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← A celebration of natural hair

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Showing Revision 13 created 06/22/2017 by Brian Greene.

  1. I am from the South Side of Chicago,
  2. and in seventh grade,
    I had a best friend named Jenny
  3. who lived on the Southwest
    Side of Chicago.
  4. Jenny was white,
  5. and if you know anything about
    the segregated demographics of Chicago,
  6. you know that there are
    not too many black people
  7. who live on the Southwest Side of Chicago.
  8. But Jenny was my girl
  9. and so we would hang out every so often
    after school and on the weekends.
  10. And so one day we were
    hanging out in her living room,
  11. talking about 13-year-old things,
  12. and Jenny's little sister Rosie
    was in the room with us,
  13. and she was sitting behind me
    just kind of playing in my hair,
  14. and I wasn't thinking too much
    about what she was doing.
  15. But at a pause in the conversation,
  16. Rosie tapped me on the shoulder.
  17. She said, "Can I ask you a question?"
  18. I said, "Yeah, Rosie. Sure."

  19. "Are you black?"

  20. (Laughter)

  21. The room froze.

  22. Silence.
  23. Jenny and Rosie's mom
    was not too far away.
  24. She was in the kitchen
    and she overheard the conversation,
  25. and she was mortified.
  26. She said, "Rosie! You can't
    ask people questions like that."
  27. And Jenny was my friend,
    and I know she was really embarrassed.
  28. I felt kind of bad for her,
    but actually I was not offended.
  29. I figured it wasn't Rosie's fault
    that in her 10 short years on this earth,
  30. living on the Southwest Side of Chicago,
  31. she wasn't 100 percent sure
    what a black person looked like.
  32. That's fair.
  33. But what was more surprising to me was,
  34. in all of this time I had spent
    with Jenny and Rosie's family --
  35. hanging out with them,
  36. playing with them,
  37. even physically interacting with them --
  38. it was not until Rosie
    put her hands in my hair
  39. that she thought to ask me if I was black.
  40. That was the first time I would realize
  41. how big of a role the texture of my hair
    played in confirming my ethnicity,
  42. but also that it would play a key role
    in how I'm viewed by others in society.
  43. Garrett A. Morgan
    and Madame CJ Walker were pioneers

  44. of the black hair-care and beauty
    industry in the early 1900s.
  45. They're best known as the inventors
    of chemically-based hair creams
  46. and heat straightening tools
  47. designed to permanently,
    or semipermanently,
  48. alter the texture of black hair.
  49. Oftentimes when we think
    about the history of blacks in America,
  50. we think about the heinous acts
  51. and numerous injustices
    that we experienced as people of color
  52. because of the color of our skin,
  53. when in fact, in post-Civil War America,
  54. it was the hair of an
    African-American male or female
  55. that was known as the most
    "telling feature" of Negro status,
  56. more so than the color of the skin.
  57. And so before they were staples
  58. of the multibillion-dollar
    hair-care industry,
  59. our dependency on tools and products,
  60. like the hair relaxer
    and the pressing comb,
  61. were more about our survival
    and advancement as a race
  62. in postslavery America.
  63. Over the years,
    we grew accustomed to this idea

  64. that straighter and longer
    hair meant better and more beautiful.
  65. We became culturally obsessed
  66. with this idea of having
    what we like to call ...
  67. "good hair."
  68. This essentially means:
  69. the looser the curl pattern,
    the better the hair.
  70. And we let these institutionalized ideas
    form a false sense of hierarchy
  71. that would determine
    what was considered a good grade of hair
  72. and what was not.
  73. What's worse is that
    we let these false ideologies
  74. invade our perception of ourselves,
  75. and they still continue
    to infect our cultural identity
  76. as African-American women today.
  77. So what did we do?

  78. We went to the hair salon
    every six to eight weeks,
  79. without fail,
  80. to subject our scalps
    to harsh straightening chemicals
  81. beginning at a very young age --
  82. sometimes eight, 10 --
  83. that would result in hair loss,
  84. bald spots,
  85. sometimes even burns on the scalp.
  86. We fry our hair at temperatures
    of 450 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  87. almost daily,
  88. to maintain the straight look.
  89. Or we simply cover our hair up
    with wigs and weaves,
  90. only to let our roots breathe in private
  91. where no one knows
    what's really going on under there.
  92. We adopted these practices
    in our own communities,

  93. and so it's no wonder
    why today the typical ideal vision
  94. of a professional black woman,
  95. especially in corporate America,
  96. tends to look like this,
  97. rather than like this.
  98. And she certainly doesn't look like this.
  99. In September of this year,

  100. a federal court ruled it lawful
  101. for a company to discriminate
    against hiring an employee
  102. based on if she or he wears dreadlocks.
  103. In the case,
  104. the hiring manager in Mobile, Alabama
  105. is on record as saying,
  106. "I'm not saying yours are messy,
  107. but ...
  108. you know what I'm talking about."
  109. Well, what was she talking about?
  110. Did she think that they were ugly?
  111. Or maybe they were
    just a little too Afrocentric
  112. and pro-black-looking for her taste.
  113. Or maybe it's not about Afrocentricity,
  114. and it's more just about
    it being a little too "urban"
  115. for the professional setting.
  116. Perhaps she had a genuine concern
    in that they looked "scary"
  117. and that they would intimidate
    the clients and their customer base.
  118. All of these words are ones
    that are too often associated
  119. with the stigma
    attached to natural hairstyles.
  120. And this ...
  121. this has got to change.
  122. In 2013,

  123. a white paper published by the Deloitte
    Leadership Center for Inclusion,
  124. studied 3,000 individuals
    in executive leadership roles
  125. on the concept
    of covering in the workplace
  126. based on appearance,
    advocacy, affiliation and association.
  127. When thinking about
    appearance-based covering,
  128. the study showed
  129. that 67 percent of women
    of color cover in the workplace
  130. based on their appearance.
  131. Of the total respondents who
    admitted to appearance-based covering,
  132. 82 percent said that it was
    somewhat to extremely important
  133. for them to do so
    for their professional advancement.
  134. Now, this is Ursula Burns.

