Gabrielle Union Discusses the Politics of Black Hair

Ashlee Marie Preston
·12 mins read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Gabrielle Union
Photo credit: Courtesy of Gabrielle Union

From Harper's BAZAAR

Black hair has always been heavily policed in America. In 1786, the Tignon Law was passed in Louisiana, which decreed that all Black women were to cover their hair so as to not upstage white women. At that time, Afro-Creole women in Louisiana wore full, textured hairstyles embellished with feathers, beads, ribbons, and rare jewels. White men were constantly in awe of their exotic beauty, and white women of the ruling class grew livid. As a result, the governor outlawed Black women from displaying “excessive attention to dress” and required them to wear scarves over their hair as a means of displaying that they belonged to the slave class.

But Black women brilliantly clapped back. Freed and enslaved women alike reemerged with elaborately tied head wraps made of exquisite fabrics and adorned with majestic broaches and decorative statement pieces. They subverted the ruling class’s fragility into today’s equivalent of runway fashion.

Still, the obsession with controlling Black hair remains pervasive in our society today. Black women and girls are scrutinized and subjected to body terrorism in ways that make it virtually impossible to comfortably move through life. As a Black woman with big, full hair, I’m constantly bombarded with unsolicited commentary. Worse, I’ve had absolute strangers reach out to run their fingers through my hair as if I belonged in a petting zoo. Perhaps if there were more diverse representation of Afrocentric beauty in media, Black hair wouldn’t be such a spectacle under the white gaze.

Instead, the entertainment, fashion, and beauty industries promote anti-Blackness by elevating Eurocentric standards of beauty as the default, pressuring us to conform if we are to be deemed dependable, desirable, or worthy of dignity.

We are rapidly unlearning the ways in which we were taught to hate ourselves, while resisting daily microaggressions intended to break our spirit. Legislative protections like the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act are shielding Black people from hair-based discrimination. The strong figures in the media that we do have give us permission to take up space by refusing to shrink themselves.

Gabrielle Union is one such figure. In addition to producing important projects and designing clothing that celebrates all body types, she is now relaunching her haircare line, Flawless by Gabrielle Union. Co-created with Larry Sims, Union’s longtime friend and hairstylist, it was specially formulated to promote Black hair health and involved extensive research. “Being able to create the line with one of my best friends who’s also our consumer has been one of the most gratifying experiences in my career," said Sims. "There’s a deeper connection to the process of developing products that are for us by us.”

Curious about her own personal hair journey and pathway to self-realization, I speak with Union via Zoom to understand her motivation behind creating Flawless.

When did you first develop a fascination with your hair?

I was probably six or seven. My girl cousins had perfect pigtails with bows and ribbons—everything that expressed what little girls and femininity are supposed to be performed as at that age. I was not with that. I liked the hairstyles of Sister Sledge and The Pointer Sisters and the Bo Derek braids with the beads on them. My mom wasn't an at-home beautician, but she did her best. She didn't know how to keep the beads on, so she put tinfoil at the ends, but they'd come off in my sleep.

How long did you wear that hairstyle?

For a couple of months, up until our family reunion happened. I was gearing up for a big race between the five-, six-, and seven-year-old girl cousins, so I wore a baseball cap over them. I'm racing, and I win. It's not even close. And somebody goes, "That's a boy!" I ripped off my baseball cap, and they just stared at my little braids. That was one of the first times I remember people having a negative opinion about what my hair looked like and learning that hair was everything. I was supposed to be praised for winning the race. Instead, I was questioned on my appearance.

After your first experience with otherness, did you feel pressured to conform to a more conventional standard of beauty?

When I was eight, I begged my mom to get a relaxer. 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. I was chasing respectability and what it meant to be presentable, appropriate, and thought of as pretty. It was just so elusive.

When you were young, did you ever turn on your TV and see yourself?

Our cable package didn't offer BET. So unless it was on an awards show, Facts of Life, Different Strokes, or Rags to Riches, I didn't see a lot of Black girls on TV. Only in my magazines and the women and girls I saw at my cousin's salon in Oakland.

Did you ever experience moments of "hairspiration" at your cousin's salon?

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.

Was there ever a moment in which your pursuit of looking like those women felt hopeless?

I realized that as much as I wanted my hair to be straight and to fit in as much as possible, my skin color wasn't going to change. 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 color more acceptable. That felt like a big blow. The world wasn't going to change because I got a relaxer.

Going into adulthood, we're exposed to broader ideas and our world becomes larger, yet many of the lessons on respectability we observe as children carry over and sometimes impede our ability to thrive. It's also common to experience anti-Blackness masked by standards of professionalism within the workplace. Was there a hairstyle you felt would set you up for success?

I started acting when I was still in college, so I only know Hollywood. I immediately went for a hairstyle to match the way my name sounded. I rocked the girl-next-door look: not too long, because then you might be unrelatable, but not too short. Just this perfect flip that says, "I'm nonthreatening, happy, well adjusted, and I was raised on the right side of the tracks." I always landed those roles. I didn't attempt to rock the boat until my 40s, really.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Was there another hairstyle you secretly wanted to experiment with?

