As a white person, I will speak for my fellow white people and say, there are a lot of things we don’t understand, particularly when it comes to issues of race and diversity. Clearly. However, also as a white person, I will say that it’s our responsibility to understand a whole lot more, especially when it comes to issues of race and diversity. And especially when it comes to issues we’ve created out of our own prejudice and ignorance (so, all of them).
One of the things I would put toward the top of the list of Things White People Don’t Understand is black hair. White people don’t understand black hair so much so that in July of 2019 California had to pass the Crown Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) in order to address the issue of discrimination in the workplace when it comes to different hair textures. Can you imagine needing a law to tell you that black people are allowed to wear their hair how they’d like? It’s almost laughable, until you realize issues that have occurred to necessitate such measures.
And workplace discrimination around black hair doesn’t just end with traditional office culture. Apparently Gabrielle Union’s hairstyles were “too black” during her tenure on America’s Got Talent, which was one of the many issues that lead to her separation from the show. On Twitter, Union also questioned the diversity behind the cameras on AGT, which is becoming an ever more pervasive topic around what true inclusion looks like in Hollywood. Having more diverse faces on screen is important, but if no one behind the camera understands how to support their work, how can they truly succeed?
As actress Laci Mosley pointed out to The Hollywood Reporter, it’s not just about looking pretty.“This isn’t specifically for vanity. It’s the fact that systemic racism is so deeply ingrained in our industry that we are so forgotten about all of the time that this is normal.” Hair and makeup are crucial components of film and TV work, some of the people doing that work will be awarded at tonight’s Oscars ceremony, but as with much of the rest of Hollywood, the pool of makeup and hair stylists is often far too white, to the point that black actresses have had to style themselves.
Also speaking to THR, Insecure actress Natasha Rothwell said, “It’s a real disservice to actors of color who are effectively doing someone else’s job and not getting paid for it.” She also noted that stylists, unfamiliar with working on black hair or doing makeup on non-white skin, are often so nervous it will take far longer to finish their work as compared to those stylists working on white co-stars.
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When it comes to that specific issue, Taraji P. Henson has a solution that feels like pretty solid advice. “If you know how to do it, great. If you don’t, pass it to somebody who does. It has nothing to do with pride or ego,” Henson said to THR, “I’m not saying you have to be black to know how to do [that] hair, but you got to know what the hell you’re doing.”
Practical, pragmatic, and efficient, and a solution that would hopefully leave room for more artists of color to do the work they are more than capable of doing in an industry where they are largely under represented. It’s understandable that not everyone understands how to style different types of hair, I can barely keep control of my own, but it is also not my job to do anyone else’s hair. It is a more than a reasonable expectation that someone who is hired to do hair and makeup on a set is capable of doing so for all people working on a project.
If you hired a personal chef to come and cook you breakfast, and they showed up and said they only knew how to scramble eggs and not fry them, it would be safe to assume that’s person’s not a very good chef, as they weren’t able to navigate the basic functions of what they were hired to do. It’s reasonable to expect a chef to cooke eggs more than one way, and it’s equally as reasonable to expect hair and makeup stylists to provide the same level of service to every client in their chair.
As Hollywood continues to put more artists of color in front of the camera, it is essential they also diversify the people working behind the scenes, because as we know that relationship is incredibly symbiotic. In order for people to thrive in their work they need to be supported in that work, not just put in the role. And in an industry like Hollywood, that work often begins in the styling chair.