Tracee Ellis Ross and Kerry Washington talk natural hair: There’s been a real shift

Tracee Ellis Ross, left, and Kerry Washington arrive for the 2016 White House Correspondents Association Annual Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel on Saturday, April 30, 2016.
Black celebrities are speaking out about natural hair representation in film and television. Many have mentioned their struggles behind the scenes because of the “>lack of hair and makeup professionals experienced with black hair and skin. The Crown Act has also been implemented in seven states and there is a push to make it a law in all states to protect against ethnic hair discrimination

Kerry Washington interviews Tracee Ellis Ross for Elle’s September issue. It’s a long interview which is well worth a read. I wanted to focus on the part where Tracee talked about her natural hair care company, Pattern, her hair love evolution and the importance of natural hair representation. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

On her relationship with her hair:
It started as such a personal relationship with my own hair, and feeling like I didn’t have the support to find what I needed. Not just in terms of products, but in terms of how to love myself. I was very supported in my family around my hair. But in terms of seeing all different kinds of versions in the wallpaper of my lives out in the world, I wasn’t seeing it. And I was getting confused. All of the things that I was taught from the media were like, I was supposed to have easy breezy beautiful hair. Bouncin’ and behavin’. My hair didn’t blow in the wind! All of these things didn’t match up.

I was a track runner. So I was sweating out my hair all the time. And I swam. So there were all these things that were occurring for me personally, and I discovered that there were so many other people who were experiencing the same disconnect. There was a void, in both seeing ourselves in our natural, authentic beauty, and also having products that would work for us to do our hair naturally—to wear it the way it naturally came out of our heads. It was after Girlfriends that I wrote my first haircare brand pitch. And it was not received the way I thought it would be received [Laughs].

On the cultural shift of natural hair representation:
It reverberates back for each of us. You making space for yourself allows me to make space for myself. I think back to 10 years ago, I went to the Essence Music Festival and a woman was like, “Girl, you’re on TV. You need to get your hair done.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” She was like, “Put some heat on your hair! What are you doing?” Growing up, we all went through this experience, where straight hair was your dressed-up hair. The blowout, silky-whatever meant you became more presentable, more appropriate. It was your dressy, sexy version of you. I see such an evolution on that narrative and I’m so grateful for it. I’ve had days, particularly during the pandemic, but even two years ago, where I looked at the news and I’m like, “Oh my god.” You’re never used to see natural texture on a news anchor. There’s been a real shift. And bringing the circle back to Dr. Crenshaw and this idea of the frame—I realize that Black girls have been magic forever, but once we got this term, the world was able to see that magic in a way it wasn’t being received before. From Girlfriends until now, what I see out in the world gives me courage to be myself. Seeing the way Solange wears her hair, I’m like, “So beautiful. This is so beautiful.” Back in the day, Black girls on TV who were wearing their hair in its natural texture were like five. Rae Dawn Chong was the first one I ever saw. My mom, yes, but Rae Dawn Chong, then there was Lisa Bonet, Cree Summer, Lisa Nicole Carson, that’s all I saw. So seeing the exploration—I mean, every time we’re on a Zoom, I’m like, “Kerry, your hair is so gorgeous.”

On black hair being at the center of cultural, political and economic revolutions:
I say it every time, even if we’re on with other people. I’m like, “Hold on everybody. Do you see the coils?” I have a real love of texture. Those with tighter textures have given me the courage to embrace and love what grows out of my head. I always remind people, we’ve been here doing this forever. This is not some new phenomenon. Braids are not new. Cornrows are not new. Twists are not new. Bantu knots are not new. If our hair could talk, it would tell you of our legacy. Black beauty is timeless and holds such a story that I am so grateful to be a part of, and to continue allowing it to unfold through me. Black women and our hair have been at the center of social, cultural, political, and economic revolutions and movements through time. We hold so much power in our beauty. Our beauty is filled with love and joy and an emotional intelligence that reaches into spaces that allow us to connect with each other in such sacred ways.

