Will We Ever Be Able to Stop Talking About Black Hair Politics?

Hannah Poole asks "Should you straighten your afro hair?" in the Guardian's Life and Style section. Before we all sigh about yet another black hair article, let's analyze why we are still having conversations about this issue.

We're still talking about this because:

  • No one's hair is every really good enough. The discussions about black hair don't just reflect the reality of black women's struggles, but the internal conversations of women who have hair that deviates from the shiny, full, swingy-straight ideal in some form or fashion. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mixed race heritage who has long dark brown hair that hangs to her shoulders. She confided that she often thought of having a straightening treatment done, but didn't know if it was worth the hassle. I looked at her, aghast. "Dude, your hair is straight!" I blurted out, looking at her locks which hang straight down and can easily be run through with a comb.

    "No, this isn't straight," she replied, explaining her hair had a body wave that made it stand out. "It's not wavy enough to look cool, but it's too wavy to be straight unless I use a flat iron." I heard similar sentiments on from a Korean American friend, also debating a straightening treatment. And I've heard laments from my straight-as-a-pin haired friends who have hair that refuses to hold a curl. It seems that no matter what we work toward, it isn't enough. So while many of our discussions revolve around the racial realities facing black women, having hosted many a conversation about black hair over the years, I never fail to be surprised when women of all shades find parts of their stories in this common, frustrating narrative.

  • In two-thousand-fucking-eight it was (and) is still totally cool for black women to be denied service at salons, regardless of what they are having done. And this is on top of what I like to call "the black hair tax" - knowing that you're going to have at least twenty extra dollars tacked on to your service charge because you require flat iron service post blow dry. One time, I went to a salon in my area with air dried, a few weeks of new growth hair. I went to a stylist who had styled my hair before. I sat in her chair, but she looked at my hair like it was going to bite her. She then pulled out a fine-toothed comb and watched it get stuck in my hair before excusing herself to find "someone who can do this type of hair."

    Again: she had done my hair before, about four weeks prior to this occasion. However, seeing my hair in a semi-curly state forced her to run for back up (which turned out to be an Afro-Carribean stylist who wrung my hair out like a rag and then heat blasted it into submission). The worst part? If she had done what she normally does (wash, blowdry, flat iron) my hair would have turned out fine. But she recoiled from my hair and wouldn't even consider repeating the same process she went through the last time she styled my mane. And I will never forget that.

  • We haven't talked about men's hair issues yet, specifically black men. From wave caps to jheri curls, it isn't all good over there either. Chris Rock's new documentary features commentary from Al Sharpton and Rock explains to Allison Samuels:

    Come on, you have to have the good reverend in anything that deals with black hair. He's so not ashamed of discussing his hair and how he keeps it up with a scarf and whatever. His thoughts on black life and what it involves can be priceless.

  • We still have to deal with the curly haired stigma. As Dodai wrote when she asked "Why Is Straight Hair the Epitome of 'Style'?":

    It sucks to have hard-to-manage hair, of course. But the paranoia surrounding curls and frizz is troubling, to say the very least. Why is straight hair considered to be "polished" and curly hair often described as "wild"? In movies like The Princess Diaries, when the character goes from geek to chic, there's always a scene where they take her crazy, frizzy curly strands (which just need a little deep conditioner and some spray gel) and make them straight... and therefore, pretty. Let's say you had a choice between curly hair and straight hair. If you were going on a job interview and you wanted to seem serious and businesslike, which would you choose? Does straight hair seem more professional? What if you were going on a date? Does curly hair seem exotic, sexy, fun? And is there a subtle racism in this type of thinking?

    I fully co-sign Dodai here. But it is interesting to note that Pool's Guardian piece reveals how deeply ingrained this type of thinking is. As she describes the feeling after flat ironing her hair:

    We were in Sweden for a wedding, and my logic was that if I truly hated it I could wash it and return to London with no one any the wiser. But I didn't hate it; in fact I rather liked it. It felt sleek and modern. My hair was bouncy and shiny, it looked healthy and, best of all, it moved. It even swished from side to side.

    If straight hair is modern, does that make curly hair primitive? It seems like a harsh thing to say, but that's the ultimate connotation. And as I mentioned before, these ideas are deeply ingrained. I often fight with myself before important occasions or events if I will or won't have my hair straightened. I generally decide against it, but the urge is always there to make myself "more presentable" by taming it into a straight style.

    Pool goes on to discuss how she conflicted she feels, an emotion I know all too well:

    There was only one problem: it made me feel guilty. I felt like a traitor. And I became mildly obsessed about what signals I was sending out. If an afro says, "I'm confident enough to wear my hair as it comes," what does wearing my hair straight say?

    But after a few days I started to notice some unexpected side-effects of straightening my hair. Other Eritreans and Ethiopians – who generally all straighten their hair – started to nod and smile at me in the street, acknowledging me as one of them. And I love it.

    The world does react to you differently when you decide to straighten out. The shift in how you are perceived is something that is instantly noticed, even if it is tough to articulate. And it's one of the factors that makes it difficult to truly choose to wear your hair one way or the next - we are all influenced on some level by our peers and coworkers and their attitudes impact how we feel.

    I am typing this post in a cafe in downtown DC. While I was writing these words, a little girl with natural hair, coaxed into plaits with fuzzy puffs escaping wherever it can, stared at me for a minute or two as she walked past. I waved to her and her father encouraged her to say hello to me. She stood there, fixated on my hair. I looked up and realized her mother was waiting at the table. Her hair was long and straightened. I wonder what that little girl was thinking when she saw me. I don't think I'll ever know. But I do know that I don't want her to struggle with the same issues I struggle with now.

    There is so much emotion wrapped up in conversations of hair and choices and desirability that delving into these issues can be fraught with heartache. Women on all sides feel judged, feel scrutinized, feel as though whatever choice they have made, they still need to continually justify it.

    But, please, not on this thread. Let's look inward, let's treat others with kindness whatever their choices may be. And we're going to hug it out - India Arie style:

    Should You Straighten Your Afro Hair [Guardian]
    Chris Rock Talks 'Good Hair' [Newsweek]

    Earlier: Woman Denied Service At JC Penney Salon For Having Black Hair
    Keeping Michelle's Hair In Perspective
    Combing Through The Deeply Rooted Politics Of Black Hair Issues
    Why Is Straight Hair the Epitome of 'Style'?
    Dear Oprah, Mariah & Leona: Don't Forget That Curly Hair Is Beautiful Too

    [Image via Hairdressers Journal Interactive]