Nfld. & Labrador

Coils, curls and conversation: This N.L. woman shares the challenges of growing up with Black hair

Raven Khadeja hopes teaching more people about Black hair can be a form of self-healing.

'Black hair has always been a focal point of oppression,' says Raven Khadeja

Raven Khadeja, left, is a founding member of Black Lives Matter Newfoundland and Labrador. She is also an organizer of an online forum titled 'Curls, Coils and Conversation.' (Submitted by Raven Khadeja)

Doing your hair might not be the most pressing concern people face over the course of a day, but it's something Raven Khadeja has been thinking a lot about.

"It affects your mood, your day, everything," Khadeja told CBC Radio's Weekend AM. "Hair is such a seemingly small issue, it's not a big thing, but really and truly your hair gives you confidence. It makes you feel better about your day."

"Black hair in [the] St. John's climate alone is a challenge," she added, laughing.

Khadeja, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Newfoundland and Labrador, is bringing hair to the table as part of Coils, Curls and Conversation, an online public forum on Saturday that highlights Black hair and its historic role in anti-Black racism.

"Black hair has always been a focal point of oppression," Khadeja said. "You can go back in history … where there was literally a rule that Black women in the colonies were forced to tie their hair so they could walk around in public.

"What we see now are those things being repurposed or regurgitated in our society. [You hear] the words saying 'unkempt, dirty, messy' when it fact it's our natural coils and curls."

Khadeja, left, and Black Lives Matter Newfoundland and Labrador organizer Nuna Toweh are pictured in September. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC)

Khadeja wants to draw on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"I feel like this is the first Black History Month that people are truly, truly listening," Khadeja said. "I think that is due to the fact of what happened last year with George Floyd … really getting this full-frontal view of 'Wow, this is racism.' I think that made people really take a step back and try to figure out what we're doing as a society."

'There is a line that we walk'

As a Black woman living in St. John's, a community that has been predominantly white, Khadeja said she and others have expressed concerns over the need to conform to what she calls "white professionalism." She said she has experienced cases where Black hairstyles in the workplace are seen as a statement, often leading to unwanted questions or touching.

"Everyone, we do it, similar to code-switching," she said, referring to the practice of adjusting one's speech or appearance to conform to different groups' expectations or perceptions. "There is a line that we walk."

Curls, Coils and Conversations takes place on Saturday at 2 p.m. NT. (Submitted by Raven Khadeja)

Khadeja said trying to manage Black hair in the city can also be challenging, with limited availability, representation and high cost to support different types of hair.

"One product can work for one person, and if I tried to use that product it absolutely would not work," she said.

"I think it is getting a little bit better, but it's very nuanced," she added. "The majority of people my age … you have a friend, she knows how to do hair and you say 'Hey! Can you do this?' and you hope that she can. We don't have the ability to just walk down the road and find a multitude of hairdressers."

Khadeja hopes teaching people about the perceptions of Black hair through her forum can serve as a form of self-healing, creativity and self-care.

"I really thought it would have been amazing to get people together to have this conversation," she said. "We really have the opportunity to speak and be heard, and it's generally receptive." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Weekend AM