Gabby Douglas & once again: A white woman talks about black women’s hair.

So, Gabby Douglas…! Whoooooooo! First American to win both individual and team gold in gymnastics! First American person of color to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition! Absolutely astonishing to watch as she plies her trade! Her smile can bring tears to the eyes and light to the soul!

Let’s talk about her hair.

Yes, that’s right. People are talking a hell of a lot about this 16 years old phenom’s hair. Indeed, if you Google “Gabby Douglas,” Google will, at this point, automatically offer you “Gabby Douglas hair” because so many people have had so much to say on the matter. A lot of it has been in the social media, but not exclusively, as this article by a writer I normally like a lot can attest — the girl is 16 years old, and people are dissecting her hair in the national press. I ask you.

So I thought I’d re-up that post I wrote about black women’s hair again. In the meantime, since I first wrote it, I’ve learned that some black women I really admire (such as Melissa Harris-Perry) have big issues with the Chris Rock documentary off of which so much of this post pivots — I’ve never heard what the issues are, though, just seen publicly rolled eyes. I do want to acknowledge here, however, that the documentary was clearly not greeted with universal acclaim by the very people about whom it was made. I would love to hear more about that in comments, if folks are willing.

(I will add only this: I may not be black, but I am a mom. On a very real level, this conversation has nothing to do with me — but on another level? If nationally-known writers were dissecting my 16 year old’s hair in the press, I would snatch those writers bald. Plain and simple. What’s wrong with people?)

*****

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 acrossthis 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.”

Not.My.Business.

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.

10 Comments

  1. Captain Button

     /  August 3, 2012

    Well for a different stupid Olympics complaint someone over at The Atlantic Wire is getting upset about the gray jackets athletes are wearing.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/08/thrill-victory-agony-those-jackets/55385/

  2. zenobiajo

     /  August 4, 2012

    Thanks, Em. Much appreciated. After years of looking “corporate”, i.e., relaxed hair style that was absolutely necessary while moving up the career ladder, I am now a retiree with natural, short, hair. Its never been so good!

  3. Emily

     /  August 4, 2012

    Last night I watched the individual competition. Gabby Douglas is utterly phenomenal.

  4. 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.

    It would look like an America many of us dream of… and it would look like an America that would frighten a certain segment of the population into fits of histrionic & hyperbolic rage. The disagreements we have over culture, religion, poverty, and yes, hair, all come from this idea that the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant standard is the standard by which everything must be measured. I, as a white, Ostrogothic, formerly-Catholic male, am tired of it, myself. I’m tired of hearing how poor people are living it up on Welfare. I’m tired of hearing how women who want birth control are “whores.” I’m tired of people denigrating a young woman who has accomplished a feat so few will ever even have the ability to, over they way her hair is.

    We have so many serious problems in our world, problems that — if solved — would no doubt bring stability and peace to our society. And yet, we take our energies and hurl them at misbegotten and misguided tropes of our past as if they are the most important considerations of the age. The same country that marshaled its energy, will, and technological prowess in putting men on the Moon, now spends it time trying to expunge evolution from the textbooks, turning corporations and fetuses into people, and filling social media with wanton ignorance and thinly-veiled bigotry.

    If there’s anything we should be celebrating beyond the achievements themselves, it is that Gabby Douglas, despite all these things, went about narrowing her focus and achieving her goals, and did so in the most spectacular fashion. She has lived her dream, done it before the cameras, and hopefully has inspired many of us to work harder in the pursuit of our own goals. Let us take from her the energy and enthusiasm of achievement, and know that we can change the world if we dedicate ourselves to doing so.

  5. chrome agnomen

     /  August 5, 2012

    even as a 99% white male, this article makes me sad. i find black women to be remarkably beautiful with ‘natural’ hair, (and to be clear, not the opposite with styled hair). to me it shows a pride in what they (we) are. i suppose this is a stupid question, but is this hair care fetish male-driven, like so many other fashion dictates across the board? it seems a universal phenomenon that people cannot be comfortable with their own self-image. i recall the famous quote, often repeated by me, by richard feynman, ‘what do you care what other people think?’, though i can certainly understand the style issue when taken in the context of job application and acceptance.

    80% of the hair care expense? can this be true?

    sorry about the word salad aspect of this post. confused and perplexed about the issue, i reckon.

  6. Emily, once again, you nail an important subject. The only thing I disagree with is that I *do* think it is your business. When we erect the social barricades of what we can talk about and what we cannot we devise a state where someone is afraid to speak truth to a neighbour. Of course, one can be courteous, and sensitive to cultural influences. But what is wrong is wrong, and what is right is right, and we should never be frightened to say so.

    Here’s an example. Would you please re-blog this for me, or otherwise publicise it. Honestly, this stuff is just so terrifying, I wonder if Americans know how this makes the country look. A young black man commits suicide by shooting himself in the temple while handcuffed in the back of a police car. I mean, seriously.

    Thanks!

    http://wp.me/p1LY0z-FT

  7. CitizenE

     /  August 9, 2012

    This was a social philosophy not too very long ago, even a social experiment that was widespread, it went viral, actually, all over the world, but it was called off on account of other things and relegated to wide-spread and almost unilateral disrepute, usually accompanied by the two epithets lazy and dirty.

  8. Kim

     /  August 9, 2012

    Why do they do it (it being frying their heads with caustic substances)? Because they are seen as having an “unprofessional” look, not “the image the company wants to convey” sort of thing. Because they want to have a nice middle class life which requires money, which requires a good job, which requires a “professional” (fried head) look. They do it because every major publication that deals with beauty in the world says that beauty is W-H-I-T-E. That means white skin, white features, white hair. Note how many Cicely Tyson/ Angela Bassett/ S. Epatha Merkeson looking actresses are given the acclaim they deserve. Or as close to it as one can get. And which woman (or little girl) doesn’t want to be beautiful?

  9. LongHairedWeirdo

     /  August 9, 2012

    I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and there was a line that just chilled me.

    He talked about the “conk” (I hope I’m remembering it right) that every black man who wanted to fit in did. They all straightened their hair with harsh chemicals that were dangerous (one night his pipes froze and he was desperately rinsing his burning head in the toilet).

    And this I remember as a bit of a throwaway line – they all did it, every single one of them… but no one ever complimented their hair.

    I can’t explain why that was so horrifying, but it was. I mean, a woman starves herself and works herself to exhaustion and hears “oh, you’ve lost weight!” That shouldn’t matter so much, but it does. Okay, but that’s something. You see what I mean? You lose some visible weight, and that’s *something*. And people say something. And they think something positive about it.

    And there were these men straightening their hair, they all knew that they “had” to, but no one ever said even that much about it.

    Of course, that’s men – there’s a difference there, because men have different appearance standards. But it still… there were two scenes that really stunned me with their powerful. That was one, and the other was when he went from bright, eager pupil, to angry young man, just because he was told “you know, you shouldn’t try to be a lawyer, you should think of being a (carpenter, I think)”.

    And I agree, it’s not my business, exactly. It’s certainly not my business to tell someone not to mess with their hair, if they think it makes them look nice. People do all kinds of things to look nice that I don’t think are ‘right’ – I guess I’m too old to understand funky facial piercings, for example!

    But if someone feels they have to? If they feel their natural hair is awful and ugly? If they need to have a “professional look” that they hate, but have to keep? That fills me with a special kind of rage at the forces that cause them to feel that way.