Politicizing black hair

Does the media's fascination with Gabby Douglas' hair mean we've finally accepted the way black women look?

Topics: Feministing, Gabby Douglas, 2012 Summer Olympics, gymnastics, Sports, USA Gymnastics, Hair, African American,

Politicizing black hairWriter Nikki Giovanni.
This article originally appeared on Feministing.

Full Disclosure: I’ve been natural for nearly 12 years. Many years ago, when I was working on a big real estate project as an entry level project manager, a fellow black woman admonished me for wearing a colorful headscarf. At the time, I wore my hair in double strand twists that I would do myself, a tedious,painstaking project that would warrant me wearing a headscarf for a day or two because until I completed it. She told me that she ‘didin’t want people to get the wrong idea about the project.’ Her hair, by contrast, was chemically straightened, permed in the natural parlance of black hair styles. She occassionaly wore hair pieces as well.


Context here is king: we were black women in a predominantly white male environment represented a contrasting view of black female identity. And hair, is a trait of that identity. I naively assumed that at the dawn of the 21st century, my hair was not relevant fact in convincing loan officers to invest in a real estate transaction.

Earlier this summer, Melissa Harris Perry aired a segment exploring the current cultural conversation around black women and hair.

And just this week, O Magazine released the cover of its forthcoming September issue with Oprah donning a natural mane.

After 12 years of being natural, I’m kinda stoked about all this mainstream excitement (thank you CurlyNikki.com and Naturallycurly.com). But haters still lurk in the ether. 16 year old Gabby Douglas is a member of the 2012 US Olympic Gold Medal Gymnastics Team. Why are people tweeting about her hair?

Monisha of Sporty Afros echoes what I’m really thinking here:

2)   Many of us, Black women, have acquired the horrible habit of criticizing each other from head to toe with no regards of its repercussions. It’s almost like a sport to see how many laughs or likes one’s criticisms can get on Facebook or retweets on Twitter. Once again criticism has trumped compliments. And as a Black woman, this saddens me.

3)   Putting more focus on Gabby’s hair and not her athleticism proves many of us are still missing the point on where true beauty, strength, and health lies. Some of us are sitting up right now with our hair done but suffering from high blood pressure, borderline diabetes, obesity, and/or a lack of energy. Oh, but the hair is on point. As mentioned earlier, I don’t know Gabby Douglas personally and I would never try to speak on her behalf. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she considers her health and fitness level to be a little more important than her hair staying in place.

What’s particular to me in this narrative about blackness and beauty is the rather uncomfortable admission that we are overly concerned by how the world (white people) sees us and our own internalized narrative of the meaning of kinky, curly, (nappy) hair. Our hair comes in all textures and types. The resources and community support that are available to us today were absent in my earliest journey of ‘transitioning‘. Yet, we’re still policing each other on how to be and be seen. Solange Knowles has also had her share in engaging the hair policing this summer, took to twitter to hush her critics for calling her hair ‘unkempt’ and ‘dry as heck’. Key word: ‘unkempt’. The socialization around black women and our naturally curly hair centers around a perception that I have assume stems from our tortured racial history, that our hair, wild, tightly curled, textured hair means something that is ‘bad’, ‘unruly’, ‘uncivlized’ and ‘rebellious’. The legacy of language in this context sadly echoes more race talk but within our own community. ‘Unkempt’ is this context is another way to say ‘uncivilized’. I’d wager that the history of racist and negative imagery of blacks in America in caricature, minstrel, to black face has a lot about how we worry about high profile successful blacks represent us to the mainstream. Except, now, we’re on the fast track becoming the mainstream. There’s a remarkable amount of work we have to do to transition our language from negative associations of black hair (beauty and identity) in the face of a flyaway strand from a dismount off a perfect balance beam routine.
I personally wear my hair however I want to wear it. Over the years, it has become less and less political for me. It’s freeing in a choice. It has also been a learned practice to avoid internalizing the judgement of some black women about the appropriate presentation of my hair as well as managing the curiosity of non black folk about the nature of my hair. I wear my hair in braids, twists, afros, blowouts, and pressed (by flatiron) for years. It’s my head and my hair. I whip it back and forth.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>