13 July 2008

The Politics of Black Hair

Have you ever visited a hair salon for your appointment at 9am and left after 10pm? I have.There are so many black women who will understand and have direct experience of the long delays sometimes encountered at the hands of hairdressers.
It got me thinking about the amount of money and effort we put into getting our hair styles just so. Is black hair political? Does the number of entertainers pushed into view at every occasion with weaves, wigs, straightened hair, blonde/blond hair and anything else which doesn't 'look black' mean that we have lost our way? Is there a reason, some sinister reason why these role models are propped up for us to emulate? Or are they just a sign that people want to try different styles and enjoy playing around with their hair?
The so-called 'Afro' hairstyle was used as a symbol of African-Americans and some other oppressed black people utilising, some would say reclaiming, the right to wear their hair without being ashamed of the texture and look of natural hair.
This is interesting to me as I have been one of those people who have gone through various stages with my hair: natural hair, perms (or jheri curls), hair straightening creams, hot comb pressing and dreadlocks. I haven't had a weave added to my head as I somehow didn't like the idea of bits of hair being sewn onto mine and I have never been blonde. I have seen examples of all, except natural hair, causing severe and lasting damage to black women's scalps. Why do we do this?
I think women, not just black women, spend far too much time fussing about hair. You could go to an upmarket hairdressing salon and walk away with a new hairstyle and your purse $400.00 lighter. Crazy!
Pick up your average women's magazine at random and note how many hair products are for sale. Note the number of 'paid-per-post' type articles included in the publication which focus on hair. Hair is money. Hair is big money! From the few cents women in poverty stricken countries will receive from selling their waist-length hair to Beyonce shaking her thang in her new $6,000 wig at some glittery award ceremony. Think Cher. Think Hollywood - they are all buying some.
Plus there is the fact that it does take up some of your time to keep your hair looking pristine and polished. Not being a pristine and polished person it boils down very much for me that I cannot be bothered! I want to find the style that is the easiest and quickest to deal with. No plaiting it up into small plaits for 2 hours each evening, no spending 1/2 hour in the bathroom stuck in front of the mirror styling it just so. No rollers, or curlers, or hot combs, or super-cleansing-deep-cleaning-steamroller business. Frankly, I don't care to make the time!
I actually love natural black hair. I am always pleased when I see someone sporting styles which have not been whipped into submission by the current trends. (It's a bit like how I feel when I see a woman who doesn't shave her armpits or her legs.) But why should hair be such a big thing? Has the idea of black hair being ugly permeated so deeply into the psyche of the children raised by parents who lived through systems designed and committed to the denigration of certain sections of society - them? Is it better to power-bleach your hair into a straw-like texture, damage it beyond recognition and ensure you spend hours with your (obviously) beloved hairdresser, just to enable you to conform and minimise your natural features? I'm straying into other areas here, but do you get my point?
I read recently that in corporate America it is not the done thing to wear your hair natural. Somehow it is seen as a threat. Why? Why would how someone wears their hair cause friction in the workplace? If a competent, hard-working man wore dreadlocks, why would he be seen in a more negative light than if he had a crew cut and fade? - regardless of his race!??
Hair is political but it shouldn't be. Maybe because humans feel the need to conform and anyone who steps outside of the rules set by a particular group is seen to threaten the stability of the group as a whole. What are your thoughts about natural black hair?


Ralph Dumain said...

I'm obviously not a black woman, but I could write a thick volume on my experience of black women and their hair over several decades.

Dreads and braids are an issue for men, but note that a natural or an Afro is not; it's only a problem for women, either in their own minds or other people's eyes.

The main problem, it seems to me, is job discrimination. I don't know what the current corporate norm is, nor do I know to what degree job discrimination occurs because of hair or just skin color. A friend of mine repeatedly gets rejected for professional jobs she applies for. Last time this happened, I quipped: "So why didn't you get this one? Bad hair?" She replied: "You guessed it."

