Language is powerful. So much so that many underprivileged and underrepresented groups (i.e. people of color, women) have ceased using terms like “minority” because of the necessarily negative connotations. Usage of “minority” when applied to certain groups makes even less sense when you consider that some of them actually constitute a majority of the world’s population (i.e. people of color, women). What we know is that language is used to socialize. If an oppressed group learns to self-identify as such, it becomes far easier to police their behavior, to ensure cycles of self-fulfilling prophecy. Put simply, if you can convince a group that it is “less than,” you convince that same group that it is powerless.
How does this relate to women of color and natural hair? In much the same way that terms like “minority” serve to socialize members of a given group, so do terms like “1A,” 4C, and “3B.” I am referring to hair typing. A system that many members of the natural community subscribe to. A system that equates straight hair with being “number 1.” We know what number 1 is, it’s the best. The one everyone wants to be, the position everyone vies for. Even in the Olympic Games, the world only celebrates 1, 2 and 3. Number 4? There isn’t even a place on the podium for number 4. For those unfamiliar with hair typing, it is a system that categorizes hair based on curl pattern or lack thereof where 1=straight, 2= wavy, 3=curly and 4=kinky. A, B, and C are subtypes within each of the numeric categories. Subsequently, women of color often fall into the “Type 4” category.
Categories of distinction are often arbitrary, culturally relative and subject to change over time. For example, Black (as a racial category) in one country is not considered Black in another. In some countries one’s Blackness is contingent upon wealth and subject to change based on the same. The evolution of “Black” includes “Colored,” “Negro” and “African American.” While the United States of America only identifies two sexes (male and female), some cultures have far more categories. In the same way, the terms used for hair typing are arbitrary. Even with hair, “nappy” has been replaced by many with terms like “kinky,” or “coily.”
What does that mean? Quite simply that any other terms could have been substituted for the numeric/alpha system currently used. Instead, the system that was adopted is one that necessarily privileges certain types of hair over others. In any setting, being number 1 is better than being number 2, or 3, or 4. Beginning with elementary school we are taught that having an A is better than having a B or C. Society teaches us that we should always strive to be number 1 and then describes the hair that most of us have as number 3 and number 4. Subsequently, we have a system of hair typing whereby every time a woman identifies her hair using this system, she puts her hair and her mindset in its place.