"The Way Our Hair Grows Out of Our Heads is a Problem for People."
I think it's important for people to recognize that no matter how fascinated you might be by a Black person’s hair, we are not an exhibit or curiosity.
You're listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith, and I also write the Burnt Toast newsletter.
Today I am speaking with anti-racism activist, writer, and educator Sharon Hurley Hall. Sharon is firmly committed to doing her part to eliminate racism as the founder and curator in chief of Sharon's Anti-Racism Newsletter, one of my favorite Substacks. Sharon writes about existing while Black in majority white spaces and amplifies the voices of other anti-racism activists. Sharon is also the head of anti-racism and a special advisor for the Diverse Leaders Group.
I asked Sharon to come on the podcast to talk about a piece she wrote on the newsletter a few weeks ago about the CROWN act, Black hair, and the ways in which white people perpetrate racism against Black people for their hair. We also get into how to talk about hair and skin color differences with your kids, which I found super, super helpful and I think you will, too.
If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.
And! It’s time to decide what we should read for the next Burnt Toast Book Club!
I’ve culled through all of your suggestions and narrowed it down to these five (mostly because the Substack poll-maker limits me to five choices). I was going to stick with fiction because it’s summer and I’m in beach read mode, but I made an exception for Angela Garbes because, it’s Angela Garbes. (Which is to say, if we don’t pick her for August, we’ll do it for September or October!) You have until the end of this week to vote. I’ll announce the pick on Tuesday. (The discussion thread will go live Wednesday, August 31 at 12pm Eastern!)
Episode 54 Transcript
Hi Sharon! Why don't we start by having you tell my listeners a little more about yourself and your work?
Okay, so I am an anti-racism writer and educator, a former journalist, and I have been writing about anti-racism-related stuff for longer than it appears. I actually wrote my first article in 2016, but I wasn't doing it consistently. I launched an anti-racism newsletter in 2020. So it's just been going for just about two years now. In it, I share my perspectives as a global citizen. I was born in England, I grew up in the Caribbean, I lived in England as an adult. I visited the US. I lived in France. I've been in a lot of places, and I've experienced racism everywhere. And so I bring that lens to what I write about. You know, quite often we think what we're experiencing is the only way it's being experienced or is unique to the location that we're in. And my experience is that there's a lot of commonality in how these things operate in different places.
Oh, that's so interesting. I have British and American citizenship, but I've lived my whole life in America. And I definitely tend to think of racism as this very American issue. But as you're saying that, I'm realizing how incredibly reductive that is. Although Americans certainly are a big part of the problem.
Yes, but—or yes and, I suppose. Let's not forget that all of this started with the British people—well, British and Europeans—who colonized everywhere.
Sure did. Yup. Absolutely.
There are many places besides the USA that share this history of enslavement. Barbados and the Caribbean being among those places. So there are similarities, there are commonalities, I think. It operates in a particularly American way, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist in other places. Because it does. It's sometimes less visible. And of course, because so many other places don't have a gun culture, you're less likely to end up dead as a Black person, even if people are being racist towards you.
Yes. We add that extra layer of things.
Well, I am having you here today to talk about a piece of American legislation because you wrote a really excellent piece for your newsletter. I want everyone to subscribe to your newsletter and to be supporting your work. Often you're putting things on my radar that I have missed and I just really appreciate the education that you do. This was a piece you wrote recently on the CROWN Act, which I have to admit I wasn't even aware of as something that was happening. So for starters, for folks who aren't who aren't familiar with this, can you tell us a little bit about what the CROWN act is and what inspired it?
The CROWN Act stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair. I believe it was (first) sponsored by State Senator Holly Mitchell from California. And then other states have since passed similar laws. There is also a federal act, which was passed by the House earlier this year.
The idea is that Black people should be able to wear their natural hair, and not have it be a problem. In all post-enslavement societies, in all post-colonial societies, in many white majority places, the way that our hair grows out of our head is a problem for people. It can be seen as not professional. There are all sorts of ancient ideas about what Black people's hair is and isn't, that play into the way that it is treated. It's not just about being able to wear your hair, the respect piece is important as well. Because you'd be surprised how often—I mean, I worked in England for 15 years and there were people that would come and say, “Ooh, your hair! Let me…” (For those listening, I am running my hands through my hair.) “Your hair,” you know, “It feels so different. Let me…”
Like it’s okay to touch you.
It's okay to just touch my hair. So there has historically been this thing where Black people's natural hair, and all the various styles that we put our hair in, were not seen as worthy of respect, were not seen as professional, were not seen as acceptable. All of that comes out of that whole white supremacist ideology.
What I really appreciated in your piece is you explain why the ability to have legal redress for microaggressions is obviously really important, given this really problematic history that you've just sketched out for us. But you also wrote, “Why the hell do we need to legislate for Black people to enjoy autonomy over our hair?” So, talk a little more about that piece.
White supremacy has weaponized Black hair in many ways. It's been a matter of control that extended to using hair as evidence of the reasons why Black people deserve to be enslaved, because our hair was seen as like wool, animal-like, somehow bestial, somehow not right. You could think of the Tignon Laws, which I think were in Louisiana, where Black women's hair was supposed to be covered. Because otherwise the white guys would not be able to control themselves. There was this idea of overt sexuality, as well.
That being your problem to control as opposed to…
Yes, our problem that they needed to control. Black women and Black people being what they are, we've made lemonade out of lemons. That's why you get these fabulous headdresses and head ties and so on. They look absolutely wonderful. But you know, the the original idea was to control it, to cover it up, to hide anything that would make us look more human and more beautiful. Often in the past, women have been encouraged to cover themselves up so that they don't get assaulted. This is another facet of that.
As I've said, I don't know any Black person who's worked in a white majority space, especially a woman, who has not had some white person in their office space, make free with their hair. And you know, I would not do the same if the situation were reversed. I want to add something here, which is that a lot of white people say, “Oh, I went to a country in Asia, and people were fascinated by my straight blonde hair.” And I say, that is not the same thing, because the history is different. The agency that you have historically had over your own body is different. Coming out of a culture where we have not had that agency, some