The unbearable politicizing of black hair

Writer Nikki Giovanni.

Full Disclosure: I’ve been natural for nearly 12 years. Many years ago, when I was working on a big real estate project as an entry level project manager, a fellow black woman admonished me for wearing a colorful headscarf. At the time, I wore my hair in double strand twists that I would do myself, a tedious,painstaking project that would warrant me wearing a headscarf for a day or two because until I completed it. She told me that she ‘didin’t want people to get the wrong idea about the project.’ Her hair, by contrast, was chemically straightened, permed in the natural parlance of black hair styles. She occassionaly wore hair pieces as well.

Context here is king: we were black women in a predominantly white male environment represented a contrasting view of black female identity. And hair, is a trait of that identity. I naively assumed that at the dawn of the 21st century, my hair was not relevant fact in convincing loan officers to invest in a real estate transaction.

Earlier this summer, Melissa Harris Perry aired a segment exploring the current cultural conversation around black women and hair.

And just this week, O Magazine released the cover of its forthcoming September issue with Oprah donning a natural mane.

After 12 years of being natural, I’m kinda stoked about all this mainstream excitement (thank you and But haters still lurk in the ether. 16 year old Gabby Douglas is a member of the 2012 US Olympic Gold Medal Gymnastics Team. Why are people tweeting about her hair?

Monisha of Sporty Afros echoes what I’m really thinking here:

2)   Many of us, Black women, have acquired the horrible habit of criticizing each other from head to toe with no regards of its repercussions. It’s almost like a sport to see how many laughs or likes one’s criticisms can get on Facebook or retweets on Twitter. Once again criticism has trumped compliments. And as a Black woman, this saddens me.

3)   Putting more focus on Gabby’s hair and not her athleticism proves many of us are still missing the point on where true beauty, strength, and health lies. Some of us are sitting up right now with our hair done but suffering from high blood pressure, borderline diabetes, obesity, and/or a lack of energy. Oh, but the hair is on point. As mentioned earlier, I don’t know Gabby Douglas personally and I would never try to speak on her behalf. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she considers her health and fitness level to be a little more important than her hair staying in place.

What’s particular to me in this narrative about blackness and beauty is the rather uncomfortable admission that we are overly concerned by how the world (white people) sees us and our own internalized narrative of the meaning of kinky, curly, (nappy) hair. Our hair comes in all textures and types. The resources and community support that are available to us today were absent in my earliest journey of ‘transitioning‘. Yet, we’re still policing each other on how to be and be seen. Solange Knowles has also had her share in engaging the hair policing this summer, took to twitter to hush her critics for calling her hair ‘unkempt’ and ‘dry as heck’. Key word: ‘unkempt’. The socialization around black women and our naturally curly hair centers around a perception that I have assume stems from our tortured racial history, that our hair, wild, tightly curled, textured hair means something that is ‘bad’, ‘unruly’, ‘uncivlized’ and ‘rebellious’. The legacy of language in this context sadly echoes more race talk but within our own community. ‘Unkempt’ is this context is another way to say ‘uncivilized’. I’d wager that the history of racist and negative imagery of blacks in America in caricature, minstrel, to black face has a lot about how we worry about high profile successful blacks represent us to the mainstream. Except, now, we’re on the fast track becoming the mainstream. There’s a remarkable amount of work we have to do to transition our language from negative associations of black hair (beauty and identity) in the face of a flyaway strand from a dismount off a perfect balance beam routine.
I personally wear my hair however I want to wear it. Over the years, it has become less and less political for me. It’s freeing in a choice. It has also been a learned practice to avoid internalizing the judgement of some black women about the appropriate presentation of my hair as well as managing the curiosity of non black folk about the nature of my hair. I wear my hair in braids, twists, afros, blowouts, and pressed (by flatiron) for years. It’s my head and my hair. I whip it back and forth.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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  • Trey

    “What’s particular to me in this narrative about blackness and beauty is the rather uncomfortable admission that we are overly concerned by how the world (white people) sees us and our own internalized narrative of the meaning of kinky, curly, (nappy) hair.”

    I get what you’re saying, however, I think the bigger issue is beyond what “white people” think. I think that society has shifted significantly enough over the last several decades where we can’t blame every little thing about what “white people” think. I think the bigger problem is that women are tearing other successful women down based on how they look.

