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Ending Our Association of Long Hair with Mixed Heritage

• Mar 18, 2013

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by Nicole Pennant

What do we mean when we assert that we are 100% Black? I have been natural since 2004.  I became a follower of natural hair blogs/vlogs over the last couple of years because I started caring for my own hair at home.  The information that I have learned from these sources has been invaluable. However, I have also observed the often heated debates that occur about natural hair.  One that stands out in particular has been about individuals that have grown long natural hair.  Questions or statements about an individual’s background always seem to arise. The following statements/questions come from the comment sections of a selection of bloggers/vloggers: “Are you mixed?” ‘You’re mixed with something right?”

These questions/responses are then followed by either the individual or others asserting the Blackness of the individual: “Why do people think black people need to be mixed to have great healthy long hair?!!!” “No. No she’s not mixed with something.”

And in some cases people make the claim that they or the person is 100% Black: “Yes, I’m 100% Black.” “[insert vlogger name] is 100% black…” “I am 100% Black and my hair has always been lengthy.”

I find assertions like “100% Black” or those alluding to someone being “all black” to be puzzling since it is just not true.

When I was in college I took a cultural anthropology class while pursuing my degree in African American Studies. It was first time I was introduced to how DNA was being used to trace a person’s genealogy and ancestry.  We watched a documentary in the class called “Motherland: A Genetic Journey”.  In the film, we observed three British African Caribbeans trace their ancestry using DNA.  Since this film then there have been many more programs focusing on the science of ancestry. Some of the most prominent programs have been Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Our Roots” and “African American Lives.”  I find these shows fascinating because of the history that is often hidden underneath phenotypic characteristics like race.  For instance, on “Finding Our Roots” actor Don Cheadle found out that he was 19% White and that he also had Native American in his family lineage. In “African American Lives” Chris Rock found out he was 30% White.  Samuel L. Jackson found he could potentially apply to be a member of the Sons of the American Revolution because of a White ancestor on “Finding Our Roots.”   

Recently Gates wrote an article in The Root entitled “Exactly How ‘Black’ Is Black America” discussing the ancestry of Black Americans.  In the article he indicated that most Black Americans have mixed race heritage when DNA testing is conducted.
* According to Ancestry.com, the average African American is 65 percent sub-Saharan African, 29 percent European and 2 percent Native American.
* According to Family Tree DNA.com, the average African American is 72.95 percent sub-Saharan African, 22.83 percent European and 1.7 percent Native American.
* According to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, the average African American is 80 percent sub-Saharan African, 19 percent European and 1 percent Native American.

These findings indicate that the majority of Black Americans ARE NOT 100% Black.  Making this claim to percentage of Blackness is simply inaccurate.  Who we are today is significantly shaped by our past.  From my perspective acknowledging this racial mixing does not diminish our history because it is a part of the history. Nor does it downplay the Black experience and what it means to be Black in America. The creation of racial groups in American society was a social construction that had a lot less to do with genetics and more to do with physical appearance.

In the area of hair care I think awareness of this history is also important.  Trying to make claims about Black authenticity or 100% Blackness with regards to something that is actually shaped to some degree by genetics like hair seems odd.  But, we also know that good hair care practices have a significant influence on hair growth and that many of us were unaware of that until recently. A lot of the information that we were lacking was due the uplifting of European standards of beauty and the stigmatization of curlier and textured hair commonly found in the Black community.  Consequently, many of us never learned the proper care for our hair.

So when we observe someone with hair that would be considered exceptionally long or a looser curl pattern we shouldn’t immediately run to determine their racial/ethnic make-up in order to explain the ease of their hair care routine or growth.  For one thing, those same individuals proposing the question are more than likely some sort of racial mix as well. Additionally, being aware of the racial mixing in the past does not minimize the new history being created by Blacks who wear natural hair.  

The Black community is diverse and the differences we observe should be accepted as part of the Black experience instead of being used as a litmus test for Blackness.

Nicole Pennant is a guest contributor.  She is currently pursuing her doctorate in Political Science with a focus on Black Politics.  You can reach her at nicole.pennant@gmail.com.

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