[From Elle]

I loved everything about this sort of girlfriends talk Tracee and Kerry had. It is the conversation we tend to have with our friends when no one is around. There were so many things that resonated that it took me a moment to get back to the purpose of the article. I will say that the bit about how the system works to make those in marginalized groups feel isolated is a whole word in and of itself that I may cover another time.

Tracee’s natural hair and hair love journey reflects my own. I started my natural hair journey officially in 2004. I went to Israel for a 10-day visit and seeing all of the Ethiopian Jewish women walking around confidently with their natural hair gave me the courage to finally do the big chop. I was taught that my hair needed to be tamed and the way that it grew out of my head was messy and difficult. For a while after I went natural, I had to listen to family members and other black people tell me my hair was nappy or that I needed to comb my messy hair. The more disparaging the comments were the more proud of my afro I became. I worked tirelessly to grow it as big as possible so that it would be a symbol of my rebellion against the Eurocentric ideas of beauty that were being shoved down my throat from within and outside my community. In 2007, I started loc’ing my hair for 3 years and that in itself was another experience that grew my love for my hair. Needless to say, I was a bit of a trail blazer in my family and friend circles. Falling in love with my natural hair texture, for which I have three (textures), took me many years and I am STILL learning how to care for my hair.

The conversation that many are having about natural hair representation in Hollywood is necessary. The celebration and advocacy for natural hair acceptance began in the streets and within the community. Hollywood and corporate America are starting to follow. As BIPOC continue to create art and wield power in new places we will be able to make more spaces that celebrate who we are unapologetically. And being unapologetic itself is true power.

Tracee Ellis Ross has posted a photo on Instagram with the following remarks:Loved seeing these ladies at the @Variety #Emmys Studio @KerryWashington @WhoDoDatLikeDatThank you @DebraBirnbaum for a lovely afternoon full of so many incredible actresses! #blackish Instagram, 2017-05-08 10:42:23

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Photos credit: Avalon.red, Getty and via Instagram

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36 Responses to “Tracee Ellis Ross and Kerry Washington talk natural hair: There’s been a real shift”

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  1. Snowslow says:

    From a Portuguese white woman (with probably very mixed DNA as our gene pool is the most mixed in Europe apparently) a big THANK You to the black community. My hair is like Tracee’s with curls, here, a wave there and a lot of volume. Mixed race people and Arab women taught me how to deal with my hair finally, in my 40s. It was my son’s girlfiend who has tight curls and is Moroccan who first taught me. An 18 year old. How sad! Why is our hair despised? I had trouble at work with mine, deemed unruly and not groomed when it it was in its glorious volume state.

    On another note and despite all my love for Tracee (who I really really love) I just can’t with this idea that there are no products for mixed and black hair. Cantu products are here. Can the stars please stop it with this imperial capitalist urge to possess all the market for everything, especially beauty ones? It feels a bit disingenuous to promote self-acceptance and then ship a personal line of products that are already out there like Tracee with her own line (which is not mentioned in the article).
    Anyway, still in love with Tracee despite it because she is that amazing.

  2. ABritGuest says:

    Love this post Oya. And was a great discussion. It’s crazy that something that grows out your head is so politicised& sad that it can be punitive for some to embrace a natural look. We have so far to go.

    • Sojaschnitzel says:

      A great post indeed, and a much needed discussion. I love that we are finally talking about this. I hate that we have to, but I love that people are not taking any bullshit anymore.

    • LeaTheFrench says:

      Same here. I found this post very interesting. “There a been a real shift” seems a bit optimistic, though. Listening to these two inspiring women, there seems to still be some way to go. Sadly.

  3. Lizzie Bathory says:

    Lovely post. Thanks for sharing your hair journey!

  4. Sue says:

    As a white woman myself I know NOTHING about black hair and I learned so much today! And I love these women.