She has extremely kinky hair, which is compactly wound into a natural of modest proportions adorned with a headband that shapes it very slightly. I see nothing wrong with it, and nothing that would be out of place in her profession. But white people can be very finicky over trivia. Of course it's only a guess that hair is a "problem". Could be race, could be specifically how dark the skin is.

I love Afros as I love everything about black women's beauty. Black women are goddesses: if only the rest of the world could see them as I do.

Anonymiss said...

Hey Zee,
I'm currently rocking an afro. It took me years to accept my hair. I've used a hot comb, I've relaxed my hair, I've tried and failed at locking my hair, and then went back to a relaxer. Hair shouldn't have to be such a chore.

I started braiding my hair to start transitioning back into my natural hair texture. I just got fed up with salon visits and being ashamed of my hair. My coworker asked me "So how do you feel about going natural?" I said "I feel free."

I blogged about assimilation a while back. Assimilation is a byproduct of pseudo-diversity.

Andrea said...

This always strikes a chord with me seeing as I've also gone the gamut of hair styles. My hair was being relaxed from the time I was 10 because it was just too think and difficult for my mom (and her arthritis) to deal with and I was never very good with more then ponytails. I've done natural, dyed (red, not blond), short, long, straight, curly and until very recently dredlocked. I loved the locs at first (couldn't aske for simpler maintenance), but they started to bug me after a couple of years. They were heavy and hot and my head just felt like it needed some freedom, but my hairdresser (at the time) kept talking me down from the ledge.

About a month ago, I had a wedding to go to, so I made an appointment with her. Now, I've got two kids who were both in school, one with special needs (so can't ask anyone to pick him up from the bus) and one in for half the day. I had to leave work (down the street from hairdresser) drive half an hour to pick up kid #2, another half hour back to hairdresser...I got there and she informed me, attitude blazing, that she was 45 minutes behind. I couldn't wait or I'd never make it back in time to pick up kid #1. That was it for me. I went home and chopped everything off, touched it up with some clippers. And I lightly relaxed it because I like it curly, but a little less tight than the natural curl. It's cool and light and EASY. My hair is now strictly ME, not a political statement in any direction, just based on what is convenient and preferable to myself. And that's the way it shall stay.

New Black Woman said...

I have relaxed hair and I've never spent more than 10 minutes messing with my hair. The only time I've had my hair "done" was when I went to my prom and that was nearly 7 years ago. I've always been a wash and go person with my relaxed hair.

I'm sure I'll go back to natural hair as I get older. But, as of right now, with my career (journalist), the relaxed look is the quickest way for me to make my hair look like something without trying so hard.

The Fitness Diva said...

The "go natural or not" debate has been raging on my head for decades now.
I have done perms, braids, hot combing, texturizers, gone short, tried dreads for about 8 months and decided that wasn't for me (just steamed them out a couple weeks ago), and now I'm right back to square one. I have a full head of willful, thick, natural hair now, and refuse to do the relaxer thing ever again. Right now, I'm wearing big cornrows back into a ponytail. The fact that I work in a gym (personal trainer and group exercise instructor) demands that this hair of mine be tamed into some type of submission on a daily basis. I sweat it up daily.
There are days when I do wish the stuff would just fall limply and obey me, but that's never gonna happen! ;)
Nothing to do but accept it and come up with the best style solutions that I can to get through the week.
And no, I'm not chopping it off.
As hard to deal with as it is, I love having my thick, mind of its own, unruly hair.

Original GRITS said...

As a white woman (who, btw, has spent the last 45 minutes devouring your blog), I am not versed first hand in what black women (and some black men) go through to be seen as professional by the corporate hierarchy.

I do, however, have a bi-racial daughter who chose to perm her hair for years and now she finds it very aggravating that if she goes natural she gets called kinky headed. She's about to complete nursing school and was told by an instructor, are you ready for this?, that she needed to be more "well groomed" in order to fit in to the nursing field.


