#8: (De)Tangling the Business of Black Women’s Hair

Sanna Sharp
Published in
4 min readFeb 18, 2020

Instructed by Dr. Shatima Jones at New York University

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Photo by Judeus Samson on Unsplash

In 2019, the California and New York state governments became the first to sign legislation barring discrimination based on natural hairstyle. But– wait a minute. It took until 2019 for these necessary antiracism measures to be passed?

In her course (De)Tangling the Business of Black Women’s Hair, NYU professor Dr. Shatima Jones combs through the historical, sociological, and political structures which affect industries built upon the hairstyles of black women. Her students are encouraged to share their lived experiences with their peers — an exercise in empowerment that has resounded with them. One NYU graduate who took the course in 2015 has been quoted as saying:

“I’m writing a paper on how black women wear their hair on TV, so my homework is to watch television, which is awesome. I see my hair as an artistic expression. It’s something I own.”

(De)Tangling the Business of Black Women’s Hair

School: New York University

Course: (De)Tangling the Business of Black Women’s Hair

Instructor: Dr. Shatima Jones

Course Description:

For many black women, their understanding of their race, gender, class and identity and notions of beauty are linked to hair. Divided into three sections, this course will first seek to understand the historical, structural, and economic dimensions of black women’s hair. We will cover topics such as labor, the service industry, and how the black beauty salon presents a rare opportunity for black women to become entrepreneurs.We will also discuss the multi-billion dollar industry and economy founded on black women’s hair, from dreadlocks and perms, to weaves and wigs. The second part of the course will examine how the beauty salon as a place presents the opportunity for intra-racial community building and networking, with predominately Asian-owned hair supply stores and the rise of African- and Dominican-owned hair salons. Third, we will explore how black women interpret the connections between their racial and gender identity and their hair; and we will examine how the politics of hair links to notions of racial authenticity, colorism, class, and attractiveness. Readings may include: Doing Business with Beauty: Black women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy by Adia Harvey-Wingfield, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness by Ingrid Banks, and Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race by Maxine Leeds Craig.

Ask the Instructor: Dr. Shatima Jones

Dr. Shatima Jones, courtesy of NYU Arts & Science

Why did you elect to offer this course at NYU this year?

I have offered this class almost every Fall semester since 2015. It is one of my favorite courses to teach. I have been fortunate enough, and the demand high enough, to be able to offer it semi-regularly.

Is (De)Tangling the Business of Black Women’s Hair offered within the department in which you usually teach?

Since my time at NYU, I have been apart of several departments wherein I bring this course with me. I am a trained Sociologist, so this course is heavily grounded in that field. However, the course also crosses fields and is situated in a historical, political, economic, and anthropological approach as well. I currently offer the course in The Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

What do you ultimately hope that your students take away from participating in (De)Tangling?

In addition to the main goal of cultivating critical thinking with the material, I hope that my students are able to link the micro to the macro. In other words, I try to teach them how to situate the “individual” in broader historical, social, and cultural contexts — or “structures.” I encourage them to bring their personal experiences to the classroom and use their sociological imagination to link it to broader trends and macro contexts.

If you could teach a course on any topic at all, what would it be?

This is one of my dream courses. Another one of my dream courses is Black Experiences in Literature, Movies, and Television, which I currently teach. These courses relate to my research so they are topics that I think about regularly; my research interests are grounded in my personal experiences as a Black Woman so I am very passionate about them; and together, I imagined that students, especially students of color, would be thrilled to take either of these courses.

NEXT: #7: Toxicity in Context

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