NYT Hits a Wall with Black Girls’ Hair

We here at Black Girls Rock! totally understand how, at one point or another, hair has has played a significant role in a black girl’s life. Our complicated relationship to our hair stems back centuries ago to the time of slavery, when our hair texture and skin color served as the main signifiers of our African heritage. Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison has featured hair as a primary subject in her groundbreaking novels SulaThe Bluest Eye and Tar Baby, along with a number of other black authors concerned with addressing the black female identity.

Today, “sales of home relaxers total $45.6 million (excluding Wal-Mart),” while inner-city Black communities are sprinkled with black hair salons about every two blocks. Hundreds upon thousands of black women have created websites, blogs, and online photo albums critiquing, lamenting, and celebrating their hair, whether it be relaxed, natural, or in transition between both. And, who could forget the long hours they’ve spent getting their hair “did” by either their mother, various family members, a friend, or a stranger? The age-old debate surrounding “good” versus “bad” hair can also be found within this complex legacy.

Recently, comedian Chris Rock has decided to bring this debate to a much larger platform–the silver screen. Puzzled by why his daughter would question the value of her hair, Rock went on a mission to uncover the source of this self-deprecation by creating a documentary aptly-titled “Good Hair,” which won the jury prize at Sundance. Peep the trailer below:

But why did it take a man to bring black womens’ historic struggles with their hair to the forefront?

Well, realizing the amount of buzz Rock’s documentary has been generating, The New York Times promptly featured an article intending to shed light on not only the “good/bad” hair debate, but black hair in general. Judging by the introductory nature of the article, black women were not the target audience. Consequently, the article seems superficial and plain ol’ tired to the same subjects that the author attempts to analyze. We’ve heard all this before! As in most issues that involve both race and gender, the author eventually makes an effort to transcend the racial component of the debate all together:

For many people no matter their race or hair texture, accepting yourself “as you are” is a high bar. The history of beauty is one of dissatisfaction and transformation: brunettes become blondes; white women get their curly hair Japanese-straightened.

Sigh. No. No. No. This is the reason why discussions surrounding black hair always seems to ambiguously trail off without anyone having gotten to the bottom of things. The issue of gender and the role that beauty plays in women’s social identification gets the spotlight because no one either wishes to or even knows how to touch on the centuries-old racism that is inextricably tied to black women’s social identification. Prominent black feminist scholar bell hooks explains this same entanglement in her 1988 article “Straightening My Hair“:

Irrespective of the way individual black women choose to do their hair, it is evident that the extent to which we suffer from racist and sexist oppression and exploitation affects the degree to which we feel capable of both self-love and asserting an autonomous presence that is acceptable and pleasing to ourselves. Individual preferences (whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that our collective obsession with straightening black hair reflects the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization. Together racism and sexism daily reinforce to all black females via the media, advertizing, etc. that we will not be considered beautiful or desirable if we do not change ourselves, especially our hair. We cannot resist this socialization if we deny that white supremacy informs our efforts to construct self and identity.

Rock on, bell hooks! As hooks’ analysis demonstrates,  seemingly-trivial debates such as “good/bad” hair stem back deeply to much more disastrous roots. So now I dare you, go forth and analyze what black hair means to you (“It’s just hair” will not suffice), remember that anything worth figuring out is, initially, never simple!

What are your thoughts on black hair? Have your own hair story to share with BGR? Thoughts on the NYT article? Feel free to leave comments!

About Patrice Peck

Culture-savvy freelance writer who combines the research skills of an academic scholar with the customer-savvy of a business professional. Turns complex information into clean, readable prose designed to educate and entertain the reader. Specializes in women's issues, Black hair discourse, popular culture, music, film and the literature with complimentary skills in social media and a penchant for videography and music.
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7 Responses to NYT Hits a Wall with Black Girls’ Hair

  1. rina says:

    don’t get me started on hair i have naturally curly hair i just two month ago stop relaxing it is even togher to fix it now that it is not chemically relax even though it now looks like virgin hair it harder to deal wit

  2. Patrice Peck says:

    No worries! I also stop relaxing my hair a year ago. It’s difficult to understand your natural hair at first but you learn super quickly. These sites will help you TREMENDOUSLY.
    -motowngirl.com
    -nappturality.com
    -also, just head to youtube and search using keywords like natural hair, transitioning, etc.
    Good Luck!