Yes, told her that to her face. As a 21 y/o she is still learning who she is as a human and as a woman, so this caught her very much off guard so that she didn't know how to respond and chose just to be quiet. She told me that looking back she wishes she had said "My natural hair IS well groomed, clean and will fit into any nursing situation just fine" but she didn't.

I've told her to do what feels comfortable...that is what I, as a white woman, do. I have my hair cut and I wash it daily but I refuse to use hair products that dry mine out and cake it up. She does the same.

I just wanted to add that I love your blog and you can count on me being a regular reader.

Zee Harrison said...

Thank you everyone who has responded so far - I truly appreciate your input here. Out of all the billions of websites you chose to comment here!

This topic has fired conversations on and offline for me and I hope it is eye-opening for people who don't have any close friends, family or colleagues with 'natural black hair'!

I'll try to keep my responses here brief:

I love the fact that you appreciate black women and have an understanding of some of the issues black women are faced with. I think that a black man in the corporate world with a mega-afro would raise eyebrows and might face the same kinds of discrimination as black women.

I have known that feeling. It is actually, regardless of your hairstyle, about finding what is important to you and what works for you. I have read your post and will comment on it shortly.

Your reaction seemed the most reasonable thing to do in the circumstances! Chop it off - YES!! How much time and energy have you saved? How much money have you saved? Your outline of the day made me chuckle as I have been in those kinds of situations. Aarrggh!! Good for you!

New Black Woman,
I understand you too. Having natural hair (well, my kind of natural hair) is not that easy to care for. In my opinion, with this one life, do what's right for you.

Fitness Diva,
Your hair sounds great! Sweating it up each day means dealing with it every day. You sound as if you have embraced it wonderfully.

Original Grits,
You commenting made me remember that there are white people raising children with 'natural black hair' and what does that mean for those families?
Your daughter's experience is typical for those who dare to step outside of societies 'norms'. I feel it for younger people who have to deal with this level of ignorance. Just when you are trying to discover yourself someone comes along with their prejudices and stirs into the pot even more things to be insecure and uncertain about. Mind-numbingly ignorant and sad.

Thank you all for contributing.
Kindest regards,

P.S. For those of you who are interested and don't know, the images used in this post are of Jill Scott (singer) and Stephen (on the left) and Damian Marley (sons of Robert 'Bob' Nesta Marley).

Anonymous said...

As a White man with a lovely Black partner I've got to admit I'm prejudiced against wigs.

My partenr had a weave when we met - then one day when she had it re-done it was badly done and I saw all this webbing on her head.

That was it for me - shallow I know. But its a common hang-up with all men WE HATE WIGS.

"Darling (I said that evening) I want you to get that rubbish of your head and just be yourself."

A weave is a wig by any other name.

Now my woman has her hair natural and its as lovely as she it.

All those mad braids and false-bits of haur and nails and stuff....who's it for? ..not ANY man (Black of White) that I know likes that rubbish on women - whether the women be Black or White.

But ..the hairy armpits and legs thing? Look I know you are right that it SHOULD be ok. But....argh..why does that Natural look creep me out as much as an un-natural wig?

SjP said...

Been wearing my hair short and natural since I hit 50. I love it - but I think "others" were really taken aback when they saw me in the natural. But that's their problem.

On another note, I invite you and your readers to check out EbonicallySpeaking.com at http://www.ringsurf.com/ring/nr1190and if you are so inclined, I hope you'll join!

Much obliged!

Doctor Disillusioned of the UNIVERSITY OF MARS. said...

And of course, with the snakey way that institutional racism works these days we often don't even get the chance to have our CV's scrutinised - never mind our hairstyles. See: http://university-of-mars.blogspot.com/

Blogging for all my people

Petula Wright said...

Oh I love this topic. I, like you, have tried and worn everything except weave. Well, do braids/extensions count? An-t-way, I want a quick, easy to fix, natural style as well. I rocked locks for 13 years, but after my last three children and the hormones of late 30s my hair started thinning in the front and the weight of the locks pulled at my temples. Locks started breaking and I let the style go.

