In conversation with Janett Walker

We talk to Janett Walker, Chair of Anti Racist Cumbria, about the significance of hair in black culture and her own identity as a black woman.


M: Could you introduce yourself?

J: My name is Janett Walker and I am the chair of Anti Racist Cumbria.

M: What is Anti Racist Cumbria and how did it come to start?

J: Anti Racist Cumbria is an organisation which is here to tackle, challenge, and in the long term, end, racism. We are first focusing on Cumbria, and then we want to take that out to the rest of the UK. Our vision is to be the first actively anti-racist county in the UK. For us, anti-racism is very different to multiculturalism – we are very much about dismantling systemic or institutional racism and we want to dismantle that within our society, and certainly within our county. We want to bring everybody with us so we are working with organisations like education, police, health, businesses, tourism, environment, community and young people.

We started, really, as a result of George Floyd being murdered back in May of last year, and out of that, the Black Lives Matter movement was re-galvanised. Here in Cumbria, we felt that even though the population in Cumbria is 98% white, or is until we get the results of the next census which will change it somewhat, there are still a lot of black and brown people here; and there are a lot of white people here who don’t understand diversity and live in very small communities who don’t really have to mix with other people. If we are building global citizens, Cumbria has to be part of that discussion even if it didn’t have any black or brown people in it – but then there is the fact that we actually do have black and brown people living here, so it’s important that they are treated equally as well. I felt that when the BLM movement became really prominent, Cumbria had to be brought along with that as well. So that’s how we started really. We began with around 50 people at the first meeting, back when we didn’t have a name and we didn’t know exactly what we were and how we were going to achieve our goals, but we had a shared goal nevertheless.

So around 50 of us started talking about our name, mission statement, and vision and it built up very quickly because we had such power, expertise and experience in the room. Lots of black and brown people came to that first meeting to contribute, and everyone was given a fair say and a safe space to talk. We were then able to draw on all that fabulous talent and were able to galvanise ourselves pretty quickly. We decided to start with education, so we ended up having a big education event last October.

M: That’s really impressive to grow something of such scale in such a small time frame!

J: It’s all about the people you’ve got behind it really. A lot of people look at me and say “you’ve done amazing things” and I think, it’s not just me – there’s a whole army of us, not a very big army, quite a small army really, but there is a load of us working constantly behind-the-scenes pulling all this together. Like most organisations, there is someone at the face of it and that just happens to be me, but it could be any one of the black and brown people involved.

So it is a whole group achievement because everyone plays their part in making it happen. You have to have a good team, and we’re all equal in the team. We are a very co-creative sort of place as well, it’s not a top-down sort of leadership approach. I work regularly with Sarah the vice chair and Soph does all of our communications. The three of us make the decisions between us and then a lot of the decisions are then farmed out to other people as well so there’s always a core group that is making the decisions rather than someone at the top telling everyone else what to do.

M: Yeah, it makes a real difference to how the team works when it’s not a top-down approach and the decisions are made in amongst it. You can really see people’s voices coming through and really great things coming out of it by having that structure.

J: Absolutely, and it’s really important because I cannot be skilled in everything even if I thought I was. So when someone’s got an expertise you need to listen to that voice because they’re the ones who are coming with the experience, so there’s no point in me coming along and saying “I think we should do this”, when I don’t know anything about that area. And it’s really important to draw on people’s talents and their strengths rather than trying to dictate and tell them what to do because you get so much more out of people when you give them free reign and say “I trust you and I know that you will make this brilliant”.

M: I totally agree with that! So, next question is: the team at Folded watched the live stream of your talk about hair and it was really enlightening and thought-provoking. So, picking up on one of the subject areas, would you be able to talk a little bit more about the significance of hair to black culture, and particularly to black women?

