Monday, February 28, 2011

Can a sista with rainbow hair get respect?

Last week, Dodai at Jezebel wrote a post about the debate over the roots (no pun intended) of the colorful hair trend. A recent London Evening Standard article attributes the trend to English street culture, specifically a Dalston salon called Bleach. The blog Black Girl with Long Hair cries foul and says the style originated with black women. Blogger Leila says of the salon owner that is taking credit for candy-colored tresses: "Sam Teasdale, I don’t mind that you’ve managed to sell this style to a number of bandwagon celebs but please give black women and all their hair eccentricities credit where it is due. Admit it! This is not your signature ‘look’. You spotted it on a black girl about 10 years ago."

I suspect Teasdale and Alex Brownsell, co-owner of Bleach salon, are engaging in a little shameless self-promotion, trying to hook their salon to a trend. Folks have been wearing colorful hair since before the 20-something stylists were even born. But I also disagree with Black Girl with Long Hair. The first time I (a black woman who grew up in a predominately-black city) spotted brightly-colored hair was on 70s/80s-era British punks and New Romantics, which had scant to do with Bleach salon or the U.S. black community. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that if one looks through hairstyle history, one might find unnaturally-colored tresses in a variety of communities, including ones neither white nor black. Pinpointing who originated it all is likely a fool's errand.

What I'm really interested in is how Kool Aid-colored dos are evaluated differently, based on the race of the wearer. Black Girl with Long Hair gets at this issue: "Any black girl sporting a weave like this after 1999 would be considered GHETTO/YARDIE/HOOD! Making it hardly a new trend."


Despite the popularity of colorful hair in the mainstream, in my observation, black women and girls who are not Nikki Minaj are judged negatively for adopting colorful hair--even when it is more conservatively styled than the examples above. Rainbow hair on a black woman provokes a whole lot of judgments about class and education, even among other black people. Meanwhile, a bright blue streak in a white woman's hair is accepted differently, I think.

I have a 40-something white female friend who sometimes adds a streak of hot pink or blue to her trendy hairstyles. It is accepted as a marker of her bohemian, hipster lifestyle. I suspect, though, that I do not have the latitude to do such a thing. It is enough that I wear my hair naturally. That alone provokes attention. And, in a different professional field, may mean the difference between being employed and not.

This has me noticing, again, that black women have far less latitude in terms of personal style than white women, perhaps especially when it comes to what's on our heads.

What do you think? Is my assessment correct?

Also, I'm curious how this plays out across other races.

Photo Credit: babytarragon on Flickr (right)


Kristin Craig Lai said...

I think you're bang on. I would imagine that there's some of that "getting it from both sides" action too. On one hand there's the whole "ghetto" comment that gets thrown at so many black women the moment they start getting fun/crazy/creative with their style on the other there are all of the issues of how people perceive black women for changing their hair colour to something other than black.

Black women seem to constantly be expected to toe the line between "too black" and "trying to be white". Where in all of this external scrutiny is the freedom to just be who you are and why do so many people think they have the right to put their definitions of 'blackness' onto others?

I would love to see more people talking openly about this kind of stuff. Thanks for the post.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I too appreciate this post and the openness and frankness you display, as per usual.

I have some attendant class shame wherever I go and I also love bright colors (last year I was neon green, then lemon yellow, later candy-apple red). I know how it feels to go one minute from feeling expressive and "me" and great - to, by some women and in some circumstances - feeling [judged as] "white trash". It sucks.

As you allude to and Kristin would probably grant, there are lots of beauty standards that are intensified and racialized, amped up times one thousand percent when regarding black women, often nuanced in ways many whites feel free to ignore or disbelieve. I'm not surprised at all bright colors in hair would be part of this.

I haven't read much about celebrated performer Nicki Monaj's bright colors as discussed regarding beauty performance / race / class. I'm wondering if you've read any good pieces? If you haven't, I'm sure you could write one... ;-)

Slay Beau said...

Everybody but EVERYBODY has missed the boat in this. The majority of comments on Dodai's post and the commenting blogs date hair dying in unnatural colors to the 80s, with some sensible few dating it back to the punks in the 70s, and all of it is wrong.

A Louis Jordan song suggests that black women were dying their hair wild colors in 1938 (You dyed your hair chartreuse), and while his was a genre with tongue firmly in cheek, such ideas never come from the ether. So maybe it is rooted in the black community, but it dates much earlier. Still:

A book was published in London in 1661 with directions on how to dye your hair gold, silver, red, yellow (but those are regular colors!) and green. It's even available in the public domain via google books:

CaitieCat said...

No argument from me - as a white woman, having my hair bright purple (or, as of last week, bright blue) leads to almost exclusively positive interactions. And I sincerely doubt that a WOC wearing the same colours would receive the same positive reactions. White privilege for the loss. :/

Rosa said...

I agree 100%. Can't even comment, really, just nod my head.

Zaratha said...

