The Racial Politics With Black Women's Hair

So Oprah mentioned two things at the end of her show Friday that enquiring minds wanted to know. One answered whether she actually sends her own messages on Twitter or if they’re delegated to a producer or assistant. It’s all her baby! She said that’s why we see so few – she doesn’t have much time to spend. She did include a link from musical guest Robin Thicke’s performance of Lost Without You that wasn’t included in the broadcast here.

The second reply was much more loaded. She let the world know that she does not wear a hair weave. While the speculation on the length and texture of Ms. Winfrey’s hair can be put to rest it begs the question of why it even matters. Despite the fact that many women wear hair pieces, extensions, wigs and weaves there’s this extra fascination with how black women in particular style their hair. Updated with video courtesy of TMZ (yuk I know).

Where does the assumption that it’s mostly black women come from? I’m not talking about non-blacks being so invested either, though at times there’s this “visiting the zoo” fascination. I’m referring to the dirty little secret of racism amongst blacks. I blame it all the term “good” hair and the mentality behind it. It’s the cousin of skin shade racism where the preferred status of black women is to look racially ambiguous (lighter skin tone, longer hair, European features). This has been reinforced by many black men and the more prominent or famous he has been allowed to engage in that practice unchallenged. This isn’t a recent phenomena either.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about preferences. This is about choices. This is also about the promotion of those choices as the only standard which if you watch the average R&B  or hip-hop music video has been made clear. It has also been expressed by certain men in public as they discuss why they specifically want a white-skinned woman. It is reinforced by other women and has left those of us who don’t fit into a Euro-based model for appearance feeling unloved and undesired.

Fortunately, we can reclaim our unique and individual beauty by recognizing we’ve been purposely devalued by other people for the promotion of their interests. We don’t have to let someone else’s preferences define us. We can seek out people who like and accept us as we are. We can find a beauty regime that brings out the best of our features.

Oprah has a team of professional stylists so why wouldn’t the quality of her care be anything but top notch? There are plenty of black women with prominent African features who have long hair and don’t use hair pieces. It’s just too bad that some women feel embattled and think they can’t do anything with their hair except to alter its texture. Or cover it in the finest Yaki – but that doesn’t empower us to learn how to care for it. Hair grows 1/2 inch per month and the issue with shorter hair has to do with keeping the length not whether length can be attained. Chemical processing, use of products and styling choices will affect how much hair we keep on our heads. That’s why so many are advocates of not altering our fragile hair texture with relaxers. It’s all about choices and the freedom to exercise all of our options.

12 comments to The Racial Politics With Black Women’s Hair

  • ActsofFaithBlog

    Eletteria: Thanks for stopping by and offering such detailed insights. I didn't go in the grading of hair texture put generally African-based hair has a tight curl and is quite fragile. Women use relaxers to literally "relax" that curl which straightens its structure. As to other group's curly hair I was going to mention it as an aside but the post was generally speaking about circumstances involving the average black woman. As women we all internalize certain standards in a patriarchal society. We don't have to let it define us however. And as aside human hair weaves do tend to use Asian hair…but it is also Asians (Koreans) that dominate that market so I wouldn't know where commerce and exploitation begins and end there. Feel free to comment anytime.