    • Sojaschnitzel says:

      Same. I feel like a total idiot, super naive and privileged. All of which is not just an impression but a fact. The bubble of white middle class life is so ridiculously perspective-distorting.
      Sorry about my weird english. It’s been a long day and this is not my native language.

  5. Malls_nyc says:

    Tracer Ellis Ross is a gift, a national treasure. We don’t deserve her.

  6. StephB says:

    Oya, thank you!! I am so glad we are talking about this and thank you for making this part of mainstream conversation. Now about this hair!!! I went natural when I was pregnant and enjoyed having unprocessed hair but guess what? I was still getting those silk presses. It’s like the comment in the story, I felt I had to put some heat on it to successfully navigate white spaces. COVID created this new space where I had to figure out what I wanted because there would be no dominant culture critique. So now I’m exploring and it’s so fun. To be 42 and just fully embracing my hair is crazy but better late than never.

    Also, Cantu is NOT for everyone. I had no idea natural hair would be so expensive. We have to go through so many product lines to figure out what works best for each of us. Personally, I’m so happy that we have lots of products to choose from because it takes all of them to keep the diaspora looking fly.

  7. SheaButterBaby says:

    Thank you, Oya! Great post 🙌🏽 I did the big chop in went natural in 2015 and never looked back! Loving how BIG and healthy and versatile my hair is. And doing lots of protective styles to help maintain it all.

    Also, I know I’m not the only one who feels Cantu does absolutely nothing for my hair. My go to’s are Aunt Jackie’s, The NaturAll Club, The Mane Choice and Garnier’s Honey Whole Blends Lines. Also a huge fan of Jamaican Black Castor oil mixed in with other essential oils such as Rosemary, Lavender and Orange oils.

  8. moonpony says:

    This is an earnest question:
    Why are white women sometimes accused of cultural appropriation when wearing box braids or cornrows, but when black women straighten their hair there is no comment ?

    • Justifiably says:

      because we were forced to straighten our hair to fit in, to get jobs, to go to school. when we straightened our hair it was out of survival and a necessity and years of conditioning that black hair was ugly!
      when non-people of color wear ” black styles”, it’s the latest fashion craze. meanwhile, these same styles were called ghetto and tacky. But now that black culture is popular it’s okay. ***they want our rhythm but not our blues*****

    • BnLurkN4eva says:

      Because of the treatment black and POC receive when they are natural versus the way white women are treated when they wear similar styles. Perfect example is when Zendaya was belittled for wearing a braided looking style that mimic dreadlocks while white women wearing similar styles are lauded.

      @Moonpony for a long time and it continues today, Black women had no choice but to straighten their hair in order to work in many professions. It’s not the same thing as wearing hairstyles closely identified with POC groups, which doesn’t have a social or professional cost versus having your natural hair derided and in some cases being forced to “tame” said natural hair. Besides straight hair isn’t identified with any particular group.

      Google ethnic styles controversies to understand this situation better.

    • Green Desert says:

      moonpony – Sociology instructor here. Co-sign everything said by Justifiably and BnLurkN4eva. Speaking specifically about the US, white people have been the dominant race for centuries. They have controlled the culture and have enjoyed a myriad of privileges since the invention of race. The right hairstyles, clothing, skin tone, music, etc has been dictated by white people for centuries. Black people have systemically been made to feel like they (we – I’m half-black) are not good enough in any way. So we have changed things about ourselves – straightened our hair, changed how we dressed, all to try to assimilate and feel accepted by white people. To feel as beautiful or as good. That is why we (and I did it from ages 13-27) straighten our hair. When a white person wears bantu knots or dreads or borrows from black culture (see: Kardashian/Jenners) in some way it is appropriation and theft because of this history. White people have spent years telling us we’re not good enough but then want to take from the culture when it suits them. Absolutely not the same thing when we straighten our hair.

      I’m saying this in earnest and with no snark – if you truly don’t understand, you can google this more like the above poster said. If you have the opportunity to take a class on race in the US or in a country where this is also an issue, you should do it.

