A white woman writes about black women’s hair.

(Update: A few hours later, I came back to this and inserted a more direct reference to the inherent racism playing out here as well.)

I’ll start with this: This is not my business. Not.My.Business. I know that, and if any African-American readers want to tell me as much, I won’t be able to argue.

But last night, I watched Chris Rock’s documentary about black women and black women’s hair, called (very pointedly) Good Hair. And when I find something that profoundly disturbing, that’s usually a sign that I need to write about it, and so here I am.

I’ve known for years that the concept of “good hair” exists in the black community, and that it translates to “not nappy,” or (as I understand it) “as close as possible to white hair as black hair can get.” I have always understood “good hair” to be a statement of deep, internalized criticism, one that teaches little black girls (and little black boys) that there is something essentially not-good — or, in other words, bad — about black hair. About having black hair. About being black.

Why I had this awareness, I’m not sure. I spent some of my growing up in the home of my aunt and uncle, where I have two white cousins and one black one, but we were all very young, and they were working hard to let their boy-who-happened-to-be-black know that, in fact, being black was a very good thing. There were black dolls, books with black characters, subscriptions to Ebony, and Ebony Jr.

The awareness may have seeped in from there, or from the occasional comment by black figures in pop culture. I remember Whoopie Goldberg doing a bit about putting her slip on her head as a little girl, pretending it was long, blonde hair that would blow in the breeze. I can still see her, grown woman channeling the little girl, slip on her head, grinning, waving her head back and forth, back and forth.

I came into adulthood in a foreign land, but one dominated by American pop culture. I would see the ladies of En Vogue flipping their long, long, long hair, or Beyonce, or Naomi Campbell, or Tyra Banks, and honestly wince as I thought of what this was telling little black girls — about beauty, about self-worth. About their bodies. About their skin.

And then I moved back to America, and came to see another side to it: Sure, I rarely see a black woman whose hair is not relaxed — forced to “goodness” — but I also came to see how much creativity black women express with their hair. The wigs, the weaves, the veritable sculptures that some create with potions and props and sheer will. There’s an art there, one a white woman really can’t access or, likely, understand.

I came to see, also, that there’s a class issue, wrapped up in all the other issues. I once asked a black woman online about the effort involved in creating the almost cantilevered styles I see in the Chicago neighborhood six blocks west of my house, and she said, with an almost-audible sniff, “Oh, you mean the parade floats?” And I suddenly saw: Black women of a certain stripe do this, black women of another stripe do that, and if you’re a lawyer or want to be one? You’d better choose hair that no one would call a parade float.

And (once again thanks to some complicated series of internet links) I stumbled across this video (for the longer — and very powerful — cut, click here, and to read more about it, click here) in which a black high school student recreated a 50-year old experiment with young black children, asking them to choose between a black or a white doll — “which is the nice doll?” — and, straight up, it made me cry. It broke my heart. Breaks my heart. No child should be walking around with such a powerful sense of being less. No one. No one.

So over the course of about the last three years, I’ve learned that whatever I thought I knew about black women and their hair — I really had no idea. I really wanted to see Good Hair when it came out in 2009, but missed it, so when the husband saw that it was available on On Demand, he immediately recorded it for me. And last night, I watched.

And I really had no idea.

According to the statistics offered in the film, the black community makes up 12% of the American population, but accounts for 80% of hair care expenses. It’s a huge, huge, multi-billion dollar industry that by-and-large funnels up to white-owned cosmetics firms, but also has a few black millionaires in its ranks, not to mention the thousands of black-owned beauty shops, supporting countless black families and black dreams. The anchor of the film was the annual Bronner Brothers hair show, in Atlanta, and if you’re looking for personal creativity, look no further: Creativity and energy and a real commitment to excellence.

And a whole lot of chemicals and other people’s hair and anything and everything that looks almost nothing at all like the hair that black women actually have growing out of their heads. As one of Rock’s interviewees said, if you’re a black woman and you just let your hair grow out of your head in its natural state, “that’s revolutionary.”