I now wear the afro puff, but I don't think it's representative of who I am and what I want to portray. I'm considering straight styles w/out the chemicals.

Now, as far as the politics, I have always held issue with what you pointed out at the end of your post: our hair regardless of how we wear it should not say anything about our ability to work and perform a job/career. I think it's a cop out for those who don't understand a culture and who are uncomfortable being around those who are different from what they see in the mirror!

Thomas said...

Hair. Wow.

Several have made very interesting comments. Yes, I am sure some people, some white some not, make employment decisions that are unjustly based on hair appearances. I know in my profession my boss would, like it or not. And so does his peers at other companies. And he is black. That's life. That's the way it is. Big deal.

Look, we all have our biases, we all discriminate: "I don't want to date him, he's a loser." "I'm not going to eat that. Look at it. Yuck." "Tyra's hot!" Anybody ever eat a raw oyster? Yum, more please... I think who ever discovered eating raw oysters had to be huuungry! Grapefruit sure looks good. Yuck. No more, thank you. Smoked mullet? That stuff is good! Ugly, but gooood. Try it. Open wide, here it comes. Might want to close your eyes.

There is no one formula for success. If you want the corporate power job, you need to, generally speaking, look the part. That doesn't mean straight hair, wig, burnt skin, but it should look like you attempt to look well groomed. If you don't adapt to organizational culture, business will suffer, interoffice relationships suffer. I don't have time for these petty issues, I'm no babysitter. We are, after all, running a business here. We have deadlines, competitors, stockholders. We need all advantages. Your interviewer knows that, the job seeker should, too.

Personally, I don't dislike natural afro, but somewhat short, not 70's era large poofy, but there are no absolutes. The woman's afro in the striped blouse looks fine to me. While an afro certainly isn't ugly, I prefer cornrows, extensions, or straightened (expensive, time consuming, and painful, I know and appreciate. I'm sorry I'm so shallow, I had really bad parents). But dreadlocks? No. It seems to me few people can pull dreds off well. Sells records better than scrubs or epaulets I bet. Looks like someone's street creds. But for some it is the only practical way to wear their hair, and I think it is obvious when one is and when one isn't groomed.

I do wish some didn't have to go through such misery and pain using those overpriced hair products. And the person who spoke to Original Grits daughter that way was an insensitive jerk. But maybe there was some event that caused him/her to speak up for the future benefit of your daughter and her patients. I've had people in positions of authority say unnecessarily mean and disrespectful things to me. It shocked me. It angered me. I wanted to knock their block off. But that's how they communicated, warts and all. I bit my tongue (tongue biting is underrated, and so are manners). I lost some respect for them. But I took their advice, anyway. And I'm a better, more productive, and tougher worker because of it. In spite of it. Maybe their heart was in the right place, even though their foot was in their mouth. Some old fashioned straight talk. Good for you Original Grits daughter. There's nothing wrong with not speaking to a social misfit, clearly you're better than that oaf.

I'm not defending anyone, but maybe their intent was positive, not negative. Or maybe they are ignorant jerks. The world is full of them, too, so the sooner we all learn to cope/deal with that type the better off we are, and teach our kids that, too. Sometimes it is best to keep your mouth shut, take it, and move on. Learn from it, make a note. And don't repeat it to subordinates or family or loved ones or anyone. Unless one wishes to be disrespected and viewed as an ignorant jerk.

What would you think if you had to have life-threatening surgery and the doctor was similar in appearance to the gentleman on the lower right. What if the surgery was for your four year old daughter or your mom. C'mon, be honest to yourself. Or he's an airline captain and you catch a glimpse while he takes a restroom break at 35,000 feet. That would get my attention. I bet both their CVs are very impressive. I'll bet they are both smarter than I am. Right or wrong, I know what I would think. Reggae concert, fine. Cutting on my daughter, no. If given a choice I'll get a second opinion, I'll wait for the next flight. See ya. (Look, if my daughter dies or plane wrecks and some hippie lookin' dude is responsible, I would feel pretty dumb about not excersing my personal judgement.) Maybe I'm shallow. Maybe I'm too narrow minded. Maybe I'm not giving one the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I'm profiling. Maybe I'm using my personal judgement. Its OK. We can still use judgement can't we? It isn't all about that tired old faithful cop out excuse skin color, is it?