  135. She is the first African-American
    female CEO of a Fortune 500 company --
  136. of Xerox.
  137. She's known by her signature look,
  138. the one that you see here.
  139. A short, nicely trimmed,
    well-manicured Afro.
  140. Ms. Burns is what
    we like to call a "natural girl."
  141. And she is paving the way
    and showing what's possible
  142. for African-American women
    seeking to climb the corporate ladder,
  143. but still wishing
    to wear natural hairstyles.
  144. But today the majority
    of African-American women

  145. who we still look to as leaders,
    icons and role models,
  146. still opt for a straight-hair look.
  147. Now,
  148. maybe it's because they want to --
  149. this is authentically
    how they feel best --
  150. but maybe --
  151. and I bet --
  152. a part of them felt like they had to
  153. in order to reach the level of success
    that they have attained today.
  154. There is a natural hair movement
    that is sweeping the country

  155. and also in some places in Europe.
  156. Millions of women are exploring what
    it means to transition to natural hair,
  157. and they're cutting off
    years and years of dry, damaged ends
  158. in order to restore
    their natural curl pattern.
  159. I know because I have been an advocate
    and an ambassador for this movement
  160. for roughly the last three years.
  161. After 27 years of excessive heat
    and harsh chemicals,
  162. my hair was beginning to show
    extreme signs of wear and tear.
  163. It was breaking off,
  164. it was thinning,
  165. looking just extremely dry and brittle.
  166. All those years of chasing
    that conventional image of beauty
  167. that we saw earlier
  168. was finally beginning to take its toll.
  169. I wanted to do something about it,
  170. and so I started what I called
    the "No Heat Challenge,"
  171. where I would refrain
    from using heat styling tools on my hair
  172. for six months.
  173. And like a good millennial,
  174. I documented it on social media.
  175. (Laughter)

  176. I documented as I reluctantly cut off

  177. three to four inches of my beloved hair.
  178. I documented as I struggled
    to master these natural hairstyles,
  179. and also as I struggled to embrace them
  180. and think that they actually looked good.
  181. And I documented as my hair texture
    slowly began to change.
  182. By sharing this journey openly,

  183. I learned that I was not
    the only woman going through this
  184. and that in fact there were thousands
    and thousands of other women
  185. who were longing to do the same.
  186. So they would reach out to me
    and they would say,
  187. "Cheyenne, how did you do
    that natural hairstyle
  188. that I saw you with the other day?
  189. What new products have you started using
  190. that might be a little better
    for my hair texture
  191. as it begins to change?"
  192. Or, "What are some
    of the natural hair routines
  193. that I should begin to adopt
    to slowly restore the health of my hair?"
  194. But I also found that there were
    a large number of women
  195. who were extremely hesitant
    to take that first step
  196. because they were paralyzed by fear.
  197. Fear of the unknown --
  198. what would they now look like?
  199. How would they feel about themselves
    with these natural hairstyles?
  200. And most importantly to them,
  201. how would others view them?
  202. Over the last three years

  203. of having numerous conversations
    with friends of mine
  204. and also complete strangers
    from around the world,
  205. I learned some really important things
  206. about how African-American women
    identify with their hair.
  207. And so when I think back
  208. to that hiring manager in Mobile, Alabama,
  209. I'd say, "Actually, no.
  210. We don't know what you're talking about."
  211. But here are some things that we do know.
  212. We know that when black women
    embrace their love for their natural hair,
  213. it helps to undo generations of teaching
  214. that black in its natural state
    is not beautiful,
  215. or something to be hidden or covered up.
  216. We know that black women
    express their individuality
  217. and experience feelings of empowerment
  218. by experimenting with different
    hairstyles regularly.
  219. And we also know
  220. that when we're invited
    to wear our natural hair in the workplace,
  221. it reinforces that we are uniquely valued
  222. and thus helps us to flourish
    and advance professionally.
  223. I leave you with this.

  224. In a time of racial and social tension,
  225. embracing this movement
  226. and others like this
  227. help us to rise above
    the confines of the status quo.
  228. So when you see a woman with braids
    or locks draping down her back,
  229. or you notice your colleague
  230. who has stopped
    straightening her hair to work,
  231. do not simply approach her and admire
  232. and ask her if you can touch it --
  233. (Laughter)

  234. Really appreciate her.

  235. Applaud her.
  236. Heck, even high-five her
    if that's what you feel so inclined to do.
  237. Because this --
  238. this is more than about a hairstyle.
  239. It's about self-love and self-worth.
  240. It's about being brave enough
  241. not to fold under the pressure
    of others' expectations.
  242. And about knowing that making
    the decision to stray from the norm
  243. does not define who we are,
  244. but it simply reveals who we are.
  245. And finally,

  246. being brave is easier
  247. when we can count
    on the compassion of others.
  248. So after today,
  249. I certainly hope that we can count on you.
  250. Thank you.

  251. (Applause)