And the chemicals are dangerous and corrosive (when Rock told a white chemist [just after watching the active ingredient in hair relaxers eat through a piece of raw chicken] that black women use that same chemical on their hair, the chemist was visibly shocked: “Why?!” was all he could say), and the weaves insanely expensive (just the weave itself can regularly cost anywhere from $1000 to $3500, and that doesn’t include the constant professional maintenance they demand), and the whole process literally creates a barrier to intimacy between black women and black men — because when you’ve invested that much in your hair, pretty much nobody had better touch it.

“It’s decoration,” one stunning young woman says with a smile, “it’s decoration. Don’t touch it.”

And I suppose now is the place at which we (finally) get to the point of this being Not.My.Business.

Because the whole thing just left me so sad. So beat down, even.

It was like watching beautiful women talk about their lifetime of dieting, their tricks for dressing to look thinner, their methods for cutting calories during the holidays, smiling broadly over their successes and also kind of (a little bit) laughing at themselves for the obsession, while yet maintaining and feeding the obsession. Like watching mothers tell their little girls not to eat, that they won’t get what they want if they allow their bodies to be something other than slim, while at the same time hearing their men complain about not being able to just eat a damn dessert now and then.

Both sides feeding into a self-destructive, self-denying, self-loathing system that neither side fully recognizes but which each side plays a part in perpetuating. The women serving as their own police force — as any oppressed society does — leaving the men to be baffled by something that ultimately serves their needs and their position of (relative) power.

With (in this case) the willing, willed, and sometimes completely unknowing collaboration of the majority white culture, which is setting the standard for beauty and, more than that — the standard for acceptable. Normative. Human.

If black women stop wanting straight hair, where will the industry go? How will those white-owned cosmetics firms turn a profit? Racism, sexism, class, and the basest of capitalist impulses, and all played out literally on the heads of one of this society’s least enfranchised groups. As the Rev. Al Sharpton (who, it should be noted, relaxes his own hair) put it to Chris Rock: “You’re literally wearing your economic oppression.”


Bottom line, every person on earth has the right to do whatever they want with their hair — just as every woman has the right to decide if she’s going to put effort into re-shaping her body, and every gay person has the right to decide if they’re going to be out or not.

Moreover, every such decision is the result of a hundred different little factors, many of which are entirely invisible to the naked eye. Not to mention that human creativity is not to be denied, or belittled.

But it seems clear to me that — just as with the in/out decisions in the LGBTQ community, and the accept/change-my-body decisions among women generally — as black women continue to spend billions of dollars and risk actual, objective physical harm in order to approximate a kind of hair that can only be called the-opposite-of-black, the decisions made are heavily influenced by societal pressures that undermine their value — their humanity — at every turn.

It saddens me, and it disturbs me, and frankly, it seems like a horrible waste — and not just of money and skin cells. I think of all the time and energy that women spend on body image, and LGBTQ people spend on the closet, and black women spend on their hair, and I wonder:

What would America look like — what would the society in which I live, breath, vote, love, work, and raise children look like — if we could allow each other and ourselves to live in our own skin? Black girls and women included.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

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  1. Shadow's Mom

     /  December 23, 2010

    I’m white, not black, so also Not.My.Business. I found your post both moving and thought-provoking. I have not yet seen ‘Good Hair;’ however, I did suffer from an eating disorder in my 20’s. I had to learn how to accept and even enjoy my body as it is in order to allow myself to eat normally.

    I do not know how African American readers may feel about your post, but I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

    • I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback at Angry Black Lady Chronicles, as well as from Abell, above. It’s been very heartening! (I was a bit nervous when I hit “publish”!)

    • Ellabella

       /  June 12, 2014

      I am a black woman and so happy to see this post. I am perplexed as to why a white person would think this was offensive. I truly think both blacks and whites should stop these separatists attitudes. This almost brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for writing this. It really feels good to see this coming from a white woman. Thank you

  2. That was the last movie I saw in theatres before Drew was born! Ethan and I went on a date for dinner and that movie. I thought it was excellent.

    What would America look like — what would the society in which I live, breath, vote, love, work, and raise children look like — if we could allow each other and ourselves to live in our own skin?

