Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: We didn't start the fire

SILKY straight hair has long been considered by many black women to be their crowning glory. So what if getting that look meant enduring the itchy burning that’s a hallmark of many chemical straighteners. Or a pricey dependence on “creamy crack,” as relaxers are sometimes jokingly called.

I knew from the first few lines that yesterday's New York Times article on black women and hair would piss me right off. The article, written by Catherine Saint Louis, was rendered disingenuous through its omissions, misdirections and oversimplifications of the black community's beauty standards and where hair fits in them.

Saint Louis' opening salvo makes it seem that the desire for silky, straight hair is merely some quirk of the black community--a preference developed by chance. The truth is that the largely European beauty standards of the Western world dictate that silky, straight hair is the crowning glory for ALL women. From our earliest days on American shores, women of African ancestry have been maligned for their hair, which tends to be thicker, kinkier and more coarse than that of white women. Once, black women were instructed to cover their kinky hair lest it offend white sensibilities. Today, our hair is regularly branded unprofessional, ugly and unfeminine by the mainstream. Employers ban natural hairstyles. And folks go wild when the daughter of the U.S. President appears in neat twists. Not surprisingly, the black community has internalized the beauty standards of the majority culture. In the same way that we, as a community, prize light skin over dark, narrow features over broad ones, we have embraced the idea that long, straight and silky is most feminine, beautiful and preferred.

How deep is the black community's belief that straighter is better? So deep that more than 80 percent of black women straighten their hair through heat or chemicals or simply weave hair from women of other races into our own tresses. So deep that many of us go from cradle to grave without ever knowing what our natural texture looks like or how to care for it. So deep that many of us avoid exercise that our bodies need. So deep that many of us limit intimacy with our partners to better preserve fresh perms, weaves or wigs. So deep that many of us never learn to swim, because water makes our hair "go back." So deep that "nappy" (along with "you so black") is a slur in most schoolyards populated by black children.

This pathology touches black women around the globe. The article mentions that many black women in African countries now straighten their hair:

“If you have natural hair, you’re considered more real, or in touch with your African-ness,” said Ms. Adusei-Gontarz, an assistant editor at Columbia University Press.

She rejects that thinking: In Ghana, her older relatives relax their hair — as she does now but for convenience — and “it’s more the newer generations who have natural hair.”

Yes, and the desire for straight hair in African countries is driven by the influence from Western culture. Many black women in African countries also bleach their skin to become lighter. (As do women in India and other places touched by European colonialism and American consumerism.) Should we not question the belief that only light skin is beautiful now that they prefer it in the Motherland?

To compare black women around the world straightening their hair to white women dyeing their hair, as this article does, is dishonest:

For many people no matter their race or hair texture, accepting yourself “as you are” is a high bar. The history of beauty is one of dissatisfaction and transformation: brunettes become blondes; white women get their curly hair Japanese-straightened. To go from short to shoulder-length and back again, celebrities from Britney Spears to Queen Latifah use weaves, which require a stylist to sew or to glue someone else’s hair into tracks on the scalp.

White women are not prohibited from having brown hair or curly hair in the workplace. Brunettes are not automatically branded ugly or masculine. "Ugh, your hair is light brown," is not a slur I've ever heard from one white child to another. No furor ever arose because a white president's daughter appeared in public with brown or curly hair. A high-profile media personality has yet to brand a group of young, white co-eds, "silky-haired, brunette hos." A white woman with brown hair won't have her naturally-colored hair pawed by strangers on the subway. It is unlikely that a representative of a major fashion magazine would stand before a group of white female attorneys and caution them against wearing "unprofessional" and "political" brunette hair. While the mainstream may love blonde hair, white women generally are allowed to make choices about their hair based on their likes and dislikes and creative whims. ALL women deserve this.

To be certain, many black women like to play with their hair and that may include switching up textures. One year a funky fro; the next a hot Rhianna cut. Few would argue that that kind of creative freedom isn't okay. The article implies that the natural hair movement is about limiting black women only to natural, chemical-free tresses, returning us to our African roots. Then Saint Louis sets about tearing down that straw man.

