Interview: Salem Yohannes, part 1

The first time I heard about Salem Yohannes was in the Afrotalk group on Facebook where she was looking for people to interview for her thesis. I have to admit that even though I love hair I found the topic of hair for a bachelor's thesis a bit strange. But after meeting Salem a few months ago and reading her thesis I so get it! 
After Salem published her thesis has been interviewed by media and traveled around in Sweden holding lectures on hair and race. 

Please introduce yourself!
So, I’m a 25-year-old energy ball from Gothenburg!
Shortly, I would say that I’m a political scientist, lecturer, entrepreneur, writer and professional dancer. I’m constantly on the go with at least 4759329 projects in my hands, haha :) During 2014 I´ve received my bachelors in Political Science, started my own business and been lecturing all over Sweden. It’s been an intensive but a fantastic year. I’m tired but I’m so HAPPY!

You wrote a bachelor's thesis called "Don't Touch My Hair" could you sum up what it is about?
“Don’t Touch My Hair” is bachelors thesis in Political Science, which has an intersectional character (analyzing gender, race and class at the same time) focusing on black female hair and professional norms.

In detail, the thesis describes and problematizes perceptions and meanings of black female hair within Swedish public administration. I chose to focus on the racial dimension by using hair type as analyze unit for the study. Usually the primary marker or attribute of race is skin color but I chose to give my thesis a unique twist. In this study I’ve been able to detect the racial composition of the employed public servants and the professional norms of hair that rules within these rooms. The study presents a range of different results, one is that the Swedish state apparatus is very homogeneous and consist of a majority of white Swedes, which is illustrated through the prevailing blonde/brown straight hair norm.

The seven Afro Swedish women who I interviewed in this thesis were all public servants and were often the only black person in these professional environments, often being approached in an unprofessional manner at work. A majority of the women described how their colleagues could grab and rutheir hands through their hair in the hallway or in the lunch break rooms at work. This behavior is clearly linked to the homogeneous environment of these professional spaces, where lack of racial consciousness makes their colleagues feel that they can freely touch their Afros, braids or dreadlocks.

The seven Afro Swedish women described the conflicting meanings of black female hair, where straight hair globally always been the gold standard of beauty among womenThe straight hair is also part of the professional “neutrality” norm within public administration, which puts black women in a peculiar position as they often grow nappy or curly hair. My interviewees described a complex racial dimension in female hair, where both beauty and professionalism is raced, as the ideals and norms are based on white European bodies, straight hair. So what do black women have to do in order to be treated respectfully, be seen as professional coworker and a beautiful woman? The answer is simple, straighten their hair or put a weave in it.

What was your reason of choosing this topic?
First and foremost a saw an enormous lack of research on Afro Swedes in general. So for me it was a political statement in itself to center the whole thesis on this specific group. I wanted to elevate experiences, issues and problems that are unique for Afro swedes living in a majority white society.

But I also wanted to emphasize the specific problems black women repeatedly meet – the societal, medial and cultural expectations of wearing their hair straight as a part of “womanhood and beauty”, even though natural black hair is often characterized by kinks, curls, waves and volume. The straight hair has also become a norm among black women as many of us strive to “neutralize” these attributes in the strive of beauty, professionalism and acceptance.

Hair holds so many different social and cultural meanings with the power to describe a person’s character and lifestyle. Just think about the prejudice and stereotypes linked to dreadlocks, we just don’t always put it into thought. We are all driven by norms and act according to them, it is therefore important for us to detect and discuss them, in order to work against racism and discrimination.

This thesis has managed to describe and problematize white standards of beauty (gender) and professionalism (race and class), discrimination and lack of representation (politics/democracy) in the Swedish public administration by focusing on black female hair (hair as a marker of race).

Where there any of the results that surprised you?
You very clearly point out the link between hairstyles and race. How have people in Sweden - a country that often refuses to acknowledge race - received this?
I learned so much in the thesis writing process. But nothing really surprised as I personally share many of the experiences (e.g. hair touching) described in the thesis. But what I discovered more and more was how previous history has its hold on the present and how the situation of Afro swedes today is tightly connected to history of colonization and racism. We tend to brush off the colonial history of Sweden and the part that was taken in the slavery.

The Swedish self-image rests on anti-racism and gender equality because of our generous immigration policy and gender aware society. But underneath that image we struggle with racism, inequality and structural discrimination. This is very uncomfortable for us Swedes to talk about, but is an inevitable part of many lives, including my own. We love to brag about out democratic structures and our wide welfare system, but we don’t want to erase the n-word in popular culture or problematize high unemployment rates among highly educated Afro swedes.

In the Afrophobia report (binette, Kawesa and Beshir) released this year the statistics was very clear, Afro swedes are discriminated in all areas of the society from job sector to housing. There is also a rising trend of hate related crimes towards Afro Swedes, which is already high for such a small group in Sweden. Race matters and racism is plays a huge role in Sweden, which makes both, skin color and hair type important attributes to research on, as power/influence and resources are directly connected to these.

If we really want to talk democracy and fight for reale quality, we need aim higher than a set of common democratic values. We need to start treating and each other
equally too, individual by individual.

Where can we find you online? 

Part 2 of the interview will be posted in January. 
A big thank you to Salem for taking the time to answer these questions!

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