    I wish to God I knew the answer to that. It’s the America I’m trying to create, in my own tiny ways, for my loved ones — especially my son.

    • It has to start with our kids, doesn’t it. There’s nothing so radical, nothing so punk, as raising a kid to change the world.

  3. zic

     /  December 24, 2010

    Race codes cut in many directions. I have a cousin, 11 months older, so of course when we were growing up, she was like everything, and I struggled to keep up. (We’re talking like 4 and 5 yrs. old, now, 11 months is the world of difference.) I’m straight-up white; she’s half latino.

    So this particularly Christmas, our mom’s coordinate to get us baby dolls. Nice dolls, the kind poor girls dreamed about. My cousin? She goes and names her doll “Baby Jesus.” (Total wasp Baby Jesus, to boot.) How can you compete with that? I named mine Tabitha, after the baby girl on “Bewitched.” But my heart wasn’t in it.

    Today, she still has her Baby Jesus, treasures it. My witch baby, meanwhile, is long gone to the graveyard of discarded toys. And it’s only as an adult that I learn, Jesus is a common name in Latino communities; and all the while, I thought she had God in her toy cradle.

    On retrospect, there’s something appropriate in a hedge witch such as I naming her doll after a TV witch baby.

    It’s got nothing to do with hair, but the rankings of womanhood start early and last long. Takes a mighty effort to see, no matter the culture, the color, the the cut, curl or the length, we’re all sisters.

    • Baby Jesus! That is just so awesome! And of course, being a white girl myself, I didn’t twig on the Spanish pronunciation until you got to that part of the story.

      And the notion that the closest you could get to competition with Christ the Savior was a child witch from the TV! This just made me grin, funny start to sweet finish.

  4. Abell

     /  December 26, 2010

    I appreciate the time u spent trying to understand how deeply rooted hair issues are for us. I am a black woman with natural hair living in Chicago (1 block from the west side) and I have to say … Wow…a white woman who finally gets it! I have had to tell white co workers my hair is none of their business. They didn’t appreciate that I didn’t want to adhere to what their standard of beauty was any longer when i started my natural hair transition. And while I dont wear locs which is what they were “afraid” i would do (insert eye roll here) I have fallen in love with the natural hair that God has given me.

    Again I appreciate this article and ur genuine interest in this topic. :))

    • Thank you so much for saying so! I was genuinely worried that I was crossing a line, and I’ve been so glad to hear, both here and at Angry Black Lady Chronicles, that I had not so much crossed a line as hit a nerve. We’re all doing our best, I figure!

      • zic

         /  December 26, 2010

        Those moments we worry most about bring greatest reward.

        Writing safe shit is just safe, doesn’t push the writer or the reader.

        hugs for chances, for the risk of getting it wrong and the joy of getting it just right.

  5. Emily:

    I applaud you for writing this and I applaud you for finding the courage to trust yourself and “hit the publish button”.
    I totally agree with Abell – you do “get it” and your perspective proved to be one of the most honest and eloquent I have read on this topic.

    As a black woman whose hair has been through the gamut of relaxers and extensions (braids, weaves), I finally decided 2 years ago, at age 38, that it was time for ME to define what beauty was for ME – society had had that job for far too long – and I started my natural hair journey growing locks. And I haven’t looked back. What’s more fascinating about this journey is the reaction from friends, particularly those who still wear relaxers and feel this journey is just a “phase” or a “trend” or I am just being rebellious and it will be harder for people to take me seriously, while those who have embraced their natural hair wondered why it took me so long and constantly remind me it’s a lifestyle change, not a phase or a trend. Consequently, my white friends have embraced the change and love my locks. But at the end of the day, as long as I am happy with my hair and I feel good about myself, that is what truly matters.

    With a degree in marketing and advertising, it’s refreshing to see more and more companies (not related to haircare) incorporating black women and children with natural hair into their advertising campaigns, particularly print and tv. I believe that long-aged definition of what beauty is and what it looks like is starting to shift.

    By no means am I a religious person, but I am very spiritual and in the end, after seeing Good Hair, I realize good hair is the hair that God gave you – the hair you were born with.

