Musings on Hair

•March 11, 2013 • 3 Comments

Audre Lorde’s essay on hair, politics and intersections of life and theory (Is Your Hair Still Political?) made me think of my own hair issues. I don’t know how many other young Black girls did this, but before I would get in the shower, I would pull my shirt up until the neck-hole matched up with my hair line, and fold the shirt toward the back of my body. (God, that language is convoluted, but I don’t know how else to describe it!) I’d essentially wind up with what I thought looked like long hair. Looking back as a feminist, I think about how much the image of long, flowing hair in mainstream media affected me and still affects me.

Until I was about 8 or 9 I wore my hair in tiny braids and barrettes (a battle fought at my mother’s and grandmother’s knees), beads every now and again and a press and curl. I still remember my granny blowing on my neck whenever that hot assed comb was entering dangerous territory. At 9 I had my first perm. It was awful. Even that doesn’t accurately describe it. Now, I know that my hairdresser had no clue what she was doing. The chemicals found their way onto my scalp and almost immediately I felt that burning sensation that is familiar to many Black women. From there, I began screaming crying.

image

My Mom and hairdresser accused me of being hysterical and making other children in the salon cry. But my hair was straight when it was all said and done. And that privileged straightness is exactly how they (my mom and stylist) sold me on the idea – “Wouldn’t you like it if your hair got wet and was still straight?” Thinking of the hot comb and my mother’s cursed frustrations, I immediately said yes. Over time I learned to deal with the pain that never went away. No matter what advice I was given or what “cooling” tools my stylists used (from oil sheen to actual fans), my scalp would burn whenever I got a perm. Anyone else would’ve recognized burning as a signal that something wasn’t quite right, but I knew no other way of wearing my hair. And I couldn’t wear braids forever.

For the next 14 years I wore my hair in combos of braids (crochet, box, micro, etc) weaves (ponytails, quick, full) and Senegalese twists with perms in between. At some point, I’d gone 3 or 4 years without a perm because I’d been wearing microbraids so much. My hair was in its natural state, having grown out what was left of my last perm – but I had no idea at that time what it meant to be “natural.” So I took out my braids, got a perm and wore my hair like that. Until it fell out.

In patches.

So, I had to get my hair cut incredibly short. Which I hated – because long, flowing hair was what I should want, right? 3 years later my best friend “big-chopped.” She sent me a picture and dammit, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her or her hair. It was beautiful. She said “I’m going natural” and after asking her what the hell that even meant, I thought about it for a few months, cut off what was left of my perm and transitioned to locs – which I’ve always loved but was told at some point that I was “too light-skinned” (read: not Black enough) for. Ha.

After wearing locs for just a few months – they weren’t in long, I got bored – I remember an old roommate asking me if I washed my hair. One of her friends actually laughed at me because I was reading a book on how to properly care for one’s locs. I guess she thought locs were just something you put into your head and leave alone for a few years and that actual knowledge of how to take care of them was not only unnecessary, but laughable.

When I went natural, I felt liberated. I never did it for any political reason, just because I was tired of salons, chemical smells and chemical burns, and I couldn’t abide my hair falling out over and over again. I could run out in the rain without fear. I didn’t have to go through a cycle of wash, condition, blow dry, flat iron on non-salon-visit weeks. But, I recognize that my hair is political even when I don’t want it to be. I recognize that the US military has a dress code that essentially outlaws natural styles – locs especially. I recognize that people I know and love have been reported to human resources because their hair was “distracting.” I have had a co-worker express to me that “White women have issues with curly hair, too” when I was trying to explain hair issues to her. I immediately thought of Viola Davis when she told Anderson Cooper that she didn’t have enough time to explain hair issues to him:

Hair may seem incredibly superficial. I hear it all the time – it’s just hair. But it’s “just” hair to people who have always had the hair that was sought after and privileged as beautiful. Hair is one of the few spaces where, for me, differences between feminism for White women and feminism Black women become clear and it becomes easier to point out where the fact that I am Black affects me differently as a woman. Some people don’t get it because they don’t want to. Or because we live in a society that pays lip service to minimizing difference, while casting it in a negative light every day. I am different and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something wrong with demonizing me for that difference, though – hair included.