Oh seriously, for REAL, Tami. I could tell all kinds of stories about the shit I got being a Black goth girl with even relatively conservatively styled "freaky" colored hair, even after I eased out of my cyber/rivethead/J-Rocker phase and went more subdued and Victorian-ish with my look. And this was in the mid-90s, before this stuff really went mainstream and was co-opted by Hot Topic and the like, so it really was just associated with Crazy White Girls. My hair's been every color of the rainbow but green, and the minute it's something that doesn't occur in nature, I get the side-eye. It's like people get this cognitive dissonance about what Respectable Black Women are supposed to look like, their brains shatter and they just get diarrhea of the soul at me.

I even internalized this bullshit to a degree. I'd walk down the street in full garb (ie: I'd set off every metal detector in a 5 mile radius) and electric blue Manic Panic bob wig rolling my eyes at the chicks walking out the hood salon on the corner, rocking their blue weaves! See, when I had blue hair, it was avant garde, ~unique~, and indicative of my awesome and totally creative (and tragically misunderstood) subculture. But when LaShawn around the way had it, she was ghetto and trashy! Damn, I was dumb when I was young. Thank god I got over my special snowflake bullshit.

To this day though, as an aging goth, I still get the nonsense Kristin talked about in her comment about policing blackness and what the boundaries are as far as Acceptable Creative Self-Expression for Black Women. From my own family (though they've essentially given up that I will ever look "normal"), as well as busybodies on the street and on the internets. Black women in a lot of subcultures feel this conflict. Just being black is a non-comformist act, why do you have to be all freaky and stand out and draw negative attention to yourself like that? Not to mention the pressure to constantly Uplift the Race. Completely ignoring that black women have always been trendsetters breaking molds. Grace Jones, anyone? So, well, I'mma be me.


Tami, I think you've made your point here quite well.
I can remember many years ago that my mother, aunts and many women of color in my neighborhood would sport this kind of brownish red hair color. Maybe henna??.... not sure though. It wasn't brash or ostentatious but I saw it a lot. I realized later that it was to cover that gray.
They would talk rather catty about the women of color whose hair had a brassy blond, blue (remember the blue mainly on older women) or jet black (too harsh)hair coloring.

I'm pretty conservative and wore a natural for approx. 30 yrs. or so and "relapsed" (it's a cultural 60's concept) :-) for a period. I'm about to return to my "roots" so to speak. Now my dilemma is rather or not to continue to color my hair a dark brown (remember black is too harsh and frankly I'm too old)or let the grey-white show. My youngest adult daughter doesn't like the latter. She doesn't want to believe that her Mommy is getting up there in age. Oh well...

To Slay Beau...everything is cyclic..there is really "nothing new under the sun". The only comparisons we have unless we're history buffs is what we see with our contemporaries or we have pictures of elders(during their heydays)in our family albums. hmmm.....

Thanks for this Tami. Your posts are thought provoking on a myriad of issues/topics--as usual!

tiffany said...

"Rainbow hair on a black woman provokes a whole lot of judgments about class and education, even among other black people. Meanwhile, a bright blue streak in a white woman's hair is accepted differently, I think."

I disagree slightly. I think it's heavily tied to overall dress / individual style. Compare Kelis and Rihanna to a mid-1990s, honey-blonde Mary J. Blige. Or early, dark haired Lil' Kim to her purple wig moment (which struck me, at least, as more drag than hood).

This concept that "white=edgy / black=ghetto" dynamic gets thrown out the window balance when you know and see black hipsters, black rockers, and white people who grew up in the hood. Paul Wall's grills are still ghetto and Lenny Kravitz is still not hood.*

(*Male examples, but helpful ones in this case.)

Anonymous said...

I think the analysis is quite accurate.

Incidentally, I have shoulder length (when it's not shrinking too much) African American natural hair, and when I have to be in a formal business setting, I make sure to tone the rest of my outfit down. The hair is as much as I feel comfortable pushing it.

But I have to admit, I've never had a screaming desire to dye my hair pink or sport huge tattoos. (Or did society choose my choice? :-) )

Anonymous said...

Nonsense! Black women can wear their hear however they want. It's to do with class. You guys are making me want to dye my hair a bright colour just to prove you wrong. Break the mould dammit. Who is telling you that you cannot dye your hair? Who is fostering this conformist behaviour in you?

An Again said...

I wasn't going to comment since this was posted so long ago, but with the last word (before this), I can't help myself.

Since childhood, I had the urge to wear my hair in colors not found in nature (at least not on the head). Alternative before some ass hat created that label, I went on and did it: I was already not-black-enough/too-black so why deny what I wanted to please others? I took a lot of crap for it, but those who loved me, loved it, and that was fine...Until the cycle of relaxing/lightening/dying caught up to me.

I stopped for a long time, picking it up in my 20s while living in a South West college town and at a job so liberal that the dress code included a reminder that it was not safe to wear chains connecting your earrings to your nose rings. It was fine there. (Hell, my supervisor helped me pick out the right shade of blue-green.)

Cut to recently, back in the North East in a mixed (but largely black) neighborhood, returning to college to change careers and renewing my relationship with Manic Panic. You would think by the behavior of some black women that my blue hair had done something *to* them. It's one thing to know that I can't go on interviews with my hair like that, but as it turned out, I can't (peacefully) ride a city bus, either.


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