Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Hair Dilemma: Conform to Mainstream Expectations or Emphasize Racial Identity

You know when I shared what was a very positive story yesterday only to get some lamebrain anonymous commentor bring up affirmative action, it only brought home how deep these problems run.

It definitely connects to the workforce and going out from academia to the big bad world to make your mark. Black women have a serious decision at that point. It's the decision of how you're going to "do" your hair. Usually, by then, the choice has already been made. But you go through the cycle again as graduation is one of those life markers. I truly object to the world "choice" for quite a few reasons. The most important being it makes it sound like it's easy. It's not the same as choosing between Chinese chicken salad and Caesar salad. That's a choice.

You'll frequently have people saying "oh, it's a choice" or "it's just hair." The "choice" of being a black woman and wearing your hair natural or nappy is a vigourous debate right now. Yes, if you parse it down to this: chemically straighten your hair versus wearing it in its natural texture, it's a choice. However, this level of thinking is so delusional that I just avoid the topic if someone says that.

It will be a choice when all the negative implications of being black are gone. It will be a choice when you're no longer scared that someone is going to mention Buckwheat when referencing your hair. It will be a choice when nappy hair is no longer villified. When employers are still banning natural hair styles, it's not a choice. When the mere issue of a black woman wearing her hair natural will send her family into a panic and when the black American experience has a rich history of those with lighter skin and straighter hair being treated better, which still seems to be the norm, it's not a choice.

Don't fool yourselves.

I found out about this article in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy, The Hair Dilemma: Conform to Mainstream Expectations or Emphasize Racial Identity. They hit it dead on:
Black women do not have the luxury of mere preferences; their choices are colored by a historical lens that includes negative stereotypes and lowered expectations. Throughout American history, skin color, eye color, and hair texture have had the power to shape the quality of Black people's lives, and that trend continues today for Black women in the workplace.

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  1. I would not have believed this if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. And in Baltimore, no less.

    Give 'em hell -- I would.

  2. They got hell for sure. The petition got a nice number of signatures from all over the world. Last I heard the policy had been rescinded.

  3. I have not thought a lot about hair. However, I have noticed that since I was a kid, more black women straighten it, rather than wearing it natural.

    I always thought it looked nice natural --that the straightening just seemed kind of forced and well.... stiff. But then there is Beyonce and Jada Pinkett Smith, so I guess everyone starts to think "thats" the ideal.

    Beauty ideals have always been somewhat distorted. From the whitening of skin of the Geishas, to the plastic surgery on Asian women to give them a "European lid" to breast augmentation and forcing hair styles on black women, it seems that what we're going for is a condition that does not exist naturally.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this with me. For years I permed my hair because it is board-straight. Like I's so straight you could use it to stitch things together. It's so coarse you could probably saw things with it.

  4. Yeah, it's an interesting and, sometimes, very sad dynamic which isn't exclusive to black women. However, since I'm a black woman that's the one that touches me the most.

    I think beauty ideas get distorted when people loose sight of the fact that what makes a person beautiful is usually what makes them unique. If everyone has it, it deadens the impact. I know some would differ with me and that points out another fact about beauty. It's most definitely subjective.

  5. I just love that; Kanani perming her dead-straight hair and my sisters and myself burning our ears with irons in a vain effort to make ours lie flat. Wonder if there's anyone out there who's yearning for a potbelly and flabby underarms? If so, she and I should definitely meet to work out an exchange.

  6. I'd like to see things cycle around to a point where women are told that doing the best with what you have IS BEAUTIFUL.

