Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hair and Racial Politics

This article by Malena Amusa tackles the racist and sexist politics of hair. Not just any hair, though. Black hair.

Natural, kinky hair--which is most associated with blackness--has also been tied to inferiority in the United States. We can thank Madam C.J. Walker, the late 19th century entrepreneur who popularized the hot pressing comb--literally a comb-shaped iron--for the subsequent years of black women burning their disobedient hair into submission. Still today among African Americans, there exists a strata between those with "bad hair" and "good hair," the latter being hair that is most in sync with the dominant culture.

Walk into any pharmacy and you'll see a deluge of harsh chemical products that promise black women unnappy hair. Many believe this is a demonstration of self-loathing.

Many of my black friends through the years have complained about the difficulties they faced dealing with their hair. Far more than for white women, hair can be very much a class issue for black women.

During our first year of law school, all the students begin the transformation from student to lawyer. The changes can be subtle: jeans to dress pants, flat shoes to heels, backpack to briefcase.

But for women, there's always the hair change. Many young women start their 1L year with long ponytails. By the end of the year, most have cut the ponytails and now sport more professional-looking bobs.

For the black women, the change is even more dramatic. One of my best friends got a weave put in her hair during our first year of school (she said it was easier to care for). She explained to me that the cornrows were to minimize the time it took her to get ready in the morning. "I'll take them out and get a lawyer cut before I have to start interviewing," she told me.

But Amusa didn't approach hair weaves the way my friend did. For my friend, it was just a practical choice. But Amusa saw the straightening, ironing, and weaving of other black women as a form of self-loathing. Until she decided to get a wig and try the hair on for herself.
The weave made my confidence soar. Heading there, I drove faster than usual. And every time I reached to pick up my cell phone, I dramatically tossed my hair back and said "Haloh!" roaring and perky like a valley girl. I was ready to explode onto the mall scene and attract all kinds of men.

As I entered the sliding doors, my hair swooshed about my face and I loved it. And after some time, I noticed that I was moving around like a butterfly, flighty and irregular. I couldn't stop giggling like a school girl and tossing my hair lightly back as I rolled my eyes sensuously around while talking.

Perhaps the "disguise" of the wig made Amusa less inhibited. The article doesn't really go into that. I just found it interesting how a hairdo could be fraught with so many meanings.