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Black Minds Matter's Agnes Mwakatuma On The Mental Toll Of Hair Discrimination

"We need to acknowledge the fact that it affects people's self-esteem and mental health."

Agnes Mwakatuma
Courtesy of L'Oreal & Agnes Mwakatuma

For many Black people, microaggressions are sadly a part of our daily lived experiences. Hair discrimination is one microaggression that's finally getting more light shone on it. Whether it's unwanted hands in your hair at work or being sent home from school simply for how your hair grows out of your head — being targeted for your afro-textured hair can have detrimental effects on your self esteem and mental health.

Now hair care brand Pantene is on a mission to halve hair discrimination in the UK by 2050 with their new campaign My Hair Won’t Be Silenced. A new report from Pantene reveals that at least 93% of Black people in the UK have experienced hair discrimination in the form of microaggressions related to their hair texture, and 73% of Black people in the UK have experienced at least one microaggression against their natural hair.

As part of the brand's new campaign, Pantene has teamed up with mental health charity Black Minds Matter and Project Embrace, a campaign that celebrates afro-textured hair, to push the conversation even further and help end hair discrimination. I spoke to founder of Black Minds Matter (BMM), Agnes Mwakatuma about how hair discrimination affects Black people’s mental health, why therapy is so important, and how to foster a good relationship with your hair.

Niellah Arboine: What initially drew you to the campaign?

Agnes Mwakatuma: The fact that a global brand was not just only recognising Black women and understanding their struggles, but were actually coming up with solutions. A lot of the time when brands try and be inclusive with products, they come out with one conditioner and just assume all Black women have curly hair, but some of us have 4C hair or are in the middle of transitioning. So we do need products that actually do cater to that.

NA: Why do you think it's important that we talk about ending hair discrimination now?

AM: We also just need to acknowledge the fact that it actually affects people's self-esteem and their mental health. This research, in particular, showed that 52% of Black people stated that discrimination was affecting their mental health. So I think it's important that we talk about these things and do as much as we can to minimise the impact of microaggressions in general, because this has been going on for too long. People really need to be aware that they're not only offending us but they are affecting how we view ourselves as Black people.

NA: What other ways does hair discrimination affect our mental health?

AM: Even just the fact that people are easily sacked, or asked to go back home just because of their hair — that alone is A) just embarrassing, but B) causes things like anxiety, depression, and a lot of people are easily triggered by these situations. We have a few clients here at BMM who have experienced microaggressions, and it just pains me to think that things like uninvited hair touching has been a cause of someone's anxiety.

You are not the microaggressions and the racism that you have experienced.

NA: Why did you set up Black Minds Matter and what are some of your goals?

AM: We felt like it was time for Black people to be connected with Black therapists. It's been such an incredible journey to not only set up an organisation that provides therapy for people fully-funded, but also having the opportunity to work with global brands and changing some of the issues that Black people face that cause things like us needing therapy.

NA: What can Black people do to improve our own mental wellbeing when it comes to our hair, especially for people who have to deal with hair texturism?

AM: There are incredible organisations that are pushing for more representation. So having that representation is super important, finding people that look like you and also just working and campaigning for you. Looking after your mentality by speaking to professionals. Remembering that you are not the microaggressions and the racism that you have experienced.

NA: Sometimes what we're taught about our hair comes from older generations, how do we unlearn stereotypes and talk about our hair inter-generationally?

AM: It takes hard work because this is years and years of oppression. In terms of how the media has described our hair — just not using the right terminology to describe Black woman's hair. Over the years, it has affected a lot of Black women in so many different ways.

I think just changing your language first — kind of starting with yourself and starting with how you view things, and also correcting people when they use the wrong terminology.

NA: It feels like Pantene are getting it right and seem to be focused on hair health and how we feel about our hair.

AM: It's also the fact that they've worked with Black scientists on this range. I think that's incredible because there were a lot of Black hair care products being manufactured by mostly men that don't even look like us and didn’t have the experience, care, or understanding on the right kind of ingredients and products for our hair.

NA: What we can expect from the future of Black Minds Matter?

AM: Aside from growing the amount of therapy spots we have available — at the moment we’re servicing 2600 people — we're working super hard and helping Pantene in supporting them towards their goal of kind of 50% reduction of hair discrimination in the UK by 2050.

NA: Lastly, what are your hopes for Black people in the future when it comes to our mental health?

AM: I hope that the healthcare system starts to see us as fully-fledged human beings. I hope that healthcare professionals in 10 years will learn how to understand our problems and take them seriously. I pray that Black women do not feel the pressures that we have done for years when it comes to showing up as our true selves, both in the workplace and outside the workplace. I hope that our hair can be respected.