  • elettaria

    I should start by observing that I'm white and I'm in the UK, specifically Edinburgh in Scotland, where racial history, dynamics and population make-up are rather different. The black population is a lot smaller, the Asian population is a lot larger. So unfortunately I don't know anything about black women's hair from personal experience. Apologies if I'm saying things that are blindingly obvious, or if I'm way off track.I'm guessing that it's down to the norms assumed by the media. In the same way that the "average person" is often assumed to be male, there's the assumption that the "average person" will be white. I'm certainly aware that the make-up industry is focused on Caucasian skin tones to the point where make-up for darker skin is ridiculously limited, and while I don't use commercial hair products myself (my idea of a hair product is a dab of coconut oil), I assume that the same problem manifests itself there. Trying to fit oneself into the ideal presented by the media is hard enough at the best of times, but trying to fit your hair to a specific ideal when it's of a completely different type is probably about as easy as trying to position yourself as a male reader when you're female. The more you diverge from this artificial norm, the more fuss is made (either overtly negative fuss or the not-much-better "ooh you're exotic" type), even if you're following a norm which is natural for you (e.g. having curly hair if folks of your ethnicity generally have curly hair). I'm presuming this is where the extra fascination with how black women style their hair comes from: it's different, and if you try to style it in exactly the same way as Caucasian hair you won't get the same results.Signifiers about hair are fairly odd, anyway. Longer hair is meant to be associated with femininity, and often with sexuality, but as someone who's always had very long hair I can tell you that while it does get admired a lot, it also gets a lot of comments suggesting that it's a strange thing to do, even associations with childishness. Blonde hair is excessively prized in countries where it appears naturally but relatively rarely (I have no idea how they think about blondness in Scandinavia), and the child/vulnerability/sexuality connotations get pretty odd there. Smooth silky hair is admired, which you'd think would mean that Asian women would get the most praise for their hair (my Pakistani neighbour has possibly the most amazing hair I've seen even though she's about 70), but no, we're back to blondness, even when said blondness is artificially produced by means which actually damage the hair. And most of the hairdressers I've seen have hair in the most appalling condition, come to that. Celebs are little better. There's great stress on novelty, and artifice sadly seems to be valued over naturalness. I say sadly not because I have anything against people having fun with their appearance and bodily adornment, but because so many women end up torturing their hair in the name of fashion, frying it to bits or trying to stop it behaving in the way it wants to because they've been told it shouldn't be that way. The idea of "taming" curly hair is particularly common, a rather telling word. My first thought was that it comes from ideas of "taming" women, stopping them from being wild and non-linear and unrestrained. "The Taming of the Shrew" and so forth, and hair has been a common way of restraining women, both historically and now (look at all the cultures where women and women alone have to cover their hair, or make-overs where the first thing they do is chop off lots of hair). But of course I'm forgetting the probable racial history factoring in here: as I said, I'm a Brit, I've grown up with a completely different situation. Do you reckon it's mostly from that, considering that America's had such a long history of racial conflict and is so influential today with regard to fashion and much else? White hair tends to be straight, black hair tends to be curly, curly hair ends up stigmatised?I admit that I've internalised some of this. I tend to think of Asian hair as the "best quality" hair (I believe it's preferred in the wig market, but then of course we get into the various politics of the wig market), but why should smoothness of the hair shaft be the most important thing? You could equally argue that movement and texture are much more interesting than a straight line, and that therefore curly hair wins. And then you get the people who are't interested in shape and texture, just in the colour of the hair, and rank it accordingly. It's all completely arbitrary and rather pointless. I know that when I admire people's hair, it's always for completely different reasons: J has fabulous curls, H has gorgeous long red hair, S has wonderfully thick hair in a shape that shows off her neck, W has dark hair with grey streaks that really suit him, M has a beard that is the stuff of legend.

  • ActsofFaithBlog

    OK: I really want to wrap this conversation up. Here I thought my post was a little light on deconstructing all the issues surrounding this. I didn't include how some black women with naturally long hair use it as a weapon to taunt those that don't and the racial ramifications behind it. I also didn't discuss the initial indoctrination of how those that owned slaves used differences in skin shade/hair texture to control the populations. I'm operating under the assumption this is already accepted as a given. I also realize the average white/asian person has no idea about the differences in textures and the accompanying attitudes along race lines BUT it's 2009! Grab a seat at the table.So I updated the post because TMZ has the footage of the Oprah show where she mentioned it and you will realize it was something she did in passing and it wasn't the topic on her show.Also you keep mentioning wigs and shaming and I will lay that at the feet of the white creators of those 70's shows that you are referencing. We were all being fed their prejudices and in some cases those of the stars. So they were "groundbreaking" but problematic. Why? They were also fond of showing black women as shrews and "sassy". Which you can read my post Attack of the Sassy Black Woman. There's a difference between a weave and a wig. You're focusing on externals though. Your lack of knowledge of these nuances does not give you a pass in my book because if you can comment here you are more than capable of learning. Some of what I mentioned are things that Black people have to resolve for themselves and have nothing to do with whites or any other groups. Wearing the weave doesn't make a black woman "bad". I'm discussing the reasons why so many choose to. You should go back and re-read the post.So with respect I again point back to you and charge you to rise to the challenge. Trust me the tone of my blog is somewhat in the middle with regards to race relations, gender rights, etc. I could go much deeper in deconstructing and analyzing but frankly I'd probably do 1-2 posts per week if I did that. If you want to learn something, fine. I'm not here to coddle you or make you feel better though because I expect intelligent discourse. I will address learned helplessness whether it comes from you, who I feel still wants to fall back on her white privilege somewhat OR from other Blacks who make 1M+ excuses about why they can't do something about x,y & z in their communities.

