Monday, January 3, 2011

From the vault: You choose your choices, but not in a vacuum

Over the weekend, someone commented on one of my posts about black hair. She said that a black woman choosing to wear her hair straightened is just a choice--a legitimate choice. And she is right.

But choice is tricky. It comes up a lot when we talk about why people do what they do. And there is a fine line to be walked. We must honor people's personal decisions. We also must understand that none of us make decisions in a vacuum. Our every choice is influenced by a host of things, including innate preferences, but much more than just that.

The following post, from the fall of 2009, gets at what I mean:


Two conversations broiling on the InterWebs caught my attention this week and got me thinking about "choice." On Sunday, television personality Star Jones tweeted her thoughts on the "good hair" issue. On Monday, Feministe published a post about a recent study that found 70 percent of Americans believe a woman should change her name at marriage and that 50 percent believe women should be legally MANDATED to do so. (I still can't look at that stat without blanching.)

On the subject of natural vs. straightened black hair, in response to a USA Today article on the controversies surrounding Chris Rock's new movie, Jones said:

I love me some Chris Rock...& I thank him for making AN ASPECT of Black culture relevant to the masses. But it is only AN aspect...not all.

I reject the premise that if I wear my hair short & natural I'm more black; any more than wearing a weave means I want to be white.

Long & Straight, Short & Red, Braided &'s all least it is after I pay for it. LOL Sorry...just not that deep to me.

One of my fondest memories as a child is sitting on a white stool in the kitchen getting my hair straighted by my Mommy with a "hot comb."
Jones seems to believe that a black woman's decision to straighten her hair is just that--her choice--and that much too much ado is being made about the meaning of it.

Over on Feministe, commenters were talking about a different sort of choice. In her post "The Name Game," blogger Jill said of the pressure to adopt one's husband's family name:

What throws me off even more is when I see feminist-minded or liberal women take their husband's name, and then defend it with "Well it's my choice" or "My last name was my father's anyway" or "I don't care about my name." I can understand the name-change part, even if I don't like it — it can almost be more of a hassle to keep your own name than to take your husband's once you're married, especially if you have kids. People may criticize you for keeping your own name. In a lot of communities, it is what everyone does. Your husband may even be upset if you don't want to take his name (although I'd say that's a pretty good indicator that he's kind of self-centered and you probably shouldn't marry him).

What confuses me (and gets under my skin) is the justification — or at least, the justification based on things other than the very real, tangible sexist reactions that married women face when they keep their own names. Things like, "Well, it was my father's name." Well, sure, but what does that mean? That no woman ever has her own name, unless she was born into a culture where naming is matrilineal? Or, "I like his name better." Ok, but do men regularly change their names just because their partner as a "better" name? I've come across maybe one man in my whole life who has done that — I somehow doubt that it just so happens that 99 percent of people with the "better" name are male. Or, "I want our whole family to have the same name." Again, understandable, but how come he didn't change his name? Or you can both change your names. Read more...

But readers who have made the choice to adopt their husbands' names, or who plan to do so, bristled.

One offered:

I've got to say, after reading this post and some of the comments that follow it, I'm feeling flat-out judged that I changed my name when I got married. And I feel like in my comment I haaaaave to say why I decided to do it and have a darn good reason for it too, or else I should just turn in my feminist card posthaste.

Instead, I'm going to point out that the reasons couples entering marriage have for changing or not changing their names or any combination thereof are not always boiled down to "it's the partriarchal tradition, blah blah yada blah." When we make the same sweeping generalizations that the conservative, patriarchal, sexist, whatever-elses do, what's the point?

In the end, I'd like my decision (for a number of things, not just in changing my name) not to be simplified in such a manner, especially here where we usually consider things further and open up debates that I really, really enjoy and find enlightening/useful.

When the conversation turns to black women and their tresses (which it seems to more and more often these days), a chorus of straightening/weaving/wigging is "just a preference" is sure to erupt from my non-natural hair-wearing sisters. Similarly, the marriage/surname discussion seems to always spark tension in the femisphere. "Patriarchy has nothing to do with why I took my husband's name. His name is just better/easier to spell or I don't like my family. It's MY choice."

To both of these arguments I say, "You're absolutely right!" Freedom means being able to make your own choices about how you look and what you call yourself. Everyone should be empowered to make the personal choices that work best for them.


It is disingenuous to say that our choices--mine, yours, every body's--aren't influenced by a host of things, including the biases of the society we live in. You are absolutely free to choose your choices, but you don't do so in a vacuum. The statistics on the straightening of highly-textured hair and those on women taking their husbands' names should illustrate how bias can creep into our "choices." I believe Star Jones when she says she views hair an an accessory and likes to change up her look from time to time. Cool. Her choice. But do I believe that more than 80 percent of black women spend exorbitant amounts of money and time changing or covering their natural hair texture just by happenstance? Do I believe that "nappy" and "you-so-black" are still fighting words on the playground just because? Do I believe that most black women are completely unfamiliar with their natural hair and its care for trivial reasons? Do I believe that many black women avoid intimacy and physical exercise to better preserve straightened hairstyles because it is fun? Do I believe it's by chance that I hear black women repeating negative myths about the manageability and acceptability of natural hair? No, I do not.

