Warning: This post contains spoilers.
We’ve waited over a year, but Dear White People is finally back. The acclaimed film turned Netflix series centers around the lives of African-American students as they come face-to-face with microaggressions at the fictional predominately white, Ivy League Winchester University. Based on its popularity and scope of a “post-racial” America on a college campus, the show was renewed for a second season—and rightfully so. The situations Winchester students find themselves in feel all too familiar for women of color.
Aside from the drama and brilliant commentary on “wokeness,” while binge-watching the first season of Dear White People, I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the amazing hair looks that I so desperately wanted to re-create. From lead character Samantha White’s (played by Logan Browning) textured pompadour, to Joelle Brooks’ (Ashley Blaine) waist-length box braids, it was truly refreshing to see the versatility of natural hair flawlessly depicted in the series. More than that, the show captures the complicated relationship black women have with their hair—and, for so many of us, how it ties into our identities.
With the show returning to Netflix this weekend, I caught up with head hairstylist Dontay Savoy to learn more about how the characters’ hairstyles play a role this season. Savoy is an advocate of the natural hair movement, which is why he wanted the styles this season to be reflective of that. “It was extremely important to show that it’s okay for black women to embrace their natural curl patterns,” he tells Glamour. “For a long time, women have been kept hostage of owning what exactly that their own natural hair does by straightening it with relaxers, chemicals, and combs.”
This, if you remember from last season, was a big plot point for Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (played Antoinette Robertson). Episode four dove into her painful quest to cover up her impoverished upbringing and fit in with the beauty standards of her white counterparts. She ditched her natural hair for sew-in extensions and then moved on to wigs. “Her character is kind of glamorous, but we’ve got to keep in mind, she’s still a college student,” says Savoy. “She comes from poverty, but she’s trying to make it look like she’s the glam girl, the pretty girl who’s always been it. She doesn’t want anybody to know she’s ever been poor or had to struggle.”
Now, as black women are continuing to break free from the constraints of Eurocentric beauty ideals, Savoy says it was important this was also reflected in the characters on the show—especially Coco, who’s struggled with this part of her identity for so long. For the opening scene of season two, Savoy ditched Coco’s usual loose waves and curls for a more audacious look. “I gave her this long, 45-inch ponytail with blunt-cut bangs,” he says. “That was one of my favorite hairstyles for Coco, because it was different. You never saw her hair pulled away from her face, so you were able to see how beautiful she really is.” From the get-go, we see her interacting with her hair in a way she usually doesn’t—she’s seen stroking her ponytail and even whips her hair at Sam—conveying the strength and confidence she’s built up over time. “Her hair is an accessory to her shadiness [this season],” says Savoy.
Meanwhile, Joelle Brooks’ box-braids made their return, but Savoy decided to diversify the way they were styled. “For season two, I made sure I sent her to the best braider,” he says. “A lot of people think that when you wear braids, you just have one or two styles and that’s it. I wanted to show we could treat braids just like they’re regular hair.” One of his favorite styles? “We put four or five cornrows in her braids, and it just turned out magnificent,” he says.
While Joelle didn’t make a drastic hair change, the change in her styling added to the shift in personality to her character. “Joelle comes to learn more about herself this season,” says Savoy. “She realizes that she has more than just brains. She starts to pretty herself up and add hair jewelry for a pop.” For example, in episode two, Joelle is shown with her hair in braided ponytails and gold-detailed beading singing Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” during an open mic segment after realizing she has feelings for Reggie. It was no coincidence that Brooks paid homage to Badu, who’s long worn a plethora of natural hairstyles.
And then, of course, there’s Sam—who’s pinned-up, crown-like pompadour is central to how she wants the world to see her. As a social activist and agent for racial equality, her hair mimics the styles worn by other historical black feminists like Madam C.J Walker and Ida B. Wells. In season two, Savoy wanted to add a twist to Sam’s signature ‘do by giving it more of her natural texture (which he used Eco Styler Moroccan Argan Oil Styling Gel to keep in place for hours).
Sam’s hair also symbolizes some of the personal hardships she endures this season—a visual signifier of her breakdown. Where for other characters, this is often shown as haircut, for Sam, it’s shown in the loss of her “crown.”
“There are moments where you see Sam starts to wear all of her hair down in curly styles that are no longer structured,” says Savoy. “They’re not held together with pins or anything. She’s just wearing it loose.” One of these moments Savoy refers to specifically speaks to a scene episode nine, when Sam finds out that her dad has died. As she heads home to be with her family, her hair is completely down and in its seemingly natural state. “Sam was tired of fighting, so the bold, structured, crowned hairstyles started to diminish,” says Savoy. “The man of her life passed away, and at that point, she had nothing more to prove with her hair.” She wore that hairstyle in school to show her tough exterior, and this episode shows Sam in her most vulnerable state, as she is filled with grief and regret.
Whether a sign of strength or loss of it, what Dear White People does so well once again this season, is capture the nuance and complexities of black hair in 2018. We all have our crowns—and this shows us the infinite ways we can wear them.
Dear White People Volume II is now available on Netflix.
–Dear White People’s Antoinette Robertson Opens Up About the Complexities of Black Beauty Ideals
–Why Are My Daughter’s Beauty Apps Othering Brown Girls?
–Gabrielle Union: “I Won’t Be Defined By My Hair Choices”