In truth, the natural hair movement is about freedom. The fact that the vast majority of black women believe it is unacceptable to wear their hair with its natural kinks and curls means something. It speaks to collective poor self esteem. The natural hair movement, at its essence, is not about whether or not black women use chemicals like relaxers and dyes on their hair. It is not about never straightening. It is about black women coming to accept their natural selves as beautiful. It is about removing the imperative that black women must straighten to be acceptable. It is about erasing the fear that an employer or a lover or the general public might see us with our nappy roots showing. It is about exercising and making love with abandon--hair be damned. It is about knowing how to care for our natural textured hair, even if we choose to wear it straight. It is about not buying in to negative and erroneous stereotypes about black hair--that it is hard to care for, that it is inconvenient, that it is costly. It is about making "nappy" merely a descriptor for tightly curled hair, not an epithet. The natural hair movement is about claiming for black women the creative freedom to love who we really are even as we try on different looks.

Why can’t hair just be hair?

Indeed. Why? Black women were not the ones that decided our natural hair was controversial, offensive and unacceptable. That view is a legacy of America's tortured racial history and it oppresses black women. And this NYT article that ignores this history, paints "hair issues" as some fascinating and mysterious element of black culture, and worse, frames black women who are trying to free themselves from racially-biased beauty standards as petty, militant, back-to-Africa killjoys, doesn't help.


GirlGriot said...

Thank you. I found the Times article maddening and had started writing a piece about it when I found your post.

Yes. To everything you've said here.

Jaddadalos said...


Did you comment at the NYTimes site or send your response to the author?

This is exactly what is wrong with many controversial and culturally specific conversations that are now "out there". Rarely do I see writers apply an appropriate historical context to their analysis. Everyone wants to "just get along" but no one wants to look back at what has contributed to the disappointing state of our communities critically and honestly. No one wants to offend or be uncomfortable - this will lead us NO WHERE.

~Toy~ said...

You can't see me but I gave you and your article a standing ovation. It amazes me how this is a " political" issue! Wow! Stop the press " black folks got style" ! My, my, my...... I asked my followers to retweet this!

Trula said...

This is a very good rebuttal. I get black women frequently telling me how 'brave' I am for having dreadlocks and/or how afraid they are to start them or wear their hair in other natural hairstyles. If it's just hair, why is bravery needed? Why the fear? How many white women with brown hair are afraid to show the world their natural color, or are told they are brave for not bleaching their hair? none.

M and M said...

The historical and cultural context for "hair" is complex and real. There is a plethora of ahistorical information, I've noticed, around black hair that makes me incredibly uncomfortable - treating black hair as a fixed idea (culturally static) globally. I'm always interested to hear this kind of dialogue. And, honestly, I've been waiting for your comment on the NYT article (which I posted on my adoption forum for the many white mammas who are engaging their children's hair). Thank you!

LL said...

As a blond with straight hair, I have always been fascinated with curly hair of all types. One of my best friends is black and has the most beautiful natural hair (tight curls that end in about a 1/4 inch of straight tip), that I have seen that way exactly once in 37 years. The rest of the time she straightens her hair and wears a baseball cap because she is having a bad hair day. It makes me sad that she has learned to view her natural hair almost as an enemy.

little albatross said...

Whoa. I never had any idea that this many black women straightened their hair... I guess I always thought it was normal the same way white people have varying degrees of hair-curliness.

It's especially startling because my junior high school was almost entirely black and Latino, and I can only remember one or two girls with kinky hair.

Even my friend C. had straight hair when it wasn't in braids, and now that I think back it could only have been because her mother forced her to get it straightened. (When left to herself she was the most fiercely nonconformist twelve-year-old on the planet.)

Anyway. For what little my $0.02 is worth, I sincerely hope people will stop being stupid and realize that it's not "political", it's SUPPOSED to grow that way.

Sandy Price said...

Thanks for this article. It's enlightening. This is not just another one of the rules women are pressured to follow if they want to be considered desirable. Beyond basic rules of hygene, all such rules are tools of oppression for keeping women in a second place. This particular rule, the long, silky straight hair rule, is another level of burden altogether, specifically borne by Black women, keeping them in third place.