If you were going to spend tens of thousands of dollars of your hard earned money remodeling a house, would you hire the guy with an unkempt afro or nice, attractively groomed black hair? They both have purdy pictures of their (or someone else's) earlier work.

It depends. Look at their tools. If one's tools are somewhat organized and the other's are just scattered about the truck, there's your answer. Discrimination. Judgement. Profile. Bias. You better use every tool in the toolbox or you will suffer the consequences more often than not.

No, we don't all have the same chances in life. TV shows and pretty advertisements are not the yardstick to measure our quality of life. We don't all have the same access. But if you want the corporate power job, you have to (among other things) attempt to look the part. You have to play ball. That's the way it is. That HR person did when he/she was job hunting. Those other people you are interviewing with are. Your colleagues are. Your business associates are. Your business competitors are. That person who really wants that promotion sure is. You better try. You better play ball. Sometimes you must step outside your personal world and look at yourself from the perspective of others. A little professional sanity check. How do you compare? Can you hold up you end of the bargain? Can someone else do it better?

That person calling the shots just got ripped off by that handsome contractor, and he thinks he is wiser. He/she is using their life's experiences to help decide, discriminate, profile, judge. And he/she is choosing that other person. The one who happens to have better hair. Lighter skin. Skinnier. Better looking. Male. Maybe, for this job, they ARE more qualified than you. Maybe he/she is right. They've been running this successful corp for years. It hurts, it sucks. I understand. But one has to deal with disappointments and be truthful and honest to oneself. Learn from it, and move on. What can I do to improve myself and be the successful candidate next time? Demonizing helps no one: easy to do, but a complete waste of time and energy, and reinforces a negative behavior pattern.

Besides, Jesus told him/her to hire the person with the nice hair. What, you think you can compete with Jesus? You gonna need a better haircut. At least $425.

Just my opinion. I don't think I know it all; I know I don't. I still have a lot to learn. I hope I didn't offend anyone. If I have please let me know.

Look, I'm white and I'm from the south. I discriminate. I know I'm not suppose to. I know it's not cool. I don't hire, I don't fire. But I think black women are hot. Mama Mia.

Thank you


Oli said...

I, too, love natural black hair, and it disappoints me when I see hate geared towards it from society and even more so when from black people

Angelika said...

I've worn my hair in braids for years now. I've tried to do dreads, they just won't stay in.

But I'm seriously considering sporting a "fro" next time I take my braids out.

For me, it's just about convenience. What's easiest for me to do myself & how quickly I can get out of the house when I need to.

But yeah, when I worked, I made sure my hair was straight & styled to get the job, then I busted out the braids after I had the job, LOL.

Angelika said...

Look for your High Five from me HERE.

Thinker Too said...

I am a 50-somethiing african-american woman who has worn natural hair since the early 1970s, Over the years I have been most struck that so much attention and speculation has been devoted to the motives of females with natural hair, but so little is said about the hair-straitening process.

From age seven to 20 no one outside my immediate family ever saw my natrual hair. It was straitened and curled once a week (usually Sunday afternoons) in our kitchen. This unpleasant, odiferous task usually took about an hour. My mother heated the metal straightening comb and curling iron on the gas stove burners. Despite her efforts to avoid harming me, sometimes she singed my hair or burned an ear. If someone came to the house while my hair was being done, the process had to be stopped and my hair covered until they left. On school nights I wore curlers (hard plastic at first, then foam in later years) to bed. By Thursday, I could usually smell my no-longer-fresh hair and my scalp was beginning to itch, but a mid-week washing-drying-straitening-curling was out of the question. I had to endure until Friday evenings, when I could at least scratch my scalp without being concerned about disturbing the dandruff flakes.

