We are not our hair

Politicizing black women's hair robs them of their freedom of choice.

April 3, 2013

It was surprisingly humid for the middle of March. 

“This weather is not good for my hair,” I said to a young man I had just met at my friend Katie’s celebration for quitting her job. It was a one-off comment, not meant to elicit anything other than a nod of the head. If anything, I was more talking to myself than him. 
 
“Oh yeah, I saw that Chris Rock film? Good Hair?” he said, with that inflection that turns a statement into a question.
 
“Oh,” I replied. That was all I could say. Although the discussion surrounding the film’s release was somewhat welcome at the time, since then, the discussion about black women’s hair has been reduced to the politics of that particular film. And for those outside the black community, the film has become a way to discuss black women’s hair in public and to enter the discussion with an assumed level of knowledge that ignores the history and autonomous decisions of individual black women. 
 
I couldn’t express all of those thoughts late at night in the middle of a packed bar in Logan Square. I didn’t have the time, or the patience. So when prompted to discuss further, I simply listened to everything he had to say (and it was certainly a lot), and then turned away. It’s not my responsibility to publicly discuss the “politics” around my hair as a black woman. We rarely – if ever – require this of non-black women. Why must we participate? And more importantly, why is this public discussion happening at all?
 
In a recent article for Slate, Simon Doonan, a writer and the Creative Ambassador-at-Large of Barneys, wondered why more black women didn’t bring back the afro. Besides the fact that natural hair has, in general, seen a major resurgence in cities across the globe, Doonan’s article touched a nerve because, as a white man, he was ascribing his personal preference in hairstyle on a major public stage while ignoring the complex relationships and reasoning behind black women’s hairstyle choices. Doonan discussed the matter as if his authority of opinion was relevant in what an individual black woman does for herself. Furthermore, he described his preference without considering the varying textures of hair in the black community. Not every black woman can grow a fro. And not every black woman wants to. 
 
Doonan’s article touched a nerve not just because of his outsider status: It also highlighted a dialogue, one that is not always positive, that exists within the black community.
 
Growing up, discussing hair care maintenance with other black girl friends in school was routine. My mother, aunt, and grandmother made a point of discussing the highs and lows of aesthetic appeal amongst the local newscasters and anchor women. For black women, our hair has always been an intensely debated subject. And even when not up for debate, our stories about hot combs, relaxers, and long afternoons at the salon have more in common than not. 
 
Community-oriented culture can be a positive means of support and understanding. But I dream of the day when black women will no longer be subjected to the standards of culture and community. This is not just a matter of white beauty standards versus the reality and diversity of the black woman. This also includes the standards we place on ourselves as black women. 
 
Why do we as black women focus on how others live? Why are we so invested in individual choices as if they are done publicly and for everyone around us? When it comes to hair, personal choice has become a binary. One must be all natural all the time or one must be all relaxed all the time. People believe that one way is right or beautiful and anything else is wrong. I have heard and suffered with both sides of the coin. But what I have come to know and understand about myself is that being relegated to what I must do as a woman in general and as a black woman in particular is limiting in my individual freedom. It dismisses my agency and sense of self. It is damaging through and through. 
 
A year ago I wrote:
I don’t like the idea that my hair is political and that my existence is the fodder of others. This is a thing we often do in the black community. We tell each other how to live. We live for the community. Our lives are often about what we should be doing rather than about what we feel and desire as individuals.
This holds true even now. I have gone back and forth with maintaining natural hair. I grew my hair out for more than half a year before abandoning this pursuit to get a relaxer. I wasn't trying to conform to white beauty standards about “silky straight hair,” something one of my former childhood friends accused me of at dinner. Rather, it was a matter of maintenance. It was my personal choice that had nothing to do with society (black or white). I was not looking to be accepted back into the fold of the mainstream black community nor was I trying to look like my white friends and the dominant white society around me. This was about me being me. 
 
Either we're seen as conforming to the supposed white-rooted mainstream or black expectations, or we are seen as conforming to the pressure to “go natural” and embrace our curls.
 
When (if?) black women are allowed to live as individuals this will no longer be an issue. I doubt this will happen, but I’d like to believe that we are progressing to a point where living as a community with standards, practices, and rules is no longer the norm.
 
Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.