J: It’s like I said in the blog, we’ve all been on a very long journey with our hair, over many many centuries, and hair is a really important part of who we are and what makes us us. Hair is a big thing in many cultures, but I think for us our hair has also been so demonised, and used as a weapon against us for such a long time, that if we go back as far as the slave trade and what they did to women’s hair; when their hair was cut short and often hacked off so you couldn’t use it in any way. People found it offensive and as years have gone by, and when I was very young , golliwogs were a really big thing when I was a child. They were very much a normal part of a lot of people’s lives and a lot of people played with them as dolls. But we were called golliwogs because of our hair and our hair was made to be a very negative thing. And that negativity is something which is impressed upon you all the time and you get comments like “your hair is like sheep‘s wool” or “It’s like wire, it’s like a golliwog” – all those things associated with ugliness and blackness and viciousness and negativity.

So our hair was perceived by other people as a bad thing, and then we too began to see it as a bad thing. And many black and brown little girls especially very much wanted long flowing hair, like your hair. Hair that moves and swishes around because that’s what we saw- that’s what was presented to us as good hair and the type of hair that everyone should aspire to. Now, when you look at adverts it’s like “I’m worth it” and the model will do the big hair flick and the hair swings around. In pop culture hair and throwing it around was a big thing when dancing. So European hair has always been given the sense of “this is wonderful hair to have” and the hair I had, that is stiff and thicker and coily, was seen as a negative. It was actually called bad hair! Because your hair didn’t move and it didn’t do the things that your friends’ hair did and it took a lot of work to manage and look after – things that you guys wouldn’t even think about. Like if you go in the swimming pool, when you get out, you wash your hair to get all the chlorine out – but for us that is a big job! And having to constantly wash your hair all the time would make it even worse and even dryer, so it was a constant battle.

Then when you get to the 1970s you see this shift in culture very slowly, and there’s this feeling of “Do you know what? There’s nothing wrong with my hair. My hair is good hair. It’s different, I love it and I am embracing it”. Then out of that, do you know what happens? Two things happen. People now say “we don’t like that you’re loving your hair so we’re going to continue to demonise it in a different way” – so young kids who are going to school thinking “I’m going to work my fro” then get blindsided for it from school and college and by their friends. I grew my hair and when I went to work in a professional position, my employers said they didn’t like my hair looking like that – so they are still trying to put this negativity on you even when we’re trying to own it. But then equally, at the same time, what’s happening is that white people are taking our hair and putting it into the Bantu knots and Cornrows and totally appropriating our hair and then being praised for it. So the confusion for a black woman especially is massive because there’s so many conflicting things going on with this hair: white people are saying “it’s good if we have your hair, but it’s not good if you have your hair”, “if you have your hair it’s ugly and bad but if we have it it’s sexy and interesting”. And so many people have such a struggle with their hair.

A lot of us went for weaves and we had extensions put in and then there was a time when people used to have their hair glued to their head- I mean really?! And then we had relaxants so that our hair would go straight and we fought constantly with our hair to try and make it into something it was never meant to be. And it’s all because of the messages we’ve been receiving about our hair. Even now that many more of us are embracing our natural hair, there are so many people who still really struggle with their hair. I know several people who would never dream of taking extensions out still because they feel naked without them. Perhaps I’m putting words in their mouth, but there is still that sense of long hair being a veil, and for some people it might be part of how they keep their identity safe. But for many of us, we’ve said “You know what? This is me, this is my natural hair” and we’ve put it back on to you guys to dislike it because we have no issue with our hair – I’m entirely and absolutely at ease with mine.

M: So you’ve referenced this with what you’ve just said, but also in your previous talk, the five of you talked about microaggressions in reference to your hair. I was wondering if you could explain how microaggressions assist in upholding racism in communities, whether that’s in schools or work, or your own personal life?

J: Microaggression is one of those buzzwords isn’t it – you know all of these terms that get thrown around, and I think a lot of people don’t really understand what they are. Microaggressions are about lived experience and what that’s like in your every day. So when you say “people always want to touch my hair”, some people think that’s not a big deal, and that “I wouldn’t mind that”. So it’s really about people understanding that microaggressions happen in so many forms and that a constant stream of them affects us so much that even we, ourselves, become immune to them. We become so used to them happening we don’t even react to them anymore, or at least not openly, but still these microaggressions pile up layer upon layer.