  9. Justifiably says:

    As a black woman with natural 4c hair, I will say there has been a shift but it mostly for women with hair texture like Tracee and Gabriel, all the women she mentioned in the article had 2b-3c hair so the representation is there for her, and she has what old black ppl call ” good hair”( I’m gaging just saying it !) so her hair is more readily accepted, but baby steps I guess!

    • Green Desert says:

      You are spot on. I have 3b-c hair and I know that it’s easier for me. I hope that we continue to see a shift that includes ALL black hair.

    • Yup, Me says:

      Agreed. I love Tracee; have done since Girlfriends. My hair has been natural since I big chopped in the 90s. Tracee should not be the mouthpiece for the natural hair movement. She may have spent years learning her curls but her hair texture is still celebrated and considered desirable. I know she has a line and that’s why she’s talking and marketing it, but just like white women with curly hair should be aware of centering themselves in this conversation, so should biracial women and those with looser curls and textures.

      When I first went natural, I was loudly telling everyone that they should be natural, too. Then I met a friend whose hair texture was completely different from mine and she was struggling with her natural curls and, for all my loud talking, I realized that I had NO CLUE how to support her in taking care of her curls. More recently, a couple good friends of mine, who are both of mixed ancestry, but whose hair is more like the Black sides of their families, went natural. They have been diving in and learning but it’s such a steep curve after decades of resistance and dismissal. Our hair is so different, from person to person. Sometimes, from texture to texture within one head. We should all get to love our hair and we also need to be aware when the person speaking has hair that is still looser waves or soft coils. We really need to foster a collective love and celebration of tight curls and coarse hair that has been considered “difficult” for so long.

    • melissa says:

      THis comment is REALLY important. While I applaud that we’re having the conversation, we’re having the EASY part of the conversation. In the same way lighter skinned black women are more palatable to society, looser curls seem to not be an issue. What we should really be addressing is hair that is “frizzy”, “uncontrollable” and not “white-like” in any way.

      I am a lighter skinned mixed black woman but my hair is kinky AF and I wear it in braids. I cannot tell you how many times i’ve been TOLD by white people (including men i’ve dated and even my sister) that “oh you should just go natural”. I get it, you’re trying to be supportive, but i’ve lived with my hair over 40 years. I know what it looks like natural and i still struggle with the lack of options it presents me with.
      So ya, i’ve got extension braids. I love it because i’m super sporty and it’s easy for me. So basically, yes, provide women with ALL the choices and let them decide then leave them the hell alone. (sorry this is super triggering to me!!!)

  10. Duchess of hazard says:

    But Ellis and Washington’s hair textures were always acceptable (the 3b-3c types). If your texture is type 4 you’re still out in the cold, so to speak. But praise to the natural hair movement in the early naughties for normalising me growing my hair out. Hair is still political, but not as fraught as it used to be.

    • BnLurkN4eva says:

      No these hair types weren’t excepted either. They were less derided, but that’s doesn’t change the fact that those possessing such hair textures struggled for acceptance also. It’s a similar argument to the lighter/darker skin complexion. Struggles differ, but struggles were/are had by both groups.

      • duchess of hazard says:

        In the black community 3b/3c types of hair were lauded even up to the early naughties. Liiiiike, if you had to go natural, those textures were acceptable in the black community. I know that in the white community the standard was long, sheets of straightened hair.

        But circa 2004/05 when naturally curly.com came about the 3a/3bs were fine, although I flinch when I hear white women (with 2b/3a hair) calling their hair ‘nappy’. Liiiiike, what?

      • StephB says:

        I would love us to collectively unpack the notion of “good hair.”

    • Snowslow says:

      They weren’t even accepted in Latinas or olive skinned women like me. I have a similar hair to Tracee and my boss once told me to “fix my hair”. A woman. Just before a big event for the company.
      I can only imagine the reactions with our kind of hair on a black woman. Ten times worse I would gather.

