I've been a fan of Allison Samuels' work for some time. But I cannot get behind her strange, continued appeals to actress Angelina Jolie about her adopted daughter Zahara's hair. She is, quite simply, missing the point.
The first go-round was bad enough. Today, Samuels posts a follow-up piece rehashing the same points with a supposedly damning photo of Zahara's hair. Newsflash: that's what natural hair looks like with a wash and go. That's what my hair looks like right now! What does Ms. Samuels want her to do, put on a headband? Is a wash and go suddenly okay if we use accessories?
Seriously, there are three big issues at play here that she missed in her analysis.
Zahara Jolie-Pitt Is A Transracial Adoptee And Third Culture Kid
First of all, all of the Jolie-Pitt kids have some unique circumstances. In addition to the transracial adoption angle, the Jolie-Pitts are a nomadic family, settling in places for a while and then moving on. This means that they are all Third Culture Kids. They do not have a dominant society that they grew up in, which means that they may or may not absorb the cultural norms of any of the places they have lived. The children may grow up to feel allegiance to one particular place, or none at all. All this is to say that Zahara may not grow up identifying with the black American experience.
No doubt, Zahara Jolie-Pitt is black. But in the global sense of the word, not in the American way Samuels applies in her piece. As many commenters pointed out in our original post about this, Z is not African-American. She was adopted from Ethiopia, and if Ms. Samuels is ever in DC, I would be more than happy to take her down to the U Street Corridor so she can see how many women from Ethiopia wear their hair. (If she wants to look right now, here's some traditional styles - she'll notice that braids, cornrows, curly fros, loose hair, and the Quntcho (represented stateside and elsewhere as a fro-hawk) are all represented. For more contemporary styles, the contestants in the Ethiopian Millennium Pageant also rock a variety of looks.)
Ms. Samuels is applying a uniquely African American framework to a child who does not have that experience.
Now, that doesn't mean Zahara Jolie-Pitt will have a life free of hair struggles. Curly haired readers from across the globe have pointed out their issues with beauty standards and black hair. Which brings me to my next point.
The Black-on-Black Crime That is Hair Policing Has to End
One of things that drives me insane about these conversations is that they are all hair policing. As Samuels writes in her latest piece:
But the actress should know that the next time Zahara asks about hair, it won't be why her hair isn't similar to others in her house. It will be why her hair doesn't look like other brown girls' does.
On a cultural note, I'd like Angelina to also know how much bonding goes on when mothers sit down to comb their daughter's hair; something that happens in almost every culture, but particularly in the African-American community. My fondest memories are of me sitting on the floor as my mother brushed and oiled my hair.
Okay, that's great. Let me ask her this: what happened after those fond memories? The styles of childhood do not continue into our preteen years, the age when black girls normally get their first relaxers. Does she have fond memories of her mother basing her scalp before she applied the chemicals that would straighten her hair? Or is that a ritual that is just understood as a part of growing up? Are her memories scarred with the taunts of other children? My cousins came home crying after being teased about their "beady-beads" and their "kitchens." And who did the taunting? Many times, it was other black students. We need to stop encouraging conformity and hair hatred, because there is a logical end to the path we are walking down. Instead of fighting each other when someone's hair doesn't conform to our specific ideals, wouldn't it make more sense to fight against a racist system that penalizes and politicizes certain hair styles?
Loose, Curly Hair is Not the Enemy.
Wearing it loose is one of the things a person does when she actually likes the look of her natural hair. Crazy, I know. It isn't as if Zahara can't get ponytails and plaits - the pic used to illustrate this post proves that. But there is nothing wrong with wearing hair loose. Just because the dominant narrative says that curly hair looks wild, unkempt, or untamed unless it is partially braided, in a head band, or otherwise "tamed" doesn't mean we have to buy into it.
To be honest, I'm pissed. I'm pissed at these messed up dynamics, I'm pissed that someone with a Newsweek-level platform can keep bashing the hammer about Zahara without discussing the larger dynamics involved with discussions of natural hair, and I'm pissed that I feel like I'm defending the Pokemon-style adoption tactics of Angelina Jolie, or glossing over the very real indicators shown when a white adoptive parent can't be bothered to learn how to properly care for their child's hair. But specifically in this case, I think the ire directed at Ms. Jolie about her child's hair is misplaced.
Please, for all that is right and good in the world, let's leave Zahara be. We can help to shape a world where she doesn't feel pressured to relax her hair to conform, nor does she feel deficient if she decides to wear her hair the way it grows out of her head. We can shape a world were a decision to relax one's hair is an inconsequential as a decision to dye it or cut it. And if little Zahara grows up and does choose to relax her hair, she should be able to do so in a world that will not judge her personal politics by what she applies to her head.
Related: We Are All Team Zahara [Newsweek]
Third Culture Kids [Wikipedia]
Ethiopian Hair Styles [Ethiopedia]
Are curls the new straight hair? (The Germany Files) [Racialicious]
Hair, Apparently. [Racialicious]
Nappily Ever After? Not Quite… [Racialicious]