Privilege

•February 22, 2013 • 2 Comments

Privilege is such a contentious topic these days. I think people often get angry when someone points out their privilege because they believe it to be a personal attack.  For me, dissecting privilege is about uncovering the ways in which systems of racism, sexism and heteronormativity benefit some and deliberately alienate or oust others. But, people often confuse that with an accusation of conscious homophobia, racism, sexism or any other –ism – making the conversation about them and their pain. In the end, attention is taken away from the people who are suffering inside oppressive systems and, once again, put on the privileged. Sometimes I just want to shout “it’s not about you!” And, really, what’s more problematic – being accused of being oppressive, or systems of oppression and our (un)conscious decisions to uphold them? Why is it so difficult for people to examine their lives and how they’ve been privileged? Why is it such an issue to demand that the system represent us all, rather than a select few? I don’t think I’ll ever know. But I do think it is important and necessary to ask ourselves this: who gets to determine what oppression is – the people benefiting from the oppressive system? Or the oppressed?

 

I’ve thought hard about what privilege (and disadvantage) means in my life and come up with this short list of privileges that I’m aware of (don’t worry – I’m still thinking of more.)

  1. My privilege as a Westerner living in the US allows me to walk freely outdoors without fearing that a drone will drop a bomb on my head.
  2. As a woman who is mostly straight, I know that I can freely access the rights and benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. Understanding that some states recognize marriage between all grown adults, there are still far too many that do not. (And I say “mostly straight” because I think sexuality is much more fluid than most.)
  3. I know that if a male partner hits me, I can call the cops and it will most likely be treated as a domestic violence case – something that is not afforded to SGL couples.
  4. As a light-skinned Black woman, there are instances in which I will be treated differently than a dark-skinned Black woman. (I often talk about media images. From my perspective, even with the limited number of Black women in media – there are far more light-skinned women than dark.)
  5. I know that because I speak a certain way, people will make assumptions that I’m “better than” someone else. But the disadvantage here is that people that I interact with on the phone see me for the first time and say “you don’t look the way I imagined you would.” What does this mean? As a Black woman I have to question if they assumed I was White. Which then leads me down the road of questioning their assumptions about the ways in which Black people talk. Which brings me back to my original point, my sound affords me certain privileges. From the perspective of linguistics, standard English is not really a standard, only a variant of American English. From the perspective of society standard English is the only English that should ever be spoken. Anything that breaks away from the standard is lesser.  Historically, anyone that doesn’t speak the standard has been othered, cast as uneducated, poor, and so on.

Feminism on Campus

•February 15, 2013 • 1 Comment

Sheesh – tough topic this week.

I don’t know of very many specifically “Black” feminist events and efforts happening on campus. Because I’m a working student, I don’t have very much time to participate in some of the feminist events that we do have, so I get most of my exposure to feminism through the internet and the classroom. Trust me, it isn’t as bad as it sounds.

 

Last semester, I sat in on a graduate poetry class led by Dr. P. I’d say it’s safe to call her a Black feminist ally – she works hard to bring attention to the works of Black poets in her classroom and in her work as an academic. She reawakened my love of poetry, both inside and outside of the canon. Her efforts exposed me and my fellow students to the works of Elizabeth Alexander (who wrote The Venus Hottentot and performed a poem at President Obama’s first inauguration) and Wanda Coleman. Reading them reminded me of the ways in which Black creative artists expose us to the plight of Black women in this country – historically and presently. Their work goes beyond the scope of issues of oppression, but Dr. P’s steadfast efforts to bring exposure to their work fits squarely in line with much of what we talk about in the classroom. She exposes her students to the voices of Black women in her classrooms. When we consider the discussions we’ve had about suppression of Black feminists, Black intellectuals and Black women in general – Dr. P’s work should not go unnoticed.

