards of beauty."

Namugenyi Kiwanuka was one of the first people who came to my mind when I was offered the position of hosting Exhibitionists on CBC. I thought about how important it had been for me to see her on screen while I was growing up, and how important it could be for other young girls (and grown women who are principals of schools where young black girls attend) to see me wearing my hair in styles so rarely seen on Canadian television.

The first five episodes of Exhibitionists were spent wearing my hair in a large afro. I've switched it up since then and will continue to do so, making no allegiances to any one style because I revel in the ways my aesthetic choices reflect the layers of my identity, my mood for the day and the freedom to try something new. Still, the messages I have received from parents of young children, former students and peers about the impact of seeing me on the screen with natural hair have been priceless.

This afternoon, Black Lives Matter Toronto will be holding a demonstration outside the Toronto District School Board to show solidarity with black students in schools everywhere and to demand policy change within the TDSB so that a student can never again be disciplined for choosing to wear their hair naturally.  They have asked that Black identified people with big beautiful hair attend. I will be there.

Watch Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC Television.

GALLERY: This is not a comprehensive list, but here are some women who have rocked natural hair styles on the screen that I wish to thank for paving the foundation for me to enter the CBC with my afro and receive full support from my producers, and viewers.