Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: WTF, NPR? Way to totally mischaracterize discussions about black women, hair and Michelle Obama

That Farai Chideya is no longer holding it down at NPR's "News & Notes" is abundantly clear. Yesterday's "News & Notes" segment--" The Obama Effect on Black Women's Hair Issues--was some serious insipid nonsense. Since the dawning of the Obama era, I've sensed a disturbing trend in coverage of black women's issues by mainstream media. Having a black First Lady seems to have inspired the media to take some notice of the unique lives of African American women. Good. Problem is, the gently increased coverage is shallow and inconsequential, and often has the feel of detached voyeurism--academically peering at the exotic world and strange habits of black women (oddly, this is so, even when the work is presided over by black women). A product of these travel guides to Blackchicksylvania is the "Lawd, us black wimmin's hair sho is complicated" story, which usually includes the meme that Michelle Obama's hair is a hot topic among black women. And so goes the "News & Notes" piece by Allison Samuels, featuring celebrity stylist Marcia Hamilton.


Says Samuels, "We now have an African American president, with an African American wife and two African American daughters. So now we talk a lot about hair--things we probably didn't talk about when we had First Ladies who were not African American. So, the conversation has gone from one end to the other. Should Michelle wear more natural hair? Should she cut her hair? Should she have a perm? Should she press and curl? Why do we have such an obsession, even now, in 2009, with black women and hair?"

First, I would love to know where these purported conversations about Michelle Obama's hair are taking place. Where is this obsession with her tresses flowering? So far, I've seen several articles about the phenomenon (I believe Salon has peddled it, too.), but have yet to experience it among any, y'know, actual black women. As far as I can tell, in real life, no one is riding Michelle to bust out the cornrows at the next State dinner. (According to Samuels, black female bloggers are calling for Michelle and her daughters to be champions of black hair. Why's everybody got to blame the bloggers these days? I'm plugged into the top black blogs and haven't seen any such discussion percolating. Hmmmm.)

Now, there has been some discussion about how the politics of black hair might effect the politics of the nation. It is no coincidence that when Michelle Obama was portrayed as a radical on the cover of The New Yorker, the cartoonist drew her with a big, ass afro. And many nappies have noted that Barack Obama may not have been elected president if the woman at his side had been rocking twists or locs. Natural, black hair is demonized in our society. People often attach meaning to it where none exists. I assume that Michelle Obama likes her hair just fine. But anyone with a lick of sense should understand why the styles she chooses tend to be straight and conservative. If I were Michelle Obama and my spouse were a black man seeking the highest office in the land in a country still struggling with racial bias, I'm pretty sure that I'd wear a flattering, conservative, straight style, too. Not to mention the look she had to maintain while climbing the corporate ladder herself.

Recognizing the politics involved in Michelle Obama's appearance is not the same as calling for her to be the poster child for nappydom. Although you all know I advocate natural hair, I recognize that the decision to wear it is not one to be taken lightly. As much as I might like to see more black women decide that nappy is beautiful and professional and elegant, I'm not about forcing my choices on other women when I won't be the one living with the consequences.

Many black women have fraught relationships with their hair because we are the only race of women who are expected to change the natural properties of our natural hair to be deemed acceptable--professionally and personally. Rather than discuss this in a meaningful way, Samuels and Hamilton normalize the pathology surrounding black women's hair.

Some choice quotes from the report:

"Our hair needs certain enhancements..."

"Black female hair can't handle the stress of 'getting done' every day..."

"Don't all little black girls get their hair straightened on special occaisions?"

"In our community, straight hair represents a more polished look."

There is a lot of discussion about the damage created by heat and manipulation to achieve straight styles a la Beyonce...the need for weaves and extentions...and some offhand acknowlegement that the deifying of straight hair is a learned societal value, but the conversation never comes back around to the ridiculousness of black women having to go to such great lengths to be accepted. No one ever brings up this simple fact:

Black hair can be styled every day and maintained with ease if it is worn as it is naturally meant to be.
White women's hair would be deemed "difficult" too if society suddenly decided that ponytails and straight bobs are "radical" and "too ethnic," and only tightly-kinked hair is acceptable. If white women had to use chemicals and extreme lengths to maintain afros or kinky twists, then people might roll their eyes and snicker "you know white women and their hair," too.

But Samuels and Hamilton position straightening and weaving as simply what we have to do to look good. Even as they decry the idea of "good" hair, they also dish about special suppliers that provide the best Indian hair for high-quality weaves, stashing your weave in the glove compartment of your car in case you need it (Huh?) and Hamilton actually suggests that men wanting a black woman with real hair "go to Africa." She then acknowleges that even women in Africa are wearing weaves. (Yippee! Sarcasm.)

I am offically over the Michelle Obama/hair discussion. If we can't have a real talk about black hair, then let's not have one at all, particularly in the mainstream media. And let's leave Michelle Obama out of it. With her fierce intelligence and accomplishments, there is so much more that she can be to our country and the black community than our "Great Black [Hair] Hope."


weemsrj said...

I'll take your word for it. I can't bring myself to listen to the podcast. I have very strong feelings about black women wearing their hair naturally. But there's gotta be a more sophisticated, nuanced way to talk on NPR about black hair and Western concepts of beauty and respectability.

virginia said...