 

Beyond the classroom, I know that students routinely attempt to bring awareness to issues that directly affect women’s lives. After the sexual assault that occurred on campus last semester, some students organized a rally/protest to campaign for a great police and security presence on campus during the evening hours. Their efforts did not go unnoticed – I’ve seen more police on campus this semester than I’ve ever seen in my short time here.

 

There are women all over our campus that challenge patriarchal systems every day, whether they recognize it or not. We work – they told us we couldn’t. We study – they told us that we were “intellectually inferior.” And some of us do both while raising children. We challenge assumptions made about us as women, as Black women, as mothers and (at least in my case) poor working students. There are always feminist efforts occurring on campus, both large and small, some behind the scenes, some out at the forefront. Regardless of visibility, those efforts are important and they chisel away at patriarchal power every day. 

Confessions

•February 4, 2013 • 1 Comment

…I think I’m in love with Olivia Pope. No, not the real-life-inspiration-for-Scandal-Olivia-Pope, but the as-seen-on-TV-Thursday-nights-ABC-at-9-Olivia-Pope. I’m sure there are enough fangirls running around to make your collective heads explode, but we can’t help it (check out this NYT review and this briefy shoutout over at Rheality Check for some more fangirl love). She and that show are so addicting. And the fashion

I die every time.

Olivia Pope's go-to outfit is the elegant, tailored pantsuit.

This woman is so much more than the sapphire, jezebel, mammy, and tragic mulatto characters Hollywood and her counterparts have thrust upon the American masses year after year. She is powerful and strong, yet vulnerable; capable of both righting great wrongs and causing them; sexy without being over/hypersexualized and a breathtaking departure from the colorism I see evidence of on my television set night after night. She is neither angel nor devil – she is human.

And, I know, you’re wondering – what does this have to do with feminism? If we move forward with the bell hooks’ idea that feminism is “a struggle to end sexist oppression,” and attach the generally understood anti-racist signifier that accompanies Black feminism – I think Olivia Pope’s incredibly visual disruption of so many stereotypes of black women makes her feminist.  Hollywood has been accused for decades of reproducing images that continually place women of color within a framework created and maintained by racist and sexist systems of oppression. Hollywood is, among other things, a machine that normalizes those images by inundating us with them and defining blackness in ways that maintain the status quo rather than disrupt it. Olivia Pope’s character contradicts these systems on a weekly basis and, in so doing, works to combat both the racist and sexist oppressions that Black women face daily.

There are already so few women of color in film and television and it is often the case that the women who are represented are cast in stereotypical roles. The more women are inserted into these spaces in roles that operate external to trite generalizations, the more we combat the oppressive system that is Hollywood. In America, fictional representations of Black culture are often some people’s only exposure to them. How can we overcome sexism and racism if that fictive reality is filled with images of Black women that do not accurately represent Black women?

On Scandal, Olivia Pope is graced with a form of power that many women will never have access to. She’s Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton rolled into one. She’s a disruption of the unique stereotypes that arise at the intersection of gender and race. And while she may not advocate feminism in the explicit ways that many women of today have come to expect, she can be read as a feminist character. And this is why I love her. She gives me something to rave about, as opposed to something to rant about. She’s a Black woman leading a diverse show in a prime spot on evening television. Kerry Washington in this role dispels claims that people do not want to watch shows lead by Black characters. While some may be tuning in for the latest scandal, I tune in for her. And I hope you do, too.

Black Feminists In My Life

•January 25, 2013 • 2 Comments

I’ve never really considered the women in my life who might be feminists. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of them refer to themselves as such. And I only began learning about feminism/womanism when I read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens early last year. I’d have to say that an obvious choice would be my mother. She worked full-time, completed a bachelor’s and master’s in psychology while doing so and somehow managed to keep my brother and I from killing each other and ourselves in the process. Of course, my dad was always there to offer support and aid – but the image she represents strikes me as exceedingly feminist. She wanted something so she went after it and she never let anyone or anything tell her that it wasn’t possible. Because of her I have seen and done things that most people only dream about. 

