Part II: Black Hairstyles in Climbing Culture
Where has Black hair or Black hairstyles shown up in climbing culture?
In the early 2000’s, around the time of the first Black climbing ascents of Too-tok-ah-noo-lah7, a climber named Chris Sharma was on the rise. He had started climbing around 1983: only 16 years after the last edition of the Negroe Travellers Green Book published. His parents most likely witnessed and/or participated in the hippie movement. To read more on the connection between the hippie movement and climbing, read Hip Hop in Climbing Part III: “Counterculture”
With 2005 came a video of Chris Sharma sporting locs in his hair, climbing a boulder roof problem dubbed Witness the Fitness, rated V158. As he climbs, the song for which the climb is named blars an electronic shockwave, diving into Roots Manuva’s hilarious rap about going back to his elementary school as an adult to win a physical fitness event against children. The video alone is hilarious, while Sharma’s use of undeniable appropriation of hairstyle is not. His sporting of locs clearly shows an insensitivity to Black Americans and we will talk about why.
First of all, the term locs will be used here instead of “dreadlocks”. There is wide debate on the issue of using the word dread, therefore, I will be only using locs.
Locs have long been associated with freedom and counterculture, but not in the same way the white hippies interpreted it. The 1970’s saw a huge influx of Afro-Caribbeans immigrating into the United States. With them came culture and ideals that sparked an increased interest from the US Black community into Africa. It was a movement of Afrocentricity which stemmed all the way into the 1980’s that produced films such as Roots, Chaka Zulu, and Coming to America. And with it surfaced ideas about hair: natural kinky, coily, curly was seen as a sense of freedom. No longer were people trying to embrace whiteness as the standard of beauty. This way of thinking was another counterculture in and of itself: Black folks were going against society’s expectations of straight hair. They “…felt alienated from mainstream middle-class society and resented the pressure to conform to the “normal” standards of appearance, employment or lifestyle.”10 Does that sound familiar? It sounds very similar to the Hip Hop counterculture and white hippy counterculture, yet was an entirely different struggle altogether born out of oppression.
And once again, this is a clear example of non black people taking bits of Black culture for the thrill. Being Black in society has been an undesirable trait so sporting anything from that society can signal to others that they are edgy or a rebel. Climbing culture has long been considered a counterculture that has historically used things such as Hip Hop and Black hairstyles to prove it’s point of going against the mainstream. As I have expressed in my article Hip Hop in Climbing: the white hippy counterculture climbing is based out of is an entirely different counterculture than what Black people had to achieve to construct their own culture due to oppression.
No one has a lockdown on counterculture. Arguably, Black society has been an age old counterculture due to the ever present comparison to whiteness and choosing to make culture anew due to being denied that privilege. To go counter to white ideals and standards is an issue Black people face still today. “Because natural black beauty is denunciary and countercultural, legislation surrounding admissible hairstyles explicitly embodies the stigma against natural hairstyles.”11 When a Black person sports his/her/their natural hair, it can be seen as defiant. And defiance always negates policy to keep us in line.
“Freedom to wear hair as one pleases is something people of European descent have typically enjoyed throughout recent history. The same cannot be said for the African diaspora.”12 Many places in the US had and have policies against naturally African hair, specifically against kinky/ curly hair. I would like to acknowledge Black people can have naturally straight hair, but these policies have always been about kinky/curly hair that doesn’t present like typical straight European hair. Places such as schools, the military, and the workplace are some of the few examples where Black Americans face hair discrimination, also known as texturism.13
“Whether rocking afros or pressed hair, black protesters demanded the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination.” The Act also created the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], which operates “as the lead enforcement agency in the area of workplace discrimination. When the EEOC was founded about fifty-five years ago, the federal government’s primary concern was that black people be granted equal access to public workplaces. It didn’t foresee that black hair would need equal access as well.”14 Initiatives to end workplace and school hair based discrimination are underway, even today in 2022. As always, policy rules. Some private companies will never comply until it is law, resulting in a number of lawsuits in the past. This also includes sports entities, which will be addressed in the next section.
7. Too-tok-ah-noo-lah is also known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park: https://www.moon.com/travel/national-parks/the-origins-of-place-names-in-yosemite/
8. “Chris Sharma – Witness the Fitness, V15 Roof Bouldering, First Ascent!” uploaded by bigupproductions, 6 Jan 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PP1AK1Aqis
9. Nathalie. “Dreads vs Locs: The difference between dreadlocks and los, history of rasta and dreadlocks” https://afrocks.com/blog/the-difference-between-dreadlocks-and-locs-because-you-want-to-know-please-stop-saying-rastas/ 20 Nov 2022
10. Sylviane Ngandu-Kalenga Greensword. “PRODUCING “FABULOUS”: COMMODIFICATION AND ETHNICITY IN HAIR BRAIDING SALONS” https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5170&context=gradschool_dissertations, 10 Oct 2022
11. Sylviane Ngandu-Kalenga Greensword. “PRODUCING “FABULOUS”: COMMODIFICATION AND ETHNICITY IN HAIR BRAIDING SALONS” https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5170&context=gradschool_dissertations, 10 Oct 2022
12. Burton, Shannon. “Why I don’t wear dreadlocks” https://sexcoachshannon.medium.com/why-i-dont-wear-dreadlocks-e8b4005b7d6a, 10 Oct 2022
13. The Black Story. “Texturism & Featurism: The Nasty Cousins of Colourismhttps://theblackstory.com/public/Resources/details/66 10 Oct 2022
14. Griffin, Chanté. “How Natural Black Hair at Work Became a Civil Rights Issue”https://daily.jstor.org/how-natural-black-hair-at-work-became-a-civil-rights-issue/ 17 Nov 2022
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