  7. Well I just cut the relaxer out of my head on 2/25/07 and the decision was difficult because I thought my husband would think I was ugly (although he has locs). My intention was to loc my hair but now I've decided to wear it in an afro. I get different reactions from people and it's hard walking outside because my own people stare and whisper the worst. Some white people don't even know that most black hair is not straight. They have been fooled into thinking that our hair grows out of our roots straight and one reason is because we start straightening it at a young age. Some people say we do it because it is easier to manage, but I don't use half of the products/equipment(ie. curling irons, flat irons, etc.)that I used when my hair was straight. I simply wash/wet it and I'm done. i feel as if I've been freed from trying to be something that I'm not.
    I used to try so hard for my hair to grow long and straight so that I could be beautiful. I wanted to be light skinned and I wanted my hair to look like I had "indian in my family" but that wasn't me. I had to learn to love me just like I am. Many black women say that I'm bold but I just had to break another chain. Black people shouldn't conform to fit in with white society because we will never be like them. So our best bet is to stay true to who we are and make them accept us or be entrepreneurs and stop depennding on White people to give us jobs, or to rescue us from Hurricanes. We as a people need to be more self-sufficient and then it will not matter what our skin color is or what our hair looks like. This mental slavery is what causes us to even question ourselves. What happened to the Angela DAvis's and the Black Panther's the whites had to end any type of Black empowerment because united we are fierce. Black men and women should be proud of their natural hair. Conformity strips a people of their culture.

  8. I agree, but to be fair, most of white society really doesn't give two cents about how we wear our hair. At this point, we've internalized nappy loathing so deeply that we see issues where there really aren't any.

    The only people who look at me cross-eyed for not changing or hiding the texture of my hair thus far are my own people. In contrast, white people ask me how I do my hair and coo about how cute it is. The same for Koreans too.

    We're deeply plugged into the Matrix on this issue and it's quite tragic because we're sending out a message to the world that we don't like us. If we don't like us, why should they?

    I've never had issues with being colorstruck so I'm sorry to hear that you have. I was always told I was pretty by my parents which I think really does go a long way (even if you know they're your parents and HAVE to say it...why? Because a lot of people who have to say it to their fragile kids don't.) I've also had specific compliments on my skin color and when you're not the norm, that helps you build self-esteem.

    I did have horrible issues with my hair. I let my hair grow and saw it, I realized "wow, it's actually really cute." Now I can say I dig myself from my split ends to the tips of my toes ;-)

  9. Hi there, I found your blog while searching about articles on Korean collective guilt about the Virginia Tech shootings, but I felt compelled to comment on this post.

    I'm a white man, but I have extremely wiry, tightly curled hair that I've had a complex over and for years have used "various African-American" hair care products to straighten. I don't know what this means in relation to you except that I've always felt inferior to people that had stylish "straight" hair. I also believe I have been minorly discriminated against in the workplace because it's almost impossible to make "neat looking" in its natural state compared to the clean-cut executive haircut.

    There are many beautiful black women, but my preference has always been for straight hair in women of any race. but as I get older and don't care so much what other people think about my own appearance, I have seen some beautiful African-American women with "natural" hairstyles and thought WOW.

    What a crock of crap about that police department. And only women? I wonder if I as a white male would get a pass.

  10. Well, glad you found my blog and thanks for leaving a comment.

    When black women are dealing with the issues surrounding nappy hair, believe me, we realize that we're not the only ones.

    I guess the distinction would be that we're come from an ethnic group where that's the norm. However, also, there are other ethnic groups that have similar hair. You sound like you come from one of them.

    Due to many issues from slavery to colonization to capitalism, we've been conditioned to feel that our natural hair texture is not only inferior but ugly.

    A lot of black women are waking up to how deep that negative conditioning goes. It goes so deep that women will take their young children to salons to get caustic chemicals put on their hair to straighten it. Doing this over the course of years can't be healthy either mentally or physically. It goes so deep that it's assumed you'll straighten your hair for a job interview and that there is no way to look professional with nappy hair. I, and a lot of others disprove that belief, but it's still very strong within the black community. However, I find most other races aren't really mired into this straight hair preference. They might be to a certain degree but it doesn't run as deep.

    I think now there is a backlash and I'm gladly in it because what I've discovered is, wow, my natural hair texture is really cute.

    Re the Baltimore PD and that crazy policy, I think as a white male you'd get a pass. They'd probably just make you shave your hair down to a buzz cut or something similar.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment and I hope the Korean guilt blog helped you out a bit.


Hey there! Thanks for visiting my blog. It's my first blog, and I'm glad folks are still stopping by even though I'm no longer living in South Korea. Feel free to comment. If you want a personal answer, leave your email, and I won't publish the comment. Nasty comments and spam links will not be tolerated.