Willow said...

Brunettes are not automatically branded ugly or masculine. "Ugh, your hair is light brown," is not a slur I've ever heard from one white child to another.

Actually, as a (white) child with dark brown hair I *did* have statements along those lines slung at me. The difference is, that was where it stopped. It might have been ugly, but it wasn't considered a "statement," it didn't say anything about me as a person--a blow to my self-esteem, yes, and believe me I felt it--but that was all.

And, perhaps more importantly, I am now an adult with dark brown hair, and even if people look at me and think, "Gosh, she doesn't even highlight her hair? What is she trying to say?" no one would DARE say it to my face.

Joyful Mom said...

I'm am so glad to see your response to the NYT article. I too found it oversimplified and misleading. Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

Shana said...

Thank you so much for writing this. My reason for wearing my hair natural has always been that hair is just hair and therefore I had no good reason to continue straightening it. Whenever I try and communicate this to people I feel like it always goes unnoticed. People are not willing to let go of the assumption that hair does not have to be political. Just another way that Black's women's bodies continue to be policed.

djkristinab said...

it certainly is astonishing that it is a Don't to wear your natural hair in an office or professional setting. the (barely) coded message is that women of color are not suited to be in a professional setting, isn't it.

I'm half puerto rican, and when my father, who is white, used to constantly ask me "aren't you going to comb your hair?" when i would emerge from my bedroom, ready to leave the house with curly, unruly, black hair, i would get infuriated. for a long time i had no idea why such an asinine comment would make me so angry.

and then finally i realized that my hair is not straight because i am not white. my hair is a reflection of my mother's dominant genes, which are west african, arab, native, and spanish. asking me, "aren't you going to comb your hair?" is asking me, "aren't you going to look less puerto rican?"

he no longer does this, thankfully. but it's so affirming to see so many articles lately that take on tripe like the NYTimes and acknowledge that our standard of beauty is so seeped in whiteness that when a black woman chooses to straighten her hair, she is making just as big a political statement as when she chooses to wear an afro. the former political statement, however, reflects racist, classist, cultural norms and is not noticed.

Doreen said...

Tami, THANK YOU. You will not believe (actually, you would believe) the number of conversations I've had with women of all races (besides black, of course) who insist that they also take part in beauty rituals and get highlights so this is exactly the same thing. Right, because deciding to highlight your hair blonde for no reason is the same thing as the majority of black women trying to eradicate something that is a natural characteristic of our race.

Re: Women in Africa- I'm back in Ghana now, and you wouldn't believe the pressure my relatives are giving me to straighten my hair. They all have relaxed hair which looks really unhealthy, is breaking, and generally just doesn't look nice (because putting damaging chemicals in your hair that strips it of its natural form is generally not conducive to making your hair look good) and I want to ask them if they really think their hair looks better than mine, or if they think the people they are trying to emulate think their hair looks nice like that.

kristine said...

thank you for writing this and saying it so very well

i read the article also and was left feeling queezy - i couldn't articulate it. i was led here from another blog and i'm happy i stumbled onto it.

Rebecca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

A couple of observations from a woman with blonde, curly hair:

-blonde curly seems to be the absolute favorite
-this goes so far that strangers will touch it without my permission -- and I agree with you that this is unacceptable
-every time I go to have a hair cut (I've had 5 so far; usually do it myself), the hairdresser wants to know if I ever tried straightening it
-my straight-haired friends get asked whether they ever tried a perm

Result: No matter what you do with your hair and no matter how you start out, people are going to feel obliged to comment on it and "improve" it. It is very very messed up. For black women as evidenced by your post, but for all others as well.

Anonymous said...

