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.

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