I believe that hundreds of years of demonization of blackness and common black physicality, such as broad features and kinky hair, and the preferencing of whiteness in our society has had some great influence on the black community's choices as whole, if not our individual choices. It may not be "that deep" for Star Jones, but I think it is that deep for the larger community.

Similarly, while women should feel free to take their partners' names at marriage or not, the fact that only five to 10 percent of American women choose to keep their family names in 2009 surely says something. It says something that all of the legitimate reasons women give for making the change are almost never made by men as reasons to change their names. How often do you hear a groom-to-be say, "My name sounds funny and my fiance's is much better, I'm taking her name?" Or, "I have a difficult relationship with my dad, so I am shedding my last name to make a break from the past." Men don't usually say these things upon getting married. Why? Because society's general assumption is that a woman's identity (and name) will be absorbed by her husband's at marriage. (In fact, in the study referenced above, respondents said as much.) The woman will become Mrs. HusbandFirstName HusbandLastName and her husband will be the "head" of the household. It is not a masculine thing to give your name away. And I have seen some references that imply women who do not adopt their husband's names are less feminine. We life in a sexist society with patriarchal traditions and that is what our society believes. Remember: HALF of respondents would have women legally MANDATED to take their husband's names.

Does all of this mean that women who take their husband's names are bad feminists or womanists? Of course not.

Are black women who perm their hair "less black?" Poppycock!

But no one is really arguing that they are. That charge is borne of defensiveness, I think. The truth is that race and gender bias are ever present in our society in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways. And as hard as some of us work, they invade our lives and, yes, our choices. We can't be so precious about our individual decisions that we minimize and shut down conversation about these things.

I'm not trying to be holier-than-thou as a natural-hair-wearing, hyphenated-name-sporting black woman. I make plenty of choices every day that are influenced by societal bias and convention. Everybody does. When folks talk about the black middle class and its abandonment of traditionally black neighborhoods, I think about my reasons for living in a majority white suburban community or the gentrifying mixed neighborhood we moved from. I have many reasons that are valid for me and my family for living where we do. Some of them, I know, are likely influenced by my own racial and class biases. Do I have to give back my black card? Does that make me a bad person? A bad anti-racist? No, it makes me human. I can own my choice, examine what it means, do what works for me and still be a part of what is a valid discussion about the fracturing of the black community. My personal decisions have context, meaning and impact on my larger community. It is foolish to pretend they don't.

Jill at Feministe says:

Names and naming matters. It is bigger than just an individual, personal choice. While I certainly respect the rights of people to make their own choices when it comes to their names, and while I can't fault women who decide that keeping their own name is not a battle they want to fight, let's not pretend like these choices exist in a vaccum, or like they don't have a wider impact when it comes to normalizing sexist cultural practices.

Yes. This. Once biases become absorbed into culture as "tradition" and "just choice," once they are normalized, they become harder to unpack. But we need to resist this. How will we defeat racism, sexism and other biases if we cannot speak frankly about them?

I am free to make choices. But with that freedom comes an obligation to examine what influences those decisions.

Photo Credit: thstrand


LilySea said...

I've also heard men call other men whose wives have different surnames "emasculated." If it emasculates a man when his wife does NOT take his name, what does it do when a woman takes her husband's name?
And I have no business telling Black women how to wear their hair, but I do plan to give my daughters a real choice, by making sure they grow up knowing how to care for the hair God gave them, before they decide to make it look more like mine.

Aron Ranen said...

please take a moment to check out my documentary Black Hair...about the Korean Take-over..posted it on

Renn7 said...

My husband & I both changed our names (I was FirstName1 LastName1, he was FirstName2 LastName2, and now we are FN1 LN1-LN2 & FN2 LN1-LN2). Wouldn't have it any other way, and if he hadn't agreed to it, I doubt I would have married him. But hey, that's me :)

Anonymous said...

An adult male friend of mine had an abusive father and changed his last name to his mother's family name, which I think is very cool. His mother was a strong protective figure in his life and he wanted to associate with her family instead of his father's.

My gentle feminist husband genuinely was willing to take my name. We decided to take whichever had a cooler name, which was his. (Sick of my boring maiden name, Baker, and his last name represents my ethnic heritage better.)

This isn't to refute anything this article presents. Just saying there ARE examples of men happy to take their partner's name or their mother's.


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