A couple of observations from a woman with blonde, curly hair:

-blonde curly seems to be the absolute favorite
-this goes so far that strangers will touch it without my permission -- and I agree with you that this is unacceptable
-every time I go to have a hair cut (I've had 5 so far; usually do it myself), the hairdresser wants to know if I ever tried straightening it
-my straight-haired friends get asked whether they ever tried a perm

Result: No matter what you do with your hair and no matter how you start out, people are going to feel obliged to comment on it and "improve" it. It is very very messed up. For black women as evidenced by your post, but for all others as well

did we not just agree that this attitude is part of the problem, and what was wrong witht hat stupid nyt article?

Fran Sky said...

When I was a kid my Black dad used to berate me often because I had "good" hair. As I got older I understood that was because his hair was nappy it was considered ugly by not just whites but his own community and eventually realized his pain & forgave him for his anger at my hair.

At 13 my hair became very curly and I didn't know how to style or care for it. On our way into church my white mother & grandmother decided to tell me my hair looked like a birds nest. Eventually I learned they hated their fine straight hair and didn't know what to make of mine. I forgave them too.

A few years later I was jumped while walking down the street with 3 friends. I was considered "uppity" and part of their judgement aimed at me was because of my hair.

My hair has told some that I'm too Black or too white. Yeah sure we all could say we have issues because of hair, but as someone who stands in the middle I can say it IS a big deal and hair is political as well as personal.

Kristen said...

Tammi, your writing is always inspiring, and this post is no exception. Well done. I hope you submit it as an op-ed to te Times! This stuff needs to be heard. Totally agree wit Jaddadaols - this stuff needs to be discussed.

And to anonymous (I can't resist commenting) - no, it is NOT the same thing for white women to be a little critical with each other as it is for black women to endure hair-based prejudice. To say that as a blonde I totally get where Tammi is coming from is to totally minimize the racist reactions to natural black hair.

Wildflower said...

I just needed to add to the chorus that your article is excellent and articulates exactly how I feel about the issue.

It's not a matter of simply saying we are not our hair while rocking one's weave or chemically altered hair--for black women with African textured hair it's never been that simple.

n.oladii36 said...


Anonymous said...


Visibility said...


I have long been a fan of your's and I have read many of your posts over at racialicious!

You are, in short, the bomb and this only reinforces your bombness.

I wish the NYT was reading this!

I wrote about the whole hair thing on my blog, There was a similar piece over at CNN that I took umbrage with!

Duchess said...

Tami, I'm sorry but I have to point out your contradictions here.

You point out that the natural hair movement is about giving Black women the freedom of choice. Yet you quickly take that choice away with comments like this "How deep is the black community's belief that straighter is better? So deep that more than 80 percent of black women straighten their hair through heat or chemicals or simply weave hair from women of other races into our own tresses."

Your statement leads one to believe that Black women straighten their hair because they don't find themselves beautiful due to the outside pressures of the world. Not once do you acknowledge that perhaps the choice to straighten could be one of functionality and not self loathing.

I'm also disturbed to see you trivialize the degrading of white women's hair. To say that I a child who is teased for having brown hair instead of blond hair is not as wrong as a child being teased for having kinky hair is to me wrong. A child being teased is a child being teased. It's wrong for any reason. That's like saying poverty in America is no big deal because it's not like poverty in India. It's still poverty. It's still wrong.

So Tami, yes I too long for the day when hair will become just hair. And that's exactly what the NYT article is about. It's about Black women deciding that we must make a choice to be natural and that's the only choice. I know you said you can rock a chunky fro and then a Rhianna cut but your statements don't celebrate both styles. I fear that you, like the evil white Euro-centric committee of beauty that you claim exist, are doing the same thing to Black women. You are limiting their choices and insisting that their choices are a reflection of who they are and what they believe. I understand that we are in a society that is extremely to the right but I think you've gone extremely to the left to counter act it.

Tami said...


Every woman is free to do what she wishes with her hair, but it certainly says something (at least it does to me) that such a profound number of black women choose to alter their natural curl pattern. And not only that--that tightly coiled hair is deemed ugly and unacceptable not only within the majority culture but within the African American community. We all choose our choices, but not in a vacuum. I wrote about this here:

I have to reiterate. ALL women bear the burden of the European beauty standard, but certainly women who are not of mostly European ancestry bear it the most.


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