Someone once described it to me as 1000 papercuts every day. And when you get a paper cut, it really hurts, doesn’t it? And days afterwards, you’re still thinking “that papercut really hurts” and when you are getting attacked with those all the time, a paper cut hitting you every day constantly, then that’s going to cause you some pain. It’s also going to cause you some trauma. It’s going to affect your mental health and your mental and emotional stability because it’s constant, and even though you’re constantly deflecting them, it would be impossible to deal with all the microaggressions aimed at you because if you did, you wouldn’t be able to cope.

And the problem with microaggressions is that only you can feel them. When you look at something like a photo of an enslaved person with big welts across their back – you can see that they have been slashed and there are massive cuts, you can see them, you can’t miss them. But papercuts are invisible. You can’t see them yourself. No one can see them. So it’s all these tiny things that people say like “I spoke to you on the phone so many times and you don’t sound black!” or comments like “I love the way black people dance!” or “Do you love Bob Marley?”. These are all ‘nothing’ things, these are tiny comments and on the surface are irrelevant and when you write this down, some people might think that I get offended at nothing or “you can’t say right for saying wrong these days!”- but it’s more than that. It’s that constant otherness. That’s the big problem here. It’s because you’re constantly being made to feel other. And people are saying these things in everyday conversation because of the messages that they’ve received about black culture and how it’s shaped their perception, and these views are then bounced back to you in everyday minor situations.

M: That’s a really good explanation and I love the papercut analogy. So you have touched upon this a little bit already, but the blog that accompanies the live discussion touches upon the appropriation of black hairstyles by white people. Would you be able to talk a little bit more about that?

J: This is a funny one, you know, because everybody has a different opinion on it. So like, when Adele, a few years ago, went to Notting Hill carnival, she wore a bikini top with a Jamaican flag on it, and put her hair in Bantu knots. And there was a backlash of cultural appropriation from one side, but then she got a lot of people who are also black who said it’s absolutely fine. She grew up in Notting Hill, this is what she knows and this is how she always goes to the carnival – just because she is now famous doesn’t mean she is culturally appropriating. And so there are two sides of the argument. I have two very good white friends. We grew up together and Leeds carnival is as big as Notting Hill carnival, and I am from Leeds, so when they come to the carnival, I would probably do their hair and would always put face paint on and wear proper big carnival outfits. So, I could understand very much where the Adele argument was coming from and that she did grow up there and it’s what she’s always known – I could hear both sides of the argument.

But, what I can’t bear is the likes of David Beckham being able to put Cornrows in and the press going mad for it, saying that David Beckham had started this new hairstyle and just completely ignored the fact that hundreds of black footballers have had that style before him. Millions of black women wear their hair like that all the time. When I was a kid going to school, that’s how my hair was and that’s what my mum used to do to my hair. And that kind of cultural appropriation is what is offensive to most people. You’re always going to get a split camp when it comes to the Adele sort of appropriation because she did grow up with a lot of black culture, but it’s when people take our culture, like how they take our music or lyrics for themselves and own it for themselves. And that has been going on for years and years, and this is the kind of appropriation that we take offence to because we should take offence to that kind of appropriation!

There is a very big difference between enjoying our culture and educating yourself about it, and taking bits of it and rejecting the rest whilst being allowed to be racist towards us. So yes, cultural appropriation is a massive issue and a lot of people who appropriate our culture don’t want to be anti-racist. They don’t care about us as people but just think “that works for me so I’ll take that”.

It’s like when you look back to the 1980s and see Madonna with all the black male dancers behind her. All of that sort of stuff now, you just sort of think, that’s not very appropriate. If something is not part of your culture then just don’t do it, or if you are going to engage with the culture, say that you’ve taken it from wherever you’ve taken it from and make some effort to find out about the culture and history behind it and why it is the way it is. Start a journey with it – don’t just steal our stuff. Because people have been stealing from us for hundreds of years.

