Friday, November 13, 2009

Black Women and "Good Hair"


By Tonya L Jones

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am not your expectations

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am soul that lives within

I love these lyrics from India. Arie’s song “I Am Not My Hair.” The song’s powerful message is that she will not allow society to define who she is, as a black woman, by how she wears her hair or by her skin color. These days, it is imperative that black women be bold like India. Arie, and resist the media’s narrow definition of what is black womanhood. I believe the recent obsession with black women's hair, bodies, and well—everything, is due to the emergence of The First Lady, Michelle Obama. The last ten years have not been kind to the black woman’s image. We have been stereotyped as “hoochies” “ghetto,” “baby mamas,” and that we have “attitudes.” Our society has grown comfortable with the caricatures of black women, so when a Michelle Obama appeared on the scene, folks did not know what to do with her. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Michelle Obama’s life defies the stereotypes. And because her image is the antithesis of what people have come to believe about black women, she has been under attack.

Over the summer, articles popped up in newspapers and on blogs, dissecting The First Lady’s hair, behind, and arms. By constantly placing Michelle Obama under a microscope, it was an attempt by the media to put “her in her place.” Black women aren’t supposed to feel comfortable in their own skin, and Mrs. Obama exudes confidence. The media seeks to undermine this rare positive image of black womanhood, to continue the annihilation of the black woman’s image. So it is no coincidence, that comedian Chris Rock’s film “Good Hair,” was recently released in theaters. The documentary (or should be more appropriately called “mockumentary”) chronicles the hair issues of black women. I have not seen the film and have no intentions to do so.

Of course, people have asked me how I can criticize the movie if I have not seen it. I have viewed enough clips from the movie to be able to gauge that the film is offensive to black women. To be honest, I have a problem with Chris Rock, anyway. I feel his comedy routines have an underlying contempt for black women. I couldn’t believe when he had a whole routine on why a black woman would make a terrible First Lady, just at the time when we were about to have the “first” First Black Lady, during the past Presidential election.

Chris Rock: “I don’t think a black woman can be first lady of the United States. Yeah, I said it! A black woman can be president, no problem. First lady? Can’t do it. You know why? Because a black woman cannot play the background of a relationship. Just imagine telling your black wife that you’re president? ‘Honey, I did it! I won! I’m the president.’ ‘No, we the president! And I want my girlfriends in the Cabinet! I want Kiki to be secretary of state! She can fight!”

I know some people will say, it’s just comedy, lighten up. But we always have to be aware of who the media decides to promote, as representatives of our communities. They generally tend to be people who are not a threat to the status quo, and who (knowingly or not) uphold the media’s agenda of normalizing oppression. Chris Rock fits this role perfectly.

In the film “Good Hair,” Rock depicts black women going to extremes to achieve long, flowing hair with weaves and relaxers (a chemical treatment that straightens out kinky hair). It is stated in the film, many black women have forgone paying their rent, to spend thousands on a weave! I am actually a natural-haired black woman. I cut off my relaxed hair and started growing out a little Afro, almost five years ago. I used to frequent the salon to get my hair relaxed and to have a ponytail attached (a long, fake extension) and yes, sometimes it could get expensive, but I can honestly say I never thought about not paying my rent just to get my hair done! And I know of no black woman who has ever done this either! That statement reinforces the stereotype that black women are irresponsible and require high-maintenance (I read a review that stated perhaps that’s why some black men prefer to date white women because they won’t be as expensive as a black woman!).

I have viewed a clip from the movie, when Rock travels to India to visit a Hindi temple, where the women shave their heads for a traditional ceremony. Often, the hair from the Indian women is used to make weaves. Rock interviews an Indian woman and proceeds to tell her to “run if you ever see a black woman coming.” The idea that black women are so desperate for “good hair,” they would yank it right off the head of an Indian woman, is insulating. Rock’s approach to the topic of black women’s hair reeks of misogyny. At one point in the film, he is shown trying to sell “kinky” black hair and is rejected. He goes on to say it seems black hair is only good for packing boxes.

I have read that Rock’s movie was an attempt to answer his daughter’s question, “What is good hair?” He hoped to give insight, as to why, black women rely so heavily on weaves and relaxers. The problem though, is that he tends to degrade natural hair too. Black women are viewed as being vain and even “silly” for the way they alter their hair, but he doesn’t seem to have a positive view about natural hair, either. It is interesting that natural-haired black women and the growing natural hair movement of many black women, was not discussed in the film (Rock interviewed one natural-haired black woman).

I also find it strange Rock’s film makes no mention of white racism and oppression of black women’s hair. Black women didn’t just wake up out of the blue gluing weave to their hair. There has been a systematic attempt to make black women feel bad about their natural hair texture. It goes back to slavery, when black women were forced to cover up their “kinky” hair with handkerchiefs, so as not offend their white slave masters. There have been black women forced to sue their employers who wanted them to take out their braided hairstyles or locks. The black women celebrated by the media uphold white hair beauty standards. The most popular black female celebrity today is the singer Beyonce, who frequently wears blonde weaves. There are no alternative images celebrating black women’s natural hair. It is not surprising many black women have normalized straight hair as the “appropriate” way to style their hair.

I recently watched Chris Rock promoting his film on the Oprah show. At one point, a black woman stood up and nervously stated she felt Rock’s film degraded black women. Rock looked surprised. He and Oprah then proceeded to tag team the woman, trying to shut down her genuine concern of what she felt was stereotypical images of black women in his film. The black woman went on to say that a white woman in the audience said her hair was pretty, but was it real? The black woman said she was hurt and insulted by that comment, and as a professional black woman, that was the type of nonsense she had to deal with in corporate America. She felt Rock’s film was just giving white people (particularly white women) more fodder to be bolder in their interactions with black women. The fact that a white woman felt she had the right to a black woman’s body and demand that she tell her if her hair was real or not. It feeds into the idea of black women as Other.

We live in a society that upholds white women as the pinnacle of womanhood. Women of color (and especially black women), have historically been used as what is not feminine, as a way to maintain white women as the standard of beauty. Rock’s film feeds into some white women’s superiority complex that black women are spending “thousands” of dollars to be beautiful “just like them.” It doesn’t help that Rock often mentions that he loved when he dated white women and was able to “run his hands through their hair without his fingers getting stuck.” This is the mentality of Chris Rock, and most likely helped frame his mocking attitude towards black women’s hair dilemmas in “Good Hair.” I have read reviews by black women about this movie, and many noted they felt Rock lacked compassion for black women’s struggles with their hair.

While I personally would love to see more black women embrace their natural hair and just say no to weaves and relaxers, I understand why many black women don’t. The societal pressures to conform and be seen as “presentable” at work and in the public are enormous. The journey to accepting “kinky” hair can be a long one and it’s up to black women to individually decide when/if they are ready to do so. The root of the problem isn’t with black women, but with white racism and the marginalization of black women’s bodies. The fear and even loathsome attitudes towards blackness and kinky hair needs to be addressed. Now that is a documentary I would pay to go see.

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