  3. phoenix says:

    I’ve always been told that I have good hair, whatever the hell that means, just because my hair was long and soft. And sad, but also true, having light-skin as well was an unbeatable combination. I grew up in white suburbia and never experienced the whole good hair/ bad hair dynamic until I moved deeper south and was around more black people. That’s when things got interesting. I started to realize how having light skin and long hair on top of that was a sort of capital. Like any other form of wealth there were those who admired it and those who envied it. Why? is what I always wondered. Now I know part of the reason. In our world just having one asset, whether it’s long hair or light skin allows one to move way more freely in the world. But not only those phenotypical traits, but also if you have a prestigious education and the ability to speak well on top of that you will have even more social mobility. And social mobility in this world pretty much always translates into economic mobility.

    And black people aren’t the only ones who struggle with this. Latinos do as well. Light skin would also be an asset for them, or light-colored eyes even. These assets are admired and envied.

    And have you ever realized that in the United States anything that is truly ethnic is never seen as beautiful. Never. Whether one looks too Jewish, too Italian, or too Asian it seems as though your options are limited, not only when it comes to actors getting Hollywood roles, but in the real world too. It seems that in today’s world it is better to be racially or ethnically ambiguous to keep your options open. Maybe this is why those who are mixed hardly ever have a problem with wearing their hair naturally. I don’t know though. I hope this added to the conversation.

  4. Sharon Lyking says:

    I shaved off all my permed hair in 1998,went Natuaraland a year later I have LOCS. I think ALL African American women should EMBRACE their natural beauty. Whether it’s there complexion or natural hair…

  5. Patrice Peck says:

    Joyia-

    I definitely agree with you on the idea of appearances determining one’s social capital. Also about your comment-

    “It seems that in today’s world it is better to be racially or ethnically ambiguous to keep your options open. Maybe this is why those who are mixed hardly ever have a problem with wearing their hair naturally ”

    - that’s a great observation. Most of the time people mix up race and ethnicity. Discerning between the two and determining if either are valid identifiers has been a huge discussion not only with Black Studies scholars, but many others. I believe that the obsession with “racially or ethnically ambiguous” essentially stems from festish-ism or rather exoticism. Most of today’s media and entertainment features multiracial women with hair that has a looser texture than the tight coilys. Ofcourse, portaying the multiracial woman as exotic does more harm than good, for that exoticism might lead to harmful sexual implications.

  6. Realitysurfer says:

    Please take a moment to check out my documentary film BLACK HAIR

    It is free at youtube. 6 parts including an update from London, England.

    It explores the Korean Take-over of the Black Beauty Supply and Hair biz..

    The current situation makes it hard to believe that Madame C.J. Walker once ran the whole thing.

    I am not a hater, I am a motivator.

    Plus I am a White guy who stumbled upon this, and felt it was so wrong I had to make a film about it.

    self-funded film, made from the heart.

    Can it be taken back?

    Link

  7. Jasmin P. says:

    I wish there had been a little voice inside my head when I was a child that screamed, “you are beautiful!” to me whenever a kid criticized my little afro. I could have avoided burning my scalp with lye, and killing my edges trying to pull my hair back into a tight ponytail to acheive that smooth baby hairs look that my spanish friends acheived with substantially less effort. Every perm was a relief and any kinky strand of hair that rebelled against the perm, heat , gel, or manual labor to which it was subjected was an abomination of the worst kind. But I thank God that there were voices out-side my head that encouraged me to be myself. After awhile I stopped embracing what was ‘popular’ because I began to see that what was popular did not embrace me. I could not find an accurate reflection of myself in any of the magazines I used to pour over and eventually I stopped looking to the media to tell me how I am supposed to look. As an adult it makes sense to me to embrace who I am naturally, hair, features, quirks and all. I’ve taken a page out of Arie’s book and sing ‘we are not our hair or skin or someone elses expectations but souls beneath the flesh. lol. I changed the lyrics but ya’ll know what I mean.

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