Sunday, April 22, 2007

Reflections On "Good Hair"

So, finally, I'm going to touch this topic. Just about every black female blog I visit has a post about this topic, and they all say, more or less, the same thing. So this is yet another topic I can say something different about.

Some comments I read over at Rachel's Tavern inspired me to take up this topic right now. Now, I'm reciting these comments from memory...One was a comment by someone whom I presume is not black that he/she always thought the reference to "good hair" related to manageability, not so much hair that is "like white hair." Another was a comment about how whites view certain black hairstyles as a sign of a black militant.

I do think that the "good hair"/"bad hair" distinction is rooted in manageability, i.e. hair that is easier and quicker to do vs hair that is harder to get a comb through. White hair and hair that is similar to white hair is easier to do; black hair is not. Or so it goes. I've commented on other blogs, as well as to my friend Nikki, that hair was never really something I grew up thinking about. It's still not something I really think about, so the depth with which most black women think about black hair amazes me. It's almost one of those moments in which I imagine myself as a white person listening to black people talk about the depths of racism in society, and, simply because I am a white person who doesn't think about this and has never really had any reason to, I'm finding myself going "that's so ridiculous!" or "You've put way too much thought into this!" I really do have to consciously keep myself from completely dismissing these black women's interpretations about hair, as well as from getting defensive over an "attack" that is not specifically aimed at me as many white people tend to do when racism is discussed.

Nikki--someone who seems very confident and comfortable with herself--told me that hair used to be a huge issue for her growing up. I was pretty surprised, but I have a hard time imagining her self-esteem suffering over anything, especially an issue so common to others. She said she once told a white female that she wanted hair like hers. I really was amazed. Was I simply a naive kid? Well, obviously if you read some of my other posts about other issues, you will see that I was. I mean, I think I knew that white girls had different hair from mine, but I never seriously thought about the difference or wished my hair was like theirs. When I was younger, I questioned differences so much less than I do now, which I think is a good thing because sometimes I feel imprisoned by how much I notice about the world, about people and about human nature. Philosopher John Stuart Mill was on to something when he said that the more we know, the harder it is to be happy.

I never really thought about the fact that Sunday afternoons for white girls were probably way different from Sunday afternoons for me. Getting my hair done was an all-day long event. I remember always trying to find ways to get out of it, until I finally discovered that falling asleep before it was time for my mother to wash and dry my hair worked every time. My sisters had perms, but, for some reason, I didn't want one. I think I just didn't want to go to the beauty shop and have someone else do my hair--smart girl (I hate beauty shops). I think my mother was getting tired of spending hours on the weekends doing my hair just as much as I hated for her to do it. She was saying I needed to get a perm, and I resisted for years.

Come to think of it, the reason I probably didn't notice anything about hair was because, once my hair was done, I liked it. My mother would either use products that resulted in my hair looking nice, to me, or she would use a hot comb in my hair. The hot comb, in particular, excited me, even though I didn't love the process of getting my hair hot-combed. I'm still the same way. I hate doing my hair, but once it's done I'm happy with how it looks. And I prefer my hair better when I do it rather than when I go to the beauty shop.

When I finally started going to the beauty shop and getting my hair permed, I hated that process. I still do. At the same time, I just always envision not having a perm as my having to revert back to those wasted Sundays that I now don't have time to waste. I also truly can't stand struggling to get a comb through my hair. I'm sure there are products I could use that would make un-permed hair manageable, but I've gotten much too comfortable with dealing with permed hair to make any sort of change. I like knowing for a fact that it will take 20-30 minutes to do my hair and knowing that I have found XYZ products that work perfectly for my hair as it is now, because I struggled for years to find the right shampoos, conditioners, detanglers, etc.

As far as braids, dreads and afros, I honestly have never liked those hairstyles. It took me a long time to be able to look at other black women and seriously think those styles looked good on them. However, they are still not styles I'm interested in for me. I tend to think of having those hairstyles as a statement, which I guess is the same thing the commentor was saying about whites thinking blacks with certain styles are militant. But the thing about me is I'm very plain, and I like that--my hair has nothing to do with any sort of statement, for me, be it that I'm trying to look "white" or that I'm trying to look "black." And I want to keep it that way. Black women used to ask me why I don't "style" my hair--I have such nice hair and I don't do anything with it, they'd say. I don't want to do anything with it. Remember, I'm not a woman. I feel that worrying about my hair and what is says about me is too feminine a thing for me to engage in. Perhaps this is another reason I never really gave black vs white hair much of a thought growing up.

The thing about me is even though I "look white," I think whites understand that I am "militant." It's the funniest thing--I think white people can read me better than black people can. I can imagine black women looking at my hair and making all kinds of assumptions about my lack of blackness. On the other hand, I sense that white people look at the way I carry myself and the expression on my face and understand that I'm not really "safe" to approach. I mean, I am safe--I'm not mean to anyone who approaches me. However, I'm not a black person who just doesn't care about race or who claims to not see race--I see race all the time, even where most people truly don't.

White people are intimidated by me. My white best friends have said white people are intimidated by me. I think a lot of black people have a problem with such intimidation, but I actually get a kick out of it because no one should be intimidated by me! I can't imagine a black person ever being intimidated by me, and I can't get my nieces and nephews to listen to me to save my life. So it's kind of cool when someone actually is intimidated. Honestly, it makes me feel powerful. So I embrace whatever white people happen to think of me, whether it's "militant," "angry," "unapproachable" or whatever--it's all hilarious.

What makes this funnier is that Nikki, with all the afrocentric hairstyles she sports, attracts white people in groves. They are not intimidated by her. My observation would be that the majority of black women who do wear certain hairstyles truly are more black-centered, i.e. they are like me in that they are not going to reject white people who approach them, but they focus more energy on blacks and have, for lack of a better phrase, a lot of "black interests" (not that I have a lot of "black interests" other than the topic of race. I'm also too much of an "individual" to focus on people of any race). Nikki is not exactly like that--she's extremely outgoing, and approaches and gets along well with everyone. So I think when you're a certain kind of black person, white people really can tell a lot of the time. When I was more naive and less "angry," I had more white friends and more white people would approach me. I am pretty sure I now give very closed-off vibes around whites.

I have also seen on a few blogs about how some black women try hard in the presence of whites to not come off as "angry" or attitudinal or emotional. I rarely speak to whites about anything that upsets me, and, being that I'm not an emotional person to begin with, I rarely speak with much emotion when I talk to anyone anyway. But, to me, it doesn't matter anyway. I think that because the "angry" stereotype is the one that is applied to us, there are very, very few ways in which you can approach non-blacks about certain issues without them placing you into that box. It's an effort I'm not interested in making, the effort to debunk stereotypes.

I remember the disagreement LA Girl and I had was basically her telling me how I needed to act a certain way because of what white people think about blacks. Frankly, hearing that from anyone angers me, but the fact that she, as a white person, said it came off almost as "you need to prove yourself to me and people like me" and "you should let white people and the racist way they think dictate your behavior." Immensely offensive, to me. I don't want to give other people that much power over me, especially when it's basically not going to make much of a difference. People see what they want. If you're not messing up in one way, you're messing up in another, as a black person. I want to be happy and be me and do what's right for me and express myself how I express myself.

I also just have a problem being told to do anything; I have become quite rebellious the older I get. ;)