M: So, you’ve also touched on this slightly in your previous answers, but in your blog again it mentions the word ‘journey’ in relation to your hair, and as this Folded issue is all about identity would you be able to talk a little bit more about how this journey has influenced your identity personally?

J: I’m a black black person – what I mean to say, is that I am very dark in skin tone and I’m very proud of that fact. It’s funny, because I was already talking about this today with someone else, and we were discussing how you don’t often see in representation people who are very black.

So when I was younger, apart from the golliwogs, I didn’t see myself anywhere. I didn’t see people who looked like me or who I could relate to, as everybody in culture looks like you! And that was what the definition of beauty was, and that’s what I, and the people around me, came to believe beautiful was. So when it came to those early teen years when everything is really difficult anyway and you’re already really self-conscious about everything, on top of that I’ve got this really dark black skin to deal with and I’ve got ‘bad hair’. So you can imagine, well you can’t really imagine, but my self-esteem and confidence was so low that I just wanted to make myself invisible because I’m so ugly. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself because people will tease and laugh at me and let me know that I’m ugly.

So, whilst I excelled in some things like sports, I kept myself invisible in other areas because of not wanting anyone to think I thought myself to be beautiful. Because I knew they would turn round and tell me that I wasn’t. That was a really difficult time but I don’t think I ever went as far as wanting to be white – subconsciously yes, but I don’t think I ever physically said out loud “I want to be white”. But what I do know is, I didn’t like being black – I hated being black.

I don’t know what the turning point was but certain things started to happen in wider culture when I was young. So there were the riots in the 1980s around black people, their rights and the police. We also moved away from the term ‘coloured’ and by the time I was a teenager we started to use the word ‘black’, and I remember being really uncomfortable with that because I remember thinking: “I’m already so black, I don’t need to tell people!”.

I became a youth worker with young people where I worked with young black and brown boys mainly, and I started to really understand my own culture. I read Malcolm X, and of course we had Nelson Mandela and what was going on with apartheid. I followed a lot of that and I went on a lot of marches, I campaigned a lot and I was arrested a lot! I started to move with people who thought better of their blackness and so I slowly started to think better of my blackness. I also started to see that my black womanliness was not ugly, not undesirable. And once you start realising you’re hot, the men just fly in! From all directions you know, you’re having to beat them off with a stick! So you gain that confidence and realise that people like this version of yourself.

I started to lose my negativity and the more positive I became, the more vocal I got about my blackness. So I was an activist in my 20s – just the other week I was watching It’s A Sin and I remember going on those marches myself, like the Section 28 march, as I wasn’t just involved in blackness but I really got involved in gay rights. I remember cutting my hair very short and losing that whole sort of responsibility to make my hair look like yours, because my hair is bloody fine! I’m bloody fine! Once I cut it short, I started to twist it into locs, and I’ve grown and grown them since then and now they make up a very big part of who I am. So it was when I got to about the age of 27 or 28 when my hair was how I wanted it to be and I was very happy with the colour of my skin, and I was very comfortable with the person I was and my blackness.

But then you go into another phase of life, the phase of engagement and marriage, and there was another switch. I never lost loving my blackness – once I gained it I never lost it, and now I can’t believe there was a time in my life that I didn’t love that part of myself; although I understand why there was that time in my life. So, it was very important to me for my two little black girls to always have positive images in their life. Whatever we’re doing, there’s always people who look like them so they can see that they are not bad or ugly, or believe any of the other things that affected me. Because when I was young, my parents were silenced. We were living at a time when there were signs that said ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’. My parents didn’t have that power to be able to instill in me that I was a beautiful little black girl. We had stories of what it was like back in Jamaica, of course we did, we still have those stories, but we didn’t have what we have today.