    Yes, Emily, I agree that people can do whatever they want to their hair – that is the beauty of choice. However, moving forward, I pray that the level of consciousness in regards to beauty and hair changes in that we realize that REAL beauty isn’t found on a wig, on a track of hair or in a box of relaxer – it comes from a much deeper place. Once we realize and accept this, let’s love our children enough to help them realize and accept the same.

  6. Wonderful post!

  7. Hi Emily,

    I clicked over from the Lost Battalion and I have to say you really hit the nail on the head with your post. I remember when I first got a perm. I was eleven and just starting middle school. It was a huge rite of passage. Only babies wore their hair natural. Nine years later I was sitting in my college cafeteria when my friend turned to me and asked “Why do you straighten your hair?” and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. There are so many thing tied up with having straight hair; class, beauty, race. I was not equipped to explain all of this to her, a young Puerto Rican woman who’d never seen a relaxer in her life. But I was also not able to explain it to myself. Two months later I cut all of the relaxed hair off and have never looked back.

    Many young women my age have also given up on the perms. There are quite a few online communities built around teaching and encouraging black women to go natural and to take care of the hair that few of us ever learned to deal with. Black women have started their own businesses to take care of the hair of this burgeoning community. Lisa Price and Carol’s Daughter is but the tip of the iceberg. Target has recently begun stocking many of these natural hair entrepreneurs like Curls and Jane Carter Solution. So there is change on the way. I know that 90% of my black female friends are also natural. Our daughters will never have perms. But there is still a long way to go. I still get weird looks from my own family about my hair.

    I guess I had a lot to say (this topic is definitely one of my hot points) just wanted to thank you for the blog post and your interest in a topic that is dear to my heart.


    • Thank you so much for clicking over and staying to say something! And thank you so much for your kind words.

      The words “rite of passage” made me think about another aspect of this whole issue that I wonder about a lot — for all that the processing and/or getting a weave is often painful, or at the very least uncomfortable, I can’t help but feel that there’s an element of female bonding, a kind of warmth and love that gets expressed in kitchens and beauty shops, or is held in memories, and I wonder how much of that is lost — and is experienced as loss — when a woman decides to go natural. The online communities, the businesses and niche salons probably serve also to fill that need (hopefully with less heat and pain, though!).

  8. It’s always interesting to hear another perspective on why a certain group of people do anything. What black women subject themselves to hair wise is crazy but whether I wore my hair natural or relaxed I would have to set aside a special time to take care of it. Unfortunately that is just the nature of highly textured hair it can be high maintenance. Before my hair was relaxed it took hours to do because it was just so much of it. Very kinky and extremely prone to tangling. Manageability was the main reason my hair was relaxed.

    We do have to go out into society and of course we are judged on everything physical including our hair so we want to make a good impression. I even created a blog dedicated to textured hair because I believe that “good hair” is hair you take care of and ensure is healthy no matter what you choose do to it.

    We didn’t start the negative connotations that exists that equate everything bad with blackness but we have adopted and perpetuate aspects of that foolishness. As a black woman I fight it when my own people say some of the same stupid things white people want us to believe about ourselves that are negative and stereotypical.

    For black women it’s hair for white women it’s food and weight. We all have our obsession that people from other cultures or ethnic groups just don’t get.

  9. Malinda Roark

     /  January 3, 2013

    I think any women are obsessed with their hair! Being of irish scottish and english descent with naturally curly hair I constantly have a love hate relationship with my hair!! lol My hairstylist when I go get my hair cut he always flat irons it but I just do not have time to do that or the expense of it. My brother is married to a dominican black woman and she goes and has her done straigten. I don’t think I have ever seen her natural. I wish she would sometime wear her hair natural and would save them money since they are have financial struggles!! Just sayin!

  10. keara

     /  February 26, 2014

    im african american and i think a white women needs to share her perspective on ‘black hair’ or black culture in generl….HOW CAN WE GROW AS A PEOPLE IF WE ALL CANT TALK AND SAY WHAT WE WANT!??? thanks for being brave hun

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