"Zahara Jolie-Pitt and the Politics of Uncombed Hair" epitomizes all of my frustrations with black hair debates. The blog post touches on historical hair issues and transracial adoption while using a pic of Zahara where her hair looks fine.
I suppose the article really gets under my skin for three major reasons:
1. Assumptions Surrounding Transracial Adoption
According to Samuels:
In recent pictures it's clear Angelina Jolie hasn't taken the time to learn or understand the long and painful history of African-American women and hair. If she had I can't imagine she would continue to allow Zahara to look like she has in the past few months.
Reading through the article, I sensed an undercurrent of anger directed toward Jolie being a white parent raising a black child. Now, I can understand where a bit of this is coming from - as the owner of a site that spends a lot of time critiquing transracial adoption practices, what we have heard from transracial adoptees is that many times, parents treat issues of race and culture as if they were optional, which left the children ill-equipped to deal with insensitive jabs from classmates or fellow family members. However, the Jolie-Pitts appear to keep lots of ties to their children's home countries as well as a larger global citizen perspective on the harsh realities of the world. So what could be the problem?
In sharp contrast, Madonna, who adopted a little African girl earlier this year from Malawi, makes sure her daughter's hair is either braided with beads or bows. Recent photos show the little girl modeling neatly done cornrows with white beads at the bottom-a la Venus and Serena Williams.
Ah, I see. So, because Zahara is rarely seen in cornrows or braids, it means that Jolie is ignorant of cultural norms? I doubt it. Some kids simply do not like the tightness of braids or cornrows. (Personally, I know hated the pain and tugging that came with cornrows, so I've only worn them twice in my life. Then again, I've been accused of being tenderheaded.) Later on in the article, Samuels acknowledges that the Jolie-Pitts have made efforts: they had Beyonce's stylist on retainer for a while, and Brad Pitt often shouts out celebrity favorite Carol's Daughter products in interviews. So clearly, they did some kind of research. But in Samuels eyes, this was not enough.
2. Assumptions about cultural norms
Allison Samuels writes:
It's no secret that black women and their hair have always had a very complicated relationship. In a society that values fine facial features and long silky, straight hair, African-Americans' sometimes kinky, fragile, and unruly hair can be the bane of a black woman's existence if she allows it.
Hair is often the first thing others notice, be it the texture, length, fullness, or shine. In the African-American community it can also tell a story. It can indicate your background, lineage, and social standing. From slavery until today, skin color and hair texture played a large part in how the overall society viewed blacks and ultimately the way African-Americans saw themselves.
So a black woman has two options: either submit to damaging relaxers and hot combs, or keep hair natural-while still ensuring that it's well conditioned, well combed, and in place. There are many legacies of black hair in America, but the most enduring is this: even those who eschew pursuing European-looking hair still take a tremendous amount of pride in looking well groomed and put together, and still need to devote time and energy to achieve this effect.
Who gets to define what is "groomed" and what is not? For example, I generally don't style my hair, preferring to leave it loose. Does that mean I no longer look well groomed or put together? If my hair isn't visibly shiny, are people interpreting that to mean it isn't conditioned? And what does in place mean? Especially as my hair goes up and out and not down? One of my close friends has been natural for close to 15 years now, and she generally allows her hair to grow as it grows. (She will probably dreadlock it a bit later this year). Her hair looks fine - bur occasionally people will make remarks like "your hair needs a comb!" My friend's hair is highly textured and it is easy to tell with a cursory glance that she cares for it. But when people yell out those kind of remarks, they aren't objecting to her personal choice - they're objecting to the fact that any hair that doesn't hang down straight is considered unkempt.
Samuels' next few paragraphs illuminate her intentions. The objections she raises aren't about hair being well cared for - it's about curl control:
It's no wonder that African-American women are the largest consumers of hair products, spending close to a billion dollars each year to control their hair. These same women passed down these perceived notions about hair to their daughters. They usually begin hot combing and braiding the child's hair to take the kink out at an early age.
But even the mothers who spare the hot comb still have to put time and effort into keeping hair healthy: Any self-respecting black mother knows that she must comb, oil, and brush her daughter's hair every night. This prevents the hair from matting up, drying out, and breaking off. It also prevents any older relatives from asking them why you're neglecting your child and letting her run around looking like a wild woman. Having well-managed hair is not just about style, it's about pride, dignity, and self-respect. Keeping your daughter's hair neat is an unspoken rule of parental duties that everyone in the community recognizes and respects.
I thought the whole point of my mother spending time to wrestle my hair into things like plaits and pigtails was so that she wouldn't have to go through with a nightly ritual, that I had a style I could wear for a few days. I don't think she was trying to camouflage my curls and kinks with her choice of styling method. But when Samuels' goes into the reasoning for her ideas, things really get dicey:
Hair that is nice, neat, and cared for also gives African-American girls the confidence that they can fit into the world at large without being seen as completely different. One truism of childhood is that nothing is more important than being like everyone else. Well, as like everyone else as you can be with Hollywood parents. But not all people will recognize Zahara as the child of movie royalty. To many, she'll be just a black little girl-and a black girl with bad hair at that.
We (as young black girls) are always different. If our hair is perfectly straight, flowing and bouncing, there's still the matter of features and skin tone. Even if our hair is perfectly straight, it will feel different because many of us moisturize with grease (or other products) instead of washing the grease down the drain in the morning. We are different and there is nothing wrong with that. Assimilation is not guarantee of acceptance.
3. The Unquestioned Embrace of Conformity
Kids experiment with their hair. All the time. And this goes double for the Jolie-Pitts. Maddox normally rocks a mohawk (and the occasional dye job), Pax has blond streaks and long loose hair, and Z has had every style from little puffs to loose curls. Clearly, the children appear to be encouraged to experiment with their whole look, and hair is an extension of that .
So when Samuels writes:
Photos of Zahara show the 4-year-old girl sporting hair that is wild and unstyled, uncombed and dry. Basically: a "hot mess.''
You know what else is a hot mess?
Denying a child the same freedom to explore and play with her hair as her brothers and sisters.
Yes, I have seen some of the photos where Z's hair does look a bit dry and damaged, just like we've seen the rest of the kids with serious bedhead. But how do we know Zahara's hair being positioned straight up on her head wasn't done out of a desire to imitate the distinctive style of her older brother, Maddox? As I said above, the problem goes deeper than one or two "bad" hair days. It's the reinforcement (both on a cultural level and on a societal level) that kinky or curly hair must always be tamed to be considered acceptable.
Zahara has her whole life ahead of her to stress about her hair.
For now, let's just give her the space to be a child.