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Gabrielle Union says as a child she believed straight hair was ‘what it meant to be presentable, appropriate and pretty’

‘As much as I wanted my hair to be straight and to fit in as much as possible, my skin colour wasn’t going to change,’ actor says

Sabrina Barr
Tuesday 04 August 2020 11:15 BST
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(Getty Images)

Gabrielle Union has spoken about how desperately she wanted her hair to be straight when she was a child, being under the impression that having straighter locks was “what it meant to be presentable, appropriate and pretty”.

In November 2019, it was reported that Union had been “told her hair style changes were too black” for the America’s Got Talent audience while working on the show as a judge.

The actor’s reported treatment on the talent show inspired the revival of the #BlackHairChallenge on Twitter, which involved social media users sharing several pictures of themselves with different hairstyles in celebration of black hair.

Earlier this month, Union announced that she and her hairstylist Larry Sims had collaborated to relaunch her haircare line Flawless by Gabrielle Union, a collection that features “high quality, affordable products for all types of textured hair”.

Upon the release of the haircare line, Union reminisced on the relationship she has had with her hair throughout her life, explaining that when she was younger, she desired straight hair “that swished”.

“When I was eight, I begged my mum to get a relaxer,” Union told Harper’s Bazaar, a product that is used to chemically “relax” curly hair, making it easier to straighten.

“I was going to school with all white kids, and I wanted hair that swished and moved and all of that. She did her best with the relaxer, but to me, my hair was never straight enough.”

The 47-year-old said she was “chasing respectability and what it meant to be presentable, appropriate, and thought of as pretty”, a goal that she found “elusive”.

However, she came to the realisation that no matter how much she wanted her hair “to be straight and to fit in”, the way in which society treated black girls was not “going to change”.

“I realised that as much as I wanted my hair to be straight and to fit in as much as possible, my skin colour wasn’t going to change,” she said.

“Society’s attitudes about black girls weren’t going to change, and there was literally nothing I could do to my hair that would make my skin colour more acceptable. That felt like a big blow. The world wasn’t going to change because I got a relaxer.”

Union stated that when she would visit her cousin’s salon, people in the beauty parlour would place women who were light-skinned and biracial on a pedestal in terms of their beauty.

“Light-skinned and biracial women would come in with their boyfriends or husbands, and all the other women would be like, ‘Oh, my god!’ They were so desired and so elevated. They were constantly being lifted up for their beauty, and everyone wanted to look like them,” she said.

Union outlined how as an adult, she feels as though some of the lessons that are taught during one’s childhood “on respectability” can carry across and “sometimes impede our ability to thrive”, such as the way “professionalism” is determined in the workplace.

“It’s also common to experienced anti-blackness masked by standards of professionalism within the workplace,” she said.

In July 2019, California became the first state in the US to ban the racial discrimination of natural hair in the workplace and in schools with the passing of the “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair” (Crown) Act.

As a stepmother to her husband Dwyane Wade’s three children and a mother to her daughter Kaavia, Union said she had to “really work to unlearn a lot of traditions” that she was taught, letting go “of ideals about what acceptable hair is supposed to look like” and promote “healthy hair”.

“However our children choose to present themselves is a personal choice,” she said.

“No matter what, they’re beautiful and amazing. I just want them to have healthy hair and know how to care for it.”

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