I’d have to say that my dad is feminist in some regards as well. He probably wouldn’t appreciate me saying this, but he was fill-in Mom when my Mom had papers to write and tests to study for. He answered questions about things that make most men squirm and he was one of the first people who openly talked about issues of the world with me – from rape to politics. Those conversations had a profound impact on how my life has turned out. And, if we consider the sort of political comments that were made in the last year regarding rape and women’s bodies, those conversations were far more empowering than I think my father could have ever imagined. 

And, to round out my top three, my newly discovered mentor. She’s highly personal, so I won’t leave her name here on the internet – but she met me very briefly in October and offered, without any hesitation, to guide me through the graduate school process. In reference to my post on Morrison – she is the woman who told me that I have a voice and that I should use it. That I should not drop that class and that I should use it as an opportunity to confront the racist assumptions that people might make. She recognized that I was too afraid to do so, but she also told me that, at some point, I will need to speak or I will never be heard. 

I realize that all of these people are highly personal feminists – people central to my own personal circle. But they are the people who are giving me the support I need to be a proud, vocal feminist that can go out into her community and be a part of it rather than merely a bystander or a criticizer of it. 

Morrison, Race and Beauty

•January 18, 2013 • Leave a Comment

First posts are always the hardest. You want to write about something that’s riveting enough to keep the people who swing by engaged, but not too divisive to drive potential readers away. In the face of that, you still want to be honest about who you are and what you believe. Thankfully, the internet is, for the most part, faceless – so I’ll just jump right in. 

I’m reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, for a cross-listed grad/undergrad lit course. I’m not ready to go into too much detail about my experiences during our first discussion last night, but I will say that they were both enlightening and saddening. What I want to write/talk about is how the questions and discussions that came up last night pinpoint why African-American feminism is so important. 

This is my first time reading The Bluest Eye, and I’m only halfway through it, but its emphasis on beauty, black skin (and the way it has historically been demonized), and gender is refreshing. Especially considering how it highlights the issues I’ve personally had with gender, maternity and blackness. These issues are never far from my mind when I read any text – especially those authored by Black women. There’s a particular scene in the text in which Claudia, a young black character, is examining a white doll. (I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into further detail.) This scene prompted a young woman to ask if “Black women really thought that White children were more beautiful than their own?” How she arrived at this question from a young girl examining a doll is beyond me, but it gave me pause. 

I found multiple things wrong with this question because it privileged whiteness immediately and it dismissed the ways in which whiteness (note that I do not say white people) has historically been given superior status in the United States and elsewhere. It also played directly into the prescription of gender roles as it says nothing of how black men might view their children. 

Again, I have no idea how my fellow student arrived at this question from this particular scene, but I thought the assumptions housed in her question were interesting. Those assumptions are exactly why African-American feminism is so necessary. There are elements of black femininity and womanhood that the mainstream feminist movement will never understand because those that fuel it do not want to understand or have yet to be adequately taught. 

How do I, as a Black woman, explain to someone years, decades, CENTURIES worth of rhetoric aimed at demonizing my skin color and elevating another? How do I explain the colorism that goes along with that? More importantly, how do I explain that people who think that such things are exceptions and not norms? I don’t know, but this particular course is going to make me figure it out quickly. 

Honestly, I do not have enough time to explain the various and nuanced issues of skin color to every single person that makes assumptions about beauty and skin color, and I don’t even know if I could in a way that would make sense to them. But, there is a certain amount of privilege that white women are afforded that black women are not. I would never wish to be anything other than I am, but, damn, how I wish had those privileges. 

And that, for me, is what this scene is really about. Not a question of which skin color is more beautiful than the other, but a question of how one skin color is afforded a certain ease of navigation simply because it is the skin color of choice. I don’t think mainstream feminism is equipped to handle that discussion (especially not mainstream feminism at the inception of the 2nd wave). African-American feminism, however, is. It is poised to handle and dissect the questions and discussions that arise at the intersection of gender and race. I can’t wait to learn more.