  11. Bella says:

    I’ve hated my curls and straightened my hair for more than 40 years

    It’s only since my daughter came along and totally embraced her curls that I’ve been wearing my curls.

    • StephB says:

      There is something about having kids that nurtures introspection. I celebrate my daughter’s curls every single day. It hit me one day when she wanted her hair to be straight that I realized that me celebrating her curls while straightening my curls was sending conflicting messaging. Now we match on occasion and get similar braided styles. We are the path to Healthy Happy Hair.

  12. CoffeeChamp says:

    I appreciate you Oya for this and I absolutely love Tracee. I went natural after Chris Rock’s hair doc around 2010 and big chopped in 2015. I was so disappointed in myself for not knowing my natural hair at the time but I’m so happy I did it.

  13. TaraBest says:

    I’m white but have naturally curly hair that I never learned to care for. After getting Brazilian Blowouts every 3 months for 6 years, I finally decided to go natural in March. I have never felt confident about my natural hair texture and always felt like I had to straighten it for professional situations.
    I just want to say that myself and other white women who are embracing our natural curls owe a HUGE debt to Black women for blazing the path to acceptance for natural hair. Seeing strong, beautiful women embrace their hair and advocate for going natural has really helped me start to accept my own hair. Not to mention all of the knowledge/products/tools etc. developed by Black women that I benefit from.
    So, to all Black women out there rocking their natural hair, THANK YOU!

  14. Mindy_Dopple says:

    I love this website so much, the comments are always smart, compassionate and thoughtful. Just wanted to say that I also started my curly hair journey about a year ago and it’s been such a exercise in self love. I’m a Mexican American and not the kind that you see on TV – I’m brown, chubby and have curly wavy hair (2c/3a). I’ve been told my whole life that my hair is a mess, I hated when I couldn’t use a roll brush to blow it out like my sister and even used an ACTUAL iron to straighten my hair as a teenager. To say that it’s a constant struggle to just love the way I look is an understatement but this article and all the comments have reignited what made me start this project. Thanks! I’ve been having a weird hair WEEK and this helped.

  15. Peaky B says:

    I have to add in a plug for an amazing all natural black-owned hair care line – Ecoslay. I have never been happier with my hair!! The products are unreal, work for all types 2 to 4, smell amazing and are literally made in the founder’s kitchen. Plus they have awesome educational content on how to care for your hair. http://www.ecoslay.com I’m not affiliated at all just a 38 yr old 3c lady who finally found the right products. And my scalp is happier than ever!

  16. Cafecito says:

    Even as a Latin woman with big curly hair, I’ve had the boss comments about “that mess on top of my head”. If I straightened my hair the comments and attitudes were always the opposite. Society reacted completely different to me just based on hair.

    This certainly messes up with your own perception of your natural hair, specially since it begins when we are really young.

  17. Alyse says:

    I find this all so interesting and educating as someone from a country that’s 70% European, 15% Asian … if nothing else it’s so fascinating to learn about the differences in other cultures.

    It never would’ve occurred to me that hair texture had so much history and politics involved! Or that it was even that different between races (until fairly recently I assumed all hair was just straight, wavy, curly & thick or fine)

    America’s Next Top Model (back in the day) was the first time I’d even heard of a weave, and that it was such a normal part of black hair culture.

  18. Ginger says:

    As someone with straight hair, I’ve always loved voluminous curly wavy hair, whatever the ethnicity. This kind of hair has so much life and movement. I learned so much from this article about the different types and degrees of curl/wave! But it was a shock to also learn some of you had workplace experiences where your choices regarding your hair would be commented on – wtf???

  19. Mash says:

    Brown woman here …natural hair is LIT &AMAZING…. It legit looks like vegetation.totally earthly and ethereal

    Love my hair, 7 years natural

    I have 2 textures. I’ve gone to interviews and job stuff and spaces where yt peepo dominant, with my natural hair, owning the room. It’s a confidence thing