Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hair and community

Note from Dori: Today we have a post from our new contributor Witchiebunny. Welcome Witchie!

Please forgive me a bit of long winded background.

When I was a little girl, I remember my mother sitting me down and telling me that I would always have two things against me in life.

The first was that I was a woman. The second was that I was black.

It was not the first, nor would it be the only lesson I was to have in racism, both outside of my family and culture and within it.

I remember having my hair relaxed before going into kindergarten. I remember being ashamed when my hair was nappy, or when I had "peas" in the back of my head. My mother made sure I went, without fail every six weeks to have my touch up, treating the roots as they came in so my hair would continue to be straight.

All this to say, it didn't take very long at all for me to assimilate into the idea of "good skin" and "good hair". It's ingrained in us from childhood on, that if you do not have good skin and good hair, that you must find a way to get one, if not the other and the easiest way to do that is to process our hair until it forgets how it was meant to be, and damage it in the process.

I began rebelling against this idea when I was eighteen, when I stopped going for relaxers and then, finally, with the help of a couple of friends cut my hair short, leaving me with a small afro. I was loving my hair-natural at last. However the black women where I worked (which included my mother) made fun of my hair...walking up and touching it, making comments on it. When I complained to my mother, I was told that I had done it to myself and when shortly thereafter, I was forced back into moving in with my parents, my mother gave me a wig to wear. She was ashamed to be seen with me with my hair as it was.

I moved from Philadelphia to Tucson, Arizona to be with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband and, free from the immediate inner cultural pressures I began to experiment with my hair, relaxing it, not relaxing it, until I finally shaved the entire mass off and started over. I grew my hair-completely naturally-for two years before I finally dreaded it.

And not only did I dread it, oh no....I didn't use sisterlocks or twist and pin, wool rubbing or the "neglect" method....I backcombed my hair and let it do its own thing from then on for over a year.

Finally I moved back to Philadelphia. Last night, I saw my mother again for the first time in two years, and in that time I've gotten tattoos, stretched my earlobe piercings, and of course, the dreads. As I sat in my parents rec room basement, happily eating the first real cheese steak I've had in years, my mother fingered my hair and I could tell, she was already planning how to remove the dreads, salvage my hair and relax it again so I could get back to where I "should" be.

Should the standards of black culture within this city, and this country. And I find it so interesting that for years, civil rights leaders fought so hard for equality. They had boycotts and sit ins, non-violent protests and marches. They fought so diligently and paid so dearly for the chance to be treated as equal...and then we turn around and upend that progress by perpetuating a special kind of racism and hueism within our own ranks.

Those who are lighter are automatically better off than those who are darker. Those with nappy, kinked hair need to their time and money on correcting this "mistake". Even those women who dare to step out, and do something else with their hair had better do it in the culturally approved way or else they're a detriment not only to themselves, but to everything everyone has struggled to build.

Because of course, the only way for a black woman to be taken seriously is to make herself as much like a white woman as possible. I've seen the looks I get for having my hair as it is....and I've heard the mutterings of people around me, even from my own parents.

I don't do things the black way....I'm trying to be white...I'm doing a disservice to other black women, who must now prove themselves in spite of people like me.

Excuse me?

To all those who buy into the system..I put forth this idea: Perhaps the way to truly define ourselves as our own separate culture, equal to any other in this world is not to change it to suit the tastes and whims of another. We should not be building our cultural identity around trying to look like and pass for another culture, in the guise of being "pretty" or "professional". The reason those of us who truly step out against this inner-culture racism aren't taken seriously by the establishment is because our own culture, our own people won't back us up.

How ironic is it to be told that we're not "black enough" by the very culture that is based around trying to be as white as possible while still pretending to be black?

Think about it.


  1. Uh...just...applause. Reading this brought back some ugly memories for me of having my hair relaxed against my will, and I also went natural around my 17th birthday. I was just fortunate that my parents (my father especially) more or less supported my decision. Actually I didn't get nearly as much flack as I thought I would (except from my hair stylist who cuts my hair, the people at Supercuts fear me now because it's so thick & curly). It feels like now, at least, even though I'm on the darker end of the spectrum, no one can question my "blackness" anymore. Like...that literally drives me into a damn fever. Thank you for managing to articulate everything I've ever felt about my so-called "whiteness" AND my hair in one post, wow.

  2. Thank you for writing this. We need to tell our stories about how damaging that "need to pass" mentality really is. I made a promise to myself that I was NEVER going to relax my daughter's hair and now, over a decade later, I've followed through with it. She loves the versatility that having un-relaxed hair gives her. She doesn't have to worry about curling irons or flat irons unless she's in the mood for a straight style, which is never more than once or twice a year. I can count on one hand the number of times a curling iron has ever touched her head.

    Despite how much I try to teach her to love herself, it has been difficult for her at times. Recently, she had to deal with a bunch of nasty comments from a white girl that she thought was her friend. She has bounced back, but I can still see how it made her question her beauty for a moment. I was just so angry about it! No one should have to justify why the Creator made them the way they are.