In the last decade, the multiracial population in the United States nearly tripled, growing from nine million in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020. Multiracial people now comprise about 10% of the population. I’m proud to talk publicly about my experience with everything from my racially ambiguous appearance to my five-textures-on-one-head hair, but that doesn’t mean I always get it right when speaking on behalf of multiracial people. Recently, I shared my lifelong journey to accept and love my mixed-race hair, and I received one consistent piece of feedback: Mixed-race hair is not a monolith.
Mixed-Race Hair Is Not a Monolith
Initially, I was taken aback by this criticism. But as I listened to others, I realized they were correct. Someone who is Mexican and Black won’t likely have similar hair to someone who is Chinese and white, for example. What those people share in relation to their hair is twofold. Scientifically, multiracial people are more likely to have multiple textures, with one study noting "straight hair and very curly hair often existed together on the heads of individuals with mixed ethnicity."
There is indeed not just one mixed-race hair texture, but mixed people share common hair experiences. Many of us don’t think we have "good hair" because, just like our bodies, our hair doesn’t neatly fit into one easily identifiable category.
Committed to doing better when speaking about the experience of being multiracial as it relates to hair, I reached out to stylist Jenna Grossman at the POC-owned L.A. queer staple, Folklore Salon and Barber. Grossman is Asian and Jewish, and her initial motivation for a career in hair stemmed from a desire to understand how to work with her hair more thoroughly. I asked her about the experiences and common threads she's witnessed in her clients.
She confirmed multiple textures are the norm. "I notice multiracial people often have multiple textures in their hair, which can make styling and cutting more [nuanced]," Grossman says. "I think most people would expect multiracial people to have a blend of different hair types, but that isn’t always the case. Oftentimes hair will either be straighter towards the very bottom of the hairline or at the very top. Curls might be looser in some areas and tighter in others."
As someone with hair that is very tightly curled around the perimeter, but moves to loose waves in the center, this made perfect sense. It's also important to note mixed-race hair also comes with its own set of privileges. Specifically, looser curl patterns are historically viewed as "easier" to work with than kinky or coilier hair textures, like type 4a-c curls.
The Educational Divide
Cosmetology schools curriculum rarely changes, and they have not come anywhere close to catching up with the times. You can graduate from beauty school in many locations without ever touching a Black person’s head, and instructions on working with curly hair is few and far between.
"We didn’t have a lot of opportunities to work with different textures," Grossman said of her experience in cosmetology school. "The bulk of my education came from...experimenting with my hair, as well as continuing my education after graduating from school. Also, talking to different stylists and observing them, taking classes, and listening to how [people of all races] do their own hair."
How Our Hair Defines Us
There’s no question hair is a complicated, fraught topic for many people, especially for anyone who doesn’t have silky and/or straight hair texture. My lifelong quest to finally accept my natural hair is far from unique.
Grossman recalls, "As a mixed-race person, I've been accused of not being Asian enough because of my curly hair." Just like her, my hair was a topic of discussion by others growing up. I was "unidentifiable." That shouldn’t be a surprise, as multiracial people are often misidentified. There's even research that shows it can take a toll when you can't fit into one simple, categorical box.
The Bottom Line
Grossman was the first stylist who did not blatantly call my hair "difficult" or "complicated." I've even had someone say, "Wow, your hair is really ethnic." This not only speaks to personal issues I've experienced as a multiracial person, but also magnifies the lack of inclusivity when it comes to hair education. Grossman used simple techniques on my hair I didn’t know existed, like diffusing the ends first to keep the curl. Beyond giving me a great cut, she made me feel like I had always wanted to feel in a salon, but never experienced first-hand.
There is no education about the many different types of hair people of assorted racial backgrounds may possess in cosmetology school. We have a long way to go. To get there, we need to continue evolving our education systems and community conversations. And when we are in the wrong, as I was in thinking of "mixed-race hair" as a physical hair type, we need to evolve our viewpoints.
How should we refer to the hair on the heads of the 33.8 million mixed-race people around us? With the countless ethnic combinations possible, they may have 33.8 million different types of hair. So I’d say, let’s keep talking.
Takahashi T. Unique hair properties that emerge from combinations of multiple races. Cosmetics. 2019;6(2):36.
Charmaraman L, Woo M, Quach A, Erkut S. How have researchers studied multiracial populations: A content and methodological review of 20 years of research. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 2014;20(3):336-352.