Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hair, hair everywhere!

On CNN yesterday I came across this headline; "In the Black culture, a richness of hairstory." I was, of course, intrigued. The headline was accompanied by a picture of a beautiful little Black girl, with double strand twists, in the arms of her White father.

The short article is well worth a read, and can be found here,

However, the part that ruffled my visibility cloak was when the article refers to a one Ms. Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When talking about natural hair versus straightened (I assume she means chemically straightened) hair, Ms. Banks says that women who have straightened hair are seen as "sell outs" and "embracing the White standard of beauty" and that the natural sisters are "blacker than thou". Ms. Banks goes on to say that,

"When we think about that, there is no other racial or ethnic group in which those ideas come to bear on someone's politics...No one is saying that about (W)hite women, Asian women or Latino women."

Before I launch into what I want to say, let me first say that this visible woman has been relaxer free for six years. However, I have rocked every style in the spectrum except locs. Weaves, presses, relaxers, naturals, short naturals, short relaxers, and just to be perfectly clear, when I die, I want to be buried with a bottle of peroxide! I haven't seen my own color in forever, and hope I never have to!

So, first of all, there is merit to the rift that Ms. Banks describes. If one surfs around the natural online community, one will read things like "Put down that creamy crack (aka, relaxer)" or "Embrace your natural goddess given power and be strong in your beauty, ye daughter of Africa". Yes, the natural community can be quite vociferous in the way that "going" or being natural is presented. In fact, many black women who have "gone" natural see it as a rite of passage. It can be a very emotional moment, one that forces many of us to confront our own beliefs about beauty. In that moment, however, lies the crux of the issue. Almost every woman I know who has "gone" natural, has had to really face her own fears about her own "nappy hair". We ask ourselves, "Will I still be pretty", "Is my hair really my crown and glory", "Will I look like a boy", "Will it look crazy". And every question brings us closer to our own truth about the matter. We are about to take a leap of faith that beauty really does come from within. It is our entire being, our entire belief system, that is called into question when we go natural, not just our politics.

So I could see how the natural crew could sound almost religious in their fervor. We probably do sound like Moonies or Jehovah's Witnesses. We just can't wait to share the good news. So, I can see how a relaxed woman can feel like she is being assaulted with a "Blacker than thou" diatribe every time she encounters one of the converts.

However, the way Ms. Banks describes the rift is quite suspicious, because there are far more relaxed and straightened among us than there are natural. As a natural sister myself, I can tell you that I am in the minority. Of all my Black friends, I have three that have actually worn their natural hair as adults. She makes it sound like there are two camps, when in fact, there a few natural rebels out there who just seem to make more noise than the mainstream Black women who relax their hair. In fact, I think that it is far more likely for a natural sister to get the side glance from other straightened Black women, especially when dealing with the differences in generations. I could (and probably will) do a whole post on how hard it is for the older generations to deal with this new crop (no pun intended) of natural sisters.

It sounds to me that Ms. Banks is not speaking as an academic, rather she is speaking from personal experience. I could be wrong, but it sounds like Ms. Banks is one of those relaxed sisters who is a little tired of hearing it from the natural sisters. Almost like she has been called a sell out, conforming to a White ideal, by a sister that she thought was acting "blacker than thou."

As far as White standards of beauty are concerned, that is exactly why Black women straighten their hair, to conform to a White standard of beauty. Very few Black women have the power of real choice in the matter. They think they do, and they are not consciously saying to themselves "I want to look like a White girl" but any Black woman who has grown up in America has been exposed to a White ideal of beauty, so much so, that it is largely unquestioned. It is so insidious that an educated Black woman like Ms. Banks can actually think that the ritual of straightening Black hair has nothing to do with a White standard of beauty. How can Black women have the power of choice, when most of us have no idea what to do with natural hair, other than to straighten it. If the vast majority of Black women have no idea what to do with their own hair sans chemicals or hot combs, how is it a true choice? It is lunacy to pretend that most Black women just decide, completely on their own, to straighten their hair. In fact, most Black women get their first relaxer when they aren't even grown women. I have heard of girls as young as three getting relaxers, and while there are no statistics, the average age is probably about eight. Now, conforming to a White standard of beauty, or rather a standard of beauty that is based on White women, is not the same as wanting to be or look White. It is simply wanting to look like the best version of yourself, within the given parameters and definitions of beauty. And that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, and it doesn't make you a bad person. When it comes to Black women and beauty, we can't simply brush off the last hundred years or so of media influence on our collective psyche. It manifests itself in comments that I hear all the time like, "Oh, you look good in natural hair, but I know that style won't look good on me" or "It's fine for you because your hair curls like that, but mine is just too nappy."