So, I didn’t go into that invisible stage again, but rather one of assimilation. I went into the assimilation stage when I started working in the field of law where I was a lawyer, because it’s a very white, corporate world. I started dating a white man and I assimilated to the point of stopping talking about being black, and I buried a lot. I still enjoyed my blackness, loved my blackness – I mean there’s nothing more beautiful than a black woman! I didn’t lose that, but I kind of lost the challenging and speaking out that came with it.

And then George Floyd happened last year and it all came flooding back. So the journey has been a long one, and I think the big thing coming out of it, talking to you now, is that I embraced my blackness in my early twenties, and since then the love of my hair and everything else came as a package. But I lost part of my blackness in the sense that I started to assimilate. I think we all did. I think we all went to sleep, black and white, and we’ve all been asleep for quite a long time and we’re just waking back up.

So it’s been a long journey and I’m still learning all the time – learning to deal with my trauma, learning to deal with what I want for my little girls. I’m no longer uncomfortable with the challenges and I will no longer not have a voice or be silenced. I feel empowered! And yes, I still get gaslighted all the time and yes, I have moments of doubt, but I’m stronger for it.

M: So finally, the blog contains a lot of really useful resources and links to help people learn about and celebrate black hair. Who are some activists you most look up to?

J: Oh, well I don’t think anyone could not love Angela Davis could they? Oh my gosh, the power in that woman. The strength, the wisdom. She’s intelligent and beautiful. She was one of those people who embraced being a black woman, who was like “look at me, look at me and how I shine bright”. I definitely aspire to that and her strength, ability and determination. You know, she just keeps on keeping on and that must be tough. But still now when I hear her speak I’m stopped in my tracks. She’s absolutely phenomenally brave.

Gosh, there’s just so many people that people don’t know about, like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman – incredible women who helped enslaved people to freedom. And then we’ve got these warrior Queens who have been lost in the relics of history, like Queen Nzinga, who’ve done amazing things hundreds and thousands of years ago. There’s an army of wonderful, strong black women who have been lost in the relics of history, like Olive Morris who was an activist in the Black Power Movement here in the UK in the 60s and 70s . Then there’s Queen Charlotte, right here in the UK, who’s been whited out!

I love modern day activists as well, people like Michelle Obama: when I read her book I wept, I laughed, I cried, as I was right there with her. Bernadette’s Evaristo who wrote Girl, Woman, Other, which is just such a powerful piece of work. I’ve learnt that the thing about activism is that it comes in many different forms. So when I said I was an activist back in the day, I was going on a lot of marches and protests and all that sort of thing. But these days, whilst that sort of thing is still really important, we’ve got so much more clever at it. So I consider myself to be an activist now, but I’m a different kind of activist. You don’t have to just go out and march, although listening to the power of a voice when hundreds of others stand with it is an active measure which takes us forward in the stand against this disease called racism.

So many women have had such a massive impact in different activist ways. There’s a writer there, and I guess you’d call Michelle a politician. I’ve talked about warrior Queens and women who have helped others out of slavery. There’s courageous people like Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin both of whom I’d call traditional activists for refusing to give up their seat on the bus. And I think about people like Mary Prince who was a Black woman whose book helped galvanise the anti-slave movement in the UK. I’d say Megan Markle, what she did in that interview with Oprah was a form of activism. She stood up and said “these people aren’t what you think”, and that’s a brave thing to stand up to and do, as she’s not going to be loved for it. It would be remiss of me not to mention Michaela Cole, what can that woman not do with a script and her powerful words? And the same can be said of Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman – how can anyone not fall at that young woman’s feet? I just adore the power and weapon in all of these women’s words. I’m also loving the new “Womanist” Black women like Kelechi Okafor who is strong and unapologetic and Shareen Daniels of HR ReWired. As we would say back in the day “these women are not “ramping!”

My list is endless, but these are all activists in my view, just in different forms. And it’s fabulous because it brings such a rich variety to the term ‘activist’ and to everybody’s culture.

Make sure you check out the blog post and the live stream mentioned in this interview.