Lupita Nyong’o speaks onstage during the 2017 Global Citizen Festival: For Freedom. For Justice. For All. in Central Park on September 23, 2017 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / ANGELA WEISS (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
I remember the first time I was made to feel ashamed of my natural hair. During a giggly sleepover full of young girls, I had allowed my best friend to brush out my long, curly hair, which had always been in two plaits. Everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed at the fluffy halo around my head, so different to their own, and petted me (much to my enjoyment). For a moment, my hair, such an indicator of my ethnicity, felt celebrated – we ran downstairs to delightedly show it off to my best friend’s mother, who immediately told me with disgust that I looked like a cavewoman.
I’m mixed-race, and I know that my individual experience of racism would be different if I was ‘just black’. Although I’d witnessed my Ghanaian mother being treated unfairly, my ten-year-old self didn’t know what prejudice was, let alone the history of black people (and black features) being stereotyped as unkempt and uncivilised, as lesser beings than their Caucasian counterparts. But I did feel ashamed, and was made to feel different from every other person (and their long, flowing hair) in that house. And so began a long journey of straightening my hair non-stop to fit in, to ensure that nobody would ever make me feel like that again. After racking up endless comments of “you look so much prettier with straight hair” from peers (insert upside-down smiley emoji here), plus more sinister experiences of prejudice, I eventually realised that it wasn’t my responsibility to “avoid” racism. It’s our responsibility to question the way things are.