  • Bellevue Mom

    Fair enough. I realize that my feeble attempts at engagement came across as invasive, and I do apologize for that. If you don't mind me trying to explain where I was coming from, I would like to share it with you better than my last failed effort.Your post was about the "policing" of black women and their hair, with an internalized concept of "good" hair. You pointed out that Oprah chose to answer a question about whether she had a weave. To me, for her to answer this particular question out of thousands indicated she thought it was significant, and she didn't want to be accused of having a weave. So I extrapolated that having a weave would be considered "lesser". At this point, I realized that the cultural messages I have absorbed, primarily from movies and television, include this idea that for black women, having a weave is "lesser". This is demonstrated in shows by having black female characters taken down a notch by having them humiliated by having weaves pulled off, usually "accidentally". The "good" characters do not have this happen to them- it is usually the characters that have overstepped their boundaries. Thus, the next step in "policing" is to "punish" them by shaming them into admitting they don't have real hair. So I realized that the cultural messages I have internalized about black women with weaves is that they are some how not as good as black women without weaves.So then I started to consider the cultural messages I have received about white women and weaves, and it was totally different, as is often the case- where black women are treated harshly, white women are not. As I tried to explain (poorly), my images of white women and weaves do not involve policing, but rather glamour and success. I saw it as another example of black women getting the short end of the stick. As a white women, I am not generally asked to consider these things, and so reading your post was actually the first time I had. That was why I said I didn't even know that I didn't know this. I felt like I had learned a different perspective, and was not actually asking to be educated. I was trying to tell you that you had offered me a point about which I need to educate myself, and I appreciated that. So, anyway, I sincerely apologize for overstepping my own boundaries. I hope this explanation is adequate- you may still find it to be lacking, but I wanted to just finish what I started.

  • ActsofFaithBlog

    Bellevue Mom: If you can take the criticism then you're welcome to participate. Just be aware my blog is not a Racism 101 Primer. I am trying to elevate my own consciousness and challenge my readers. So I am not interested in investing much time into "training" sessions. I will call it as I see it though and you shouldn't take it personally. If you're tying to learn then expect a few tumbles along the way.

  • Bellevue Mom

    Wow, I really apologize. I was actually trying to demonstrate how much I have to learn. Clearly I failed. I would honestly rather you just delete my post than consider me a troll.

  • ActsofFaithBlog

    Bellevue Mom: I had to check your profile to make sure you were a real person because honestly I thought your post is bordering on troll status. For your purported lack of knowledge you had no problem conjuring up an image where you readily recall BW being humiliated which wasn't the conversation I was trying to have. It's your use of "luxurious & thick" hair to describe these white women you're referring to that gives me pause. I can usually spot the weave on most tv and film actresses by the way the hair meets at the shoulders and wraps around their neck which indicates added pieces and the fullness, esp with those that dye their hair blond. So I've got your luxurious. Now if you want to elevate your consciousness you should learn to do so by being observant not by making assumptions and using examples from 70's tv shows okay?!

  • Bellevue Mom

    As a white woman, my experience with this issue is obviously limited, and honestly, not something I have ever really considered. But when I sift through the images in my brain, you are right. When I think of white women with weaves, they tend to be actresses with thick, luxurious hair. But when I think of black women with weaves, I am sad to report that I have a series of images of black women in movies and tv shows getting their hair ripped off their heads, with the shaming being the source of humor. It was totally different- glamour for white women and humiliation for black women.I definitely realize this is an observation from an outsider, so I hope you don't mind. But it has given me a perspective I didn't know I was missing, so thank you for that.

  • ActsofFaithBlog

    Thanks for your input OMi!

  • Brother OMi

    good post. It bothers me that at the end of the day, it comes to dumb questions about whether Oprah wears weave or not or Obama adopted a dog. and IF we are discussing Oprah's choice of hair style, then WE should discuss the problems with euro standards of beauty

  • ActsofFaithBlog

    Thanks! Feel free to stop by and comment again.

  • Aphrodite

    I love this quote:"Fortunately, we can reclaim our unique and individual beauty by recognizing we've been purposely devalued by other people for the promotion of their interests."