I also wonder when the world is going to stop telling women what to do with their bodies. Michelle Obama is a well-educated, aware woman. If she makes the decision to have straight hair, I am sure she has given all the cultural/ social issues thought and made the best decision for her.

Would anyone in our society actually have a conversation about how Barack Obama, or any other man, SHOULD wear his hair? No. But women are still fair game.

I may not agree with every woman's choice about what to do with their body, but I will go to the ramparts for their right to make those choices.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

This entire conversation also operates under the fallacy that Michelle Obama = All Black Women. It's just wrong on so many levels. These women do not understand the nuances (divides) of class amongst Blacks either by assuming we're not just a monolith but literally the same person and all of our experiences are the same. It's very frustrating to have to dissect the amount of ignorance that perpetuates itself as legit discourse.

Vérité Parlant said...

First, I would love to know where these purported conversations about Michelle Obama's hair are taking place.


That's all I thought when I started to read what they were saying. Where are all these black women talking about Michelle Obama's hair. Guess I missed that.

Tami said...

Weemsrj--trust me, you are missing nothing but aggravation. The more a listened, the more annoyed I became.

Virginia--I agree with you, though, in this case, I still say that I haven't heard any of these supposed conversations about what Michelle Obama should do with her hair. I swear it is a made up-by-the-media meme.

Faith--Agreed. And I started to address that aspect, but didn't. It's almost a post in itself. Michelle Obama has become media shorthand for every black woman ever. That is amazing pressure to put on her, and it doesn't serve the rest of us, either.


PioneerValleyWoman said...

I don't even bother with the whole issue to even focus upon it.

I can not be bothered with another attempt to observe us like lab rats in a cage. What next, dissect us like the Hottentot Venus?

But what I do know, though, is I refuse to buy into the argument that black women who wear their hair natural are somehow "unpolished," "unfeminine," and "unacceptable". I will not pay hundreds of dollars in regular maintenance to have my hair look like someone else's, and put up with scalp burns, etc. to do so!

I'm glad too, as an academic, I'm not under pressure to conform to that ideal--professional dress and natural hair is what I and the other black woman on the faculty do with our "do's"!

I wear my hair in a natural, and the most I do is an occasional trimming of the ends with a stylist, who might do a quick press while she is at it. When I wash it out, I blow it out and comb it to bring out its natural wave and texture. Nothing else!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Why on earth did these black women participate in such tomfoolery? I really think the focus on The First Lady's hair is the mainstreams way of denigrating her beauty and intelligence. I mean, black hair has long been equated with ugly/undesirable, so it's not big leap to link the racist perception of black hair (ugly, undesirable) to Mrs. Obama when you bring up the two in the same breath over and over again. It's like they can't stand that she isn't white, fair skinned, mixed looking, or whatever.

And as for the reporters/writers/etc. in the mainstream, black women do not look to Mrs. Obama for hair inspiration. Most black women decide how to wear their hair based on their lifestyle and other factors that are a lot closer than the White House.

GoldenAh said...

I've assumed over the years, incorrectly, that progress on the natural hair front would arrive. Black women should be able to wear their hair as they please. It shouldn't cause an uproar. It shouldn't be a topic of debate, or a source of illegal harassment.

However, I realize that the next step of our devolution will be the mainstreaming, and constant promotion of skin-lightening products. It's here already, but still too subtle. "Are we, as black women, too dark?" discussion is coming.

Some of our sistas are a bit mentality disturbed when it comes to (their) natural hair. I'm not mad at them: they are victims of abuse.

Sassy J said...

I went a little slack-jawed as I caught up on my News & Notes podcast while I wrote an essay for class. I paused so many times while typing, staring at my computer like "for real?" I thought the whole conversation was just foolery. I was highly annoyed with the "top stylist" or whatever she calls herself suggested that First Lady get some extensions...to give her hair some volume. How about some curls then...dang! I mean, just be glad that there is even a black womanin the White House.

I guess these proposed conversations are happening with the arts group the downed the First Lady's clothing. Shame.

Sassy J said...

FYI- Farai is guest hosting on "Tell Me More" while Adora Udoji is on family leave. In my opinion, they should've cancelled TMM and not News & Notes...

AJ Plaid said...

If it's not our tresses, it's our asses. It's as if the progressive/liberal MSM--and creeping into the MSM--feels our physical features are up for a public-square discussion about all the ridiculous stuff they've been dying to say about our "problematic" bodies, have been waiting for the opportunity to do so, but (sorta) knew it to take on the topic would be seen as racially problematic.

To me, that's why they're taking what I call a "Trojan horse" approach for discussing what they feel is "wrong" with our bodies. Because such outlets such as NPR are viewed as liberal, they feels they would be racially enlightened enough to talk about Black women's bodies--unlike, say, Fox News. Then they grab a PoC, in the spirit of inclusiveness, to come on as an "expert" to "interpret" our bodies in these--for a lack of a better word--jainky ways. (Again, see Erin Aubry Kaplan and Myra Mendible.) Fooishness propagated, damage done. And no one--so these media would like to think--can come back with how racist and sexist this is because the statements were made by a PoC, in NPR's case, Black women that the media outlet was liberal enough to allow to come on and discuss an "issue" that's affecting "their" community.

I intuited the NPR piece would be a piece of eyerolling journalism. Thanks, Tami, for confirming my intuition.

Sassy J said...

Correction: It's the Takeaway.

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.


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