The Politics of Hair

In 2008 the America tabloid In Touch published a story about Beyonce Knowles wig collection. In the story they estimated that Beyonce’s wig collection was valued at in excess of $1 million. Five years later and she is probably the most famous singer in the world with a much larger collection of wigs, weaves and other fake appendages attached to her scalp, with a much bigger social impact. She is frequently lambasted by pop culture and sociological pundits for buying into the Barbie doll aesthetic and promoting an unreal image of black womanhood. She has been accused of lightening her skin tone, having rhinoplasty and overall changing her appearance from that of a beautiful black woman to that of a beautiful white woman. Above all though it is her hair that garners most attention. Google ‘Beyonce hair’ and of the 105,000,000 hits a large portion of them are debates on whether her hair is real, a wig, a weave and the politics that surrounds hair in black culture. The scion of pop culture may not identify solely as African American (she has more than once stated she has a multi-ethnic background – African American, Irish, French and Cherokee, but the impact of her hair choices resonate through debates on race, ethnicity and feminism.

Hair has never been just something on your head. It is chopped, braided, dyed, spiked, back combed, shaped, plucked, implanted and pretty much anything else you can think to do to it. In pre-transatlantic slave trade West African cultures hair was central to defining culture, status and identity, as it still is today all over the world. The absolute horror and personal annihilation that slave traders inflicted on their human chattel would not have been as effective if culture, status and identity were allowed to continue after people were kidnapped and shipped across the ocean. One of the principle means of dehumanising their victims involved shaving their hair in an effort to wipe out culture and identity. Over time the know-how and ability for personal hair grooming particular to people from West Africans was lost amongst the slave population. In addition slaves didn’t have the hair care products that generally suited their hair type, such as palm oil, and had to rely on other easily attainable products such as bacon grease and wool combs for their hair care.

Hair and skin tone became further politicised when second and subsequent generations of slaves were born. Frequently they were the result of the slave masters raping slave girls and women. Genetics being genetics skin tone, facial features and hair texture clearly identified who was related to the slave owners. Frequently the children of slaves and slave masters were afforded better living conditions (such as living in better houses, better food and so on) and a better chance at making it through what was a harsh existence.

Overtime the politicisation of hair had reached new heights. Emancipation didn’t change much as the more similar one was to the dominant economic culture (white) the easier it was to get on in life. It is in fact estimated that hundreds of thousands of African Americans with light skin tones and straight hair passed themselves off as white and completely changed their identities in order to blend into white society.

The ‘one drop rule’, adopted into law in the 1920s deemed that anyone with even a bit of African heritage would be seen as legally black, and thus subjected to demeaning prejudice in their everyday lives, made ‘passing’ as white an attractive option for those who could. They didn’t have to sit on designated seats on buses didn’t have to use separate facilities, could get better jobs and weren’t abused because of their race. It is hard to know exactly how many people crossed the ‘race line’ but various research projects into ethnicity have found that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of those who identify as white in America have some African ancestry. The same phenomenon has been observed South Africa and no doubt in any other country where one group was repressed to such an extent that it was easier to pretend to be someone else. Hair, skin tone and features became one of the main identifiers in a hierarchy of ethnicity that for better or worse that facilitated easier lives. It might not be as evident nowadays but it is still present and very much a social phenomenon.

The legacy of ethnic hierarchies permeates through American and pop culture to this day. Eurocentric models sell clothes and goods. The Barbie-doll aesthetic is pervasive in music and movies. No doubt Beyonce makes millions from her numerous advertising endorsements where she is styled to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Having long lustrous blonde hair is central to this appeal and central to her bank account. She may define her ethnicity as multi-ethnic and thus it is not fair to label her as someone who rejects her heritage. However, her visual appearance, at least in her public life, would suggest that she identifies a lot more with one of her ethnic heritages more so than the others.

The Eurocentric media that has been pervasive in America is of course changing to accommodate the increasing diversity in American society. With more and more people identifying as multi-ethnic and celebrating their diversity advertisers and pop culture is beginning to represent this. But until the time when all hair types, skin tones and features are perceived as equally beautiful in pop culture the melting pot will be nothing more than an inadequate representation of a society still obsessed with race.

Black Natural Hair Politics – Is Hair Just Hair?

I really get irritated when people try to downplay the significance of hair in the African community. It IS something that needs to be addressed. I don’t understand how an entire race of women,

a)chemically altering their hair to the point where it resembles hair of other cultures,

b) having no idea how to care for their natural texture, and

c) many believing that their natural texture, is inappropriate, ugly, unmanageable, and taboo, is not an issue that deserves attention. How is it simply “just hair” when the aforementioned things are TRUE!!! How is it just hair when the MAJORITY of African women are spending billions of dollars trying to keep their natural texture hidden? How is that not an area that needs attention?

Hair is just hair. No it isn’t when we as a race are teaching our children to dislike their own texture and are burning the scalps of two year olds to achieve a straighter more manageable look. It is not just hair when most of our women don’t even know how to manage their natural texture.

It is not just hair when our men have become so brainwashed that they too prefer a texture that in no way resembles theirs. It’s crazy when a black man has a negative word to say about a black woman deciding to wear her natural hair. That is absurd. He has the same hair growing from his scalp, but prefers that his woman has hair that she needs to either purchase or chemically alter. Her natural hair is seen as unattractive to him. That is insane.

This hair thing is a big deal. If we could all learn to accept our natural texture and believe that it was beautiful, imagine the good that could come from that. Perhaps less of us would be overweight. Perhaps less of us would be clinically depressed and in need of medication.

Have you ever stopped to think of the serious mental impact is has on a child to learn that their natural features are inferior to that of other cultures? If what they are born with is inferior, what else about them is inferior? If they have to change themselves in order to be considered attractive what else needs to be changed, it leaves room to wonder what IS good about me? Why aren’t I beautiful just the way I am? Why is it that every other culture is beautiful when they are born but I have to pay weekly for a professional to transform me into something beautiful?

Why? And why are we content to sweep this issue under the rug and carry on as though what the vast majority of our women is doing is normal?

I don’t care what anyone has to say about it. If an entire race of women prefer another texture of hair to their own and think that this other texture is “easier to manage” than their own and they are willing to pay thousands of dollars on it every year to keep the natural texture out of sight ( to the tune of billions of dollars collectively) and these same women who spend so much time money and energy hiding and changing their hair are in the race where business ownership is the lowest out of all others in the county and homeownership is the lowest, but diabetes and heart disease and obesity are the highest and you think this issue is still trivial, I think you have some reevaluating to do.

I believe that this small issue of hair can really be a turning point for our people. I believe that if we all accepted our hair and all agreed that it was beautiful that we would start to see a change in the collective confidence and self esteem of our people. If you are a natural that has learned to accept your natural texture and are not hiding it under weaves and braids and flat irons most f the time, but you are really rocking and learning to love your natural texture, then you can attest to the personal changes that have taken place in your life and you know how much more confident you are. You know what it was like to look at yourself with your own hair and see the beauty for the first time. You know how liberating it was. Imagine that times a million!

Imagine what would happen if every woman you know felt the same way about natural hair as you. Imagine what your conversations would start to be about. Imagine what thoughts would start to circulate through out our communities. Imagine what would happen if mothers were teaching their daughters they were beautiful just the way they are and the little girls saw all of the women in their families wearing their hair just like them and it was the norm. Imagine what would begin to happen to our people.