So much of my career was about that flip, but then I wanted to be sexy. But a Black woman couldn't have a bob and be thought of as sexy, even though Rachel, Jennifer Aniston's character on Friends, had a bob. Courteney Cox had a bob, even Cameron Diaz had a bob! The bob was it for other people, but for me as a Black woman, they were like, "We're going to need you to get a weave."

My first foray into being the desired, more adult woman, was the summer I did Cradle 2 the Grave and Bad Boys. I had these long weaves, and when I was doing all the action scenes, my hair was flowing behind me and whipping around in slow-mo. The reaction I got from Hollywood and men made me feel like that 10-year-old girl that wanted to be something else. I was like, "I found the golden ticket, and it's a weave. It's a long weave!" The longer the hair, the better. I bought it lock, stock, and barrel, and never questioned it.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Was there ever a look you wanted to experiment with but received professional pushback on?

In Almost Christmas, I wanted to wear braids. They were like, "Well, the character's really sophisticated and she's really educated." And I was like, "Yeah, so can I have Senegalese twists?" There were all these conversations about what constituted an educated, sophisticated, Black, single mom. And braids wasn't it. I was like, "Oh, wait, I'm also an executive producer. So let me talk to myself about this. Okay, I've given myself permission." That was the first time I dared to buck the system. That was a Black movie. I realized that within our own community, we have different ideas about different hairstyles and what they mean.

Fast-forward to now, and we're celebrating Black hair journeys through movies like Nappily Ever After and shorts like Hair Love, which you coproduced and won an Oscar this year. You had a special guest attend the Oscars with you—DeAndre Arnold, a student in Texas who was told not to return to school and that he couldn't graduate unless he cut his dreads.

We wanted to send a very big message by inviting DeAndre, his family, and his supporters to the Oscars: When you speak up, you will be supported. There is a community here that will back you up, lift you up, and protect you. Don't worry about lost opportunities. There's an even bigger, better community that is looking out for you and is going to support you. They will provide opportunities you could've never imagined, just by you sticking to your laurels and standing up for yourself. That helps all of us stand up for ourselves.

That's an important lesson to teach your daughters, Zaya and Kaavia. Did your relationship with your hair growing up inform your parenting in any way?

Becoming a stepmom and a mom to two young girls, I had to really work to unlearn a lot of traditions. I let go of ideals about what acceptable hair is supposed to look like and really leaned more into healthy hair. However our children choose to present themselves is a personal choice. No matter what, they're beautiful and amazing. I just want them to have healthy hair and know how to care for it.

Which brings us to your haircare line, Flawless by Gabrielle Union, which you just relaunched with Larry Sims. How did that collaboration happen?

I've always wanted to develop a haircare line that had every product I needed, no matter what hairstyle I was rocking. When we first launched in 2017, the brand coincided with a lot of hair loss due to my fertility journey and having multiple rounds of IVF. From ear to ear, where a headband would sit, I was bald. When you're launching a line called Flawless and you feel anything but flawless, you actually feel like a fraud. I didn't feel confident or transparent, and the investors and ownership group we had at the time didn't want to wait for my hair to grow back in. They only cared about deadlines, and I wasn't being listened to. I was like, "As soon as this time period is up, I want to relaunch Flawless. I want to wrestle back ownership and control of this company." And there's no way in hell I can be transparent about my hair journey without including Larry Sims, who was in the trenches crying right alongside me as my hair fell out.

Now that's solidarity.

Larry would be like, “There's another spot,” and I would break down every time a new bald spot would open up. We tried every home remedy we could find. So that's where we discovered bacuri butters, raw creatine, biotin, rice oil complex, rice water, aloe, and all of these things that actually grew my hair back. We kept a log of the last two years of my hair growth and of what was working, what didn't work. We literally took a magnifying glass and were like, "We've got sprouts! We've got action!"

The two of you didn't phone this in, you really made a product.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Flawless
Photo credit: Courtesy of Flawless

For the relaunch, Larry went into the lab with the chemist. Imagine, a Black hairstylist in the lab with the chemist saying, "That doesn't work. Why are you trying to force silicones on us? I know historically we've packed our products with them, but they're harmful." And then, hearing the chemist say, "Well, folks with textured hair like that slippage, they like that silky feeling that the silicones provide." Then Larry saying, "No, we can educate our clientele on how they can get that same silky slippage without silicones, parabens, and sulfates. You can get that feeling with different oils and butters." We had to fight together to create healthier products for healthier hair.

What piece of advice could you offer Black entrepreneurs aspiring to experience the creative freedom you and Larry have?

I cannot say enough about Black ownership. When you do not control a majority ownership of anything, for the most part you have about as much of a say so as your percentage, and if you are just an endorser, that's a goose egg. If you have no equity or ownership in your company, or it's less than 51 percent, it doesn't mean you're going to be listened to. If you have investors that are not Black, they have to be on board with lowering your profit margins. It would actually make Larry and I assholes to figure out how to grow my hair back, create an amazing line, and then price our own people out of it. Everything is between $4 and $10.

We stan a queen who prioritizes people over profit!

Right now, we're also highlighting other Black-owned businesses on our Amazon page and socials—companies at risk of going out of business during this pandemic. I believe I read that almost 40 percent of Black-owned businesses will not return. We're trying to drive more traffic to those companies.

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