    In this case, black women are criticizing a black woman’s hair. I haven’t heard “white people” complain about her hair. The majority of comments are from black women, who are both supporting and tearing down a successful black woman based on her hair, rather than celebrating the fact that she is accomplished, professional, and a champion in her sport or focusing on her amazing ability.

    Even worse, that this would be a non-issue if she were a man.

    • Layne

      It isn’t a non-issue for men. Black men are chastised for wearing their hair natural, in braids, or in locs all the time. It “isn’t professional” and yet the hair usually looks really good!

      It’s very much about race and what “white people think.”

  • Cade DeBois

    I have a confession: I’m a white person and when I see a black woman with a natural hair style, I turn green with envy.

    I had the good fortune of going to a junior high and high school where the white and black student populations were roughly equal, both around 40%. I have black female friends, ones who wore their hair natural and others who did to whole deal (and this was the 80’s, mind you). Myself, I have always struggled with my white hair–because it’s not the “good” kind of white hair. It’s thin-strand, unruly, messy, very curly and prone to fizz and easily tangled an damaged. As a little girl, I hated getting my hair brushed because it tangled so easily and brushing it out hurt. So I kept it very short for years–which meant I endure not just the taunting about my messy, curly hair and ignorant comments about it (my fav was a junior high classmate who got the whole campus calling me a “Satanist” and a “Russian commie” because he thought my hair looked “evil”), but also for having an un-girly length (more than once I had adult women in pubic restroom tease me with “Oh, honey, this is the *ladies* room!”). As a teen, I did everything to do it to, including some of the things black girls were doing, like those scalp-burning straighteners.

    When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand it myself either how my hair impacted how others interacted with me, but I eventually figured it out. When I was younger I just wanted straight hair that looked “neat” the way I had been pressured to think a woman’s hair “should” look. But by the time I got sick of all the torture, work and expense it took to have that kind of hair, I realized EVERYONE ELSE wanted me to have that kind of hair. The problem is, for me to go natural means I have the kind of hair people associate with witches or crazy people in straight jackets or–and on a “good hair” day–Danielle Rosseau, the French woman on the TV show Lost. Consequently I just keep my hair at a length long enough to pull back in a bun (a “messy” bun if I was on the US women’s Olympic gymnast team!) because that’s about all the work I’m going to put into it these days to make other people comfortable with my hair. Unless it’s a job interview, in which case, I have to endure the agony of make my anarchist hair do what it just won’t do in order to not come across as “a slob”, “unskilled” and “unreliable” to someone (often a white man) with power over me.

    So I am so very sympathetic with black women on the politics of hair because if it’s this bad for a white woman like me, it surely is worse for black women. I don’t think any woman should feel so much anxiety over their hair. It’s so destructive. And like I said, I’m envious of black women who have the guts to go natural. Not only do I think it’s beautiful, I wish I could find a similar way to accept and appreciate my own hair.

  • Katie

    I would like to assert that this obsession of hair bleeds into the white community as well. white women also have a standard of appearance to live up to in order to be taken seriously (or to feel that they are being taken seriously). i’ve noticed, among my demographic of 20-30 aged white, educated and urban ladies that we’re starting to “allow” our hair to be as it is. there is less rigorous grooming; flat iron, curling iron, extensions, coloring, etc. we all get defined or pigeon-holed based on our appearance. certainly more for minority women than white women, but it all stems from the same place. a woman is to be decorative first.

    • darylmichael

      Well said.

    • Brinstar

      Um… I think you’re derailing. This post is about black women and how they negotiate perceptions of self and beauty in a racist society and internalizing the white gaze and white standards of what “beauty” is. This post is not about how white women have it bad, too.

      • Layne

        She most certainly is derailing. This is about black poc. Specifically. It isn’t about you. Don’t make it about you. Your situation is not comparable. You are not being dehumanized because you choose to wear your hear the way it grows out of your head. There is not a history of violence and oppression tied to people who have hair like yours.

  • darylmichael

    Women of all colors, shapes and persuasions. On behalf of men I would like to apologize that you are looked upon and defined by your outer appearance. Certainly that is not what God intended for his daughters. Rather to be loved and valued like fine china. Give me a woman with a loving heart and no hair, than a woman with flowing hair the no heart. My main reason for subscribing was to send that message. Thank you for reading.

    • Layne

      I am not fine china. I am a human being. And about your comment about hair and heart…frankly, you are further contributing to the problem here by saying that. This article is not about you, and you are further asserting the male gaze by assuming we do anything for your pleasure.