Which brings me to the last part of her comment, where she compares Black women and their hair to White, Latina and Asian women. The majority of White, Latina and Asian women have straight hair. Now, let me digress for a moment. How many Black women have ever read a beauty magazine, where they have an article about curly hair? And how many times is it a White woman who happens to have curly hair, and the advice they give doesn't have anything to do with you and your "curls"? See, there is curly hair, and then there is a whole other category out there called kinky, curly, tightly coiled, springy hair, that doesn't behave or feel like the curly hair that White people have. My point is, when I say straight, I mean that the texture is pretty much all the same between White, (non-Black) Latinas and Asians. An Asian woman doesn't have to go to only Asians to get her hair done. A Latina woman doesn't have to only go to Latinas to get her hair done. They can go to Super Cuts. But send me into a White salon and listen to the proverbial record scratch as everything comes to a grinding halt. Non-Black stylists, by and large, don't know what to do with Black hair, straightened or otherwise. How do you so blithely compare Asian, White and Latina women to Black American women, as though they have endured the same hair history that we have? Black American women are the only group of women on the planet, that I know of, who have no idea how their own, non-processed hair looks. To me, that is the weakest part of her whole argument. You simply can't compare the hair struggles that Black American women have with any other ethnic group. The hair textures that are indigenous to Sub-Saharan, Western and Southern Africa are like no other hair types in the world. Black American women, who are largely descended from these groups, have inherited that uniqueness. As such, we can't be compared to other ethnic groups.

As a young girl I hated my hair. I just wanted it to grow out of my head, strong and straight and long. I didn't want to have to go to a salon to get my hair did. I didn't want the special magic lotions and potions that would make it grow. I wanted God to give me what seemed to be so special. Pretty hair. Like the kind Sleeping Beauty had. The kind I pretended I had when I wrapped a towel around my head and stood in the mirror, flipping it over one shoulder and then the next. It was only when I went natural that I began exercising those demons. And that is why I feel so strongly about Black women being real and honest about the reasons why we do what we do. That is when real choice and real power become available. But we are too busy surviving, trying to prove that our choices are not the product of our collective history, when we all know, deep down inside, that our choices come from our desire to want to look and feel beautiful. Unfortunately for us, in this time and space, long and silky and straight is what is considered beautiful. And for most of us, that doesn't come naturally.


  1. I just popped over here from brother Field's site, when I read one of your posts about how you had written about health care over here. I like your blog and really like this entry. I have been sort of at least mulling the idea of natural as a result of reading a variety of Af-Am blogs written by women. I'd only ever idly (sp?) thought about locs a few times and then when I found out I'd have to start from scratch and go to a loctician to loc the natural hair as often as I go to get a touch up, I said hell-to-the-naw. I know you can loc it yourself, but I am horrible with doing hands-on stuff like that. It would look like a drunken chicken tried to do it if I did. Anyway, I agree that much of our hair issues stem from slavery and all of the negative affects of black women being held up to white "beauty" standards and that hair has a huge impact on black women and how we see ourselves. Not ready to go natural myself (wearing braids all summer is as close as I can get for now) but it is something I think about. What I think really sucks about this hair situation is, as you touched on it, that we didn't create it, and though we can stop it, it is so entrenched in our community and black women can get so much flack for deviating. It is funny b/c I've had a few white folks say to me, "oh I don't get it, why do you do that, it's just hair" but it isn't just hair really, b/c it has taken so much significance in our society. Plus, I've also seen white people, especially away from urban areas, look at black folks hair (natural or not) like some sort of weird aberation, and really rejecting and nasty about it. Like when I was in my white middle-school and we went on a band trip to an amusement park and I got off a water ride "what happened to your hair?" with horror, "does anyone have a comb or a pick" when I was sporting a relaxer, or even some ignorant white man asking me "what's that on top of your head" when I had it up in a bun. Clueless. Then again, too many people in general, but white folks in particular, don't know when to keep their mouths shut and mind their own business, and if they can't do that, at least be respectful.

  2. LisaMJ,

    I love you! I loved reading your post! It was so thoughtful and honest. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    My favorite part;

    What I think really sucks about this hair situation is, as you touched on it, that we didn't create it, and though we can stop it, it is so entrenched in our community and black women can get so much flack for deviating.

    I love that and so, so true. You know, the hair story is just one big old story, and it is a story that we did indeed inherit. But finding the ways to dismantle those conversations can be a challenge.

    FYI, I have NEVER met a Black woman who has gone natural who looks better with straight hair. Not saying it doesn't happen, but in my experience, every Black woman I know has developed a whole new swagger and beauty. And if you do go natural, you can always break out the pressing comb if you just need a change.

    Much love to you!