In the late 1960s I began wearing my natural hair at home, but continued to have it pressed for school, then in 1970 began wearning my natural hair in all settings.

In the late 70's I foolishly tried a mild chemical relaxant at a salon. The process had no effect on my hair's texture or appearance, but I was left with a small chemical-burn and the memory of the foul and overpowering, but seldom-mentioned, smell of hair straightening chemicals.

Zee Harrison said...

How wonderful to receive so many responses on this topic!

Here's Round 2 of my responses to the 'newer' comments.

I believe that some women get the whole shebang: nails, hair, boobs FOR men. Note I said some. Some men like all that stuff. Believe it. Look: why are extensions/wigs all the rage?

Good for you!
Thank you for the link which I have checked out!

Doctor Disillusioned:
True. Very true.

Thank you for your contribution and I agree with you. We humans are incredibly superficial.

You are a ranter! Your thoughts are like mine sometimes - all over the place! I understand it completely. Although I don't agree with all you had to say.
How sad that you could look in a cockpit and see a pilot with dreadlocks or a surgeon about to operate on your daughter and decide that this person wasn't competent based solely on them having a hairstyle which made you feel uncomfortable. How incredibly honest but sad. We have a long way to go.

I have been criticised for having natural hair at various points in my life and I know how dumb those people are. I think it can have a lasting negative effect on young people who are trying to find their way in this confusing world.


Thank you for your comments and the High Five! See how we conform?

Thinker Too:
Been there, had the head burnt and the ears. Picked off healing scabs and the rest. Let us forgive those who didn't have an understanding of what they were doing, eh? It's called conforming and also fashion. I won't relay my recent experiences with my hair - suffice to say: no more experiments for me. Natural all the way...until...!!

Thank you all for dropping by and taking time out of your precious lives to leave a comment. Forgive me for not getting back to you all in a timely manner but each and every comment is valued.
Thank you,

C Woods said...

From a different point of view:
I told my friend Sophie, I was going to have my hair cut the next day. She asked what I was planning to have done. "Just a trim, the same style". I paused, then added, "White people have boring hair, don't they?" I love Sophie's loud infectious laugh. I envy her with her short Afro one week, a hair weave the next, and some days she wears one of several wigs. I admit I have a wig, but I bought one that is, in style and color, as much like my real hair as possible ---for emergency bad-hair days ---but it's too hot to wear, except maybe to a January football game. (Attending a football game is just slightly above having my eye poked out with a stick on my "things I want to do" list.)

I'm also jealous of Sophie's style ----wildly-printed clothing and enormous earrings. I'm here with my plain beige clothes, my plain brown hair and my plain beige skin.

Once I asked my friend Linda, who had her hair in corn rows, if she were able to wash her hair that way. "White people know nothing about black people's hair," she snapped. Why would I? TV ads for hair products almost always picture someone with impossibly silky smooth hair, rippling in slow motion --more envy. Not a black face in sight.

I like to read memoirs, so my husband picked up Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s "Colored People: A Memoir" at the library. Gates wrote a whole chapter on hair. He mentioned how the guys in the neighborhood used to sit around the TV and talk about Nat King Cole with admiration ---they were sure he could afford hair "processes" they had never dreamed of. After reading the memoir, I am not quite so ignorant of black people's hair. Gees, I have enough trouble keeping my eternal mousy look in place.

brie said...

I know i'm late but i think i saw this at the right time for me. Great post!
Just blogged on this recently>>http://justyougirl.blogspot.com/2009/08/politics-of-it.html and i think that Black hair becomes political because so many pple (black and white) don't understand it.As someone who's transitioning i've had to do a lot of research on natural hair and some of the stupid articles and comments i've seen on ideas about women with natural hair are shocking. Still, i guess it's about education and personal choice.

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