Erin Aubry Kaplan writes a very good column in the LA Times about the racial politics of hair. Her point is fairly simple:
Denial is still at the core of black hair fashion, which in turn is at the still-unstable core of black identity and acceptability in the United States in 2006. Although braids, dreadlocks and other natural black hairstyles have become more visible, perms, weaves and extensions for black women have become ubiquitous.
In short, the debate about the best choices for “black hair,” always charged, is flaring up again. A Louisiana sheriff said last week that anyone on the streets in dreadlocks “can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy” because a murder suspect answering that description remained at large. In April, Susan L. Taylor, the iconic editorial director of Essence magazine, canceled a campus speech when she discovered the college forbids its students to wear “unusual” hairstyles — including braids, which are Taylor’s signature look. This was noteworthy because the college was Hampton University, one of the nation’s oldest historically black campuses. Then it was discovered that Black Enterprise magazine had a similar ban for student interns.
The message is clear. If blacks want to have a chance in the increasingly unforgiving corporate world, they will have to shave off their edges — starting with their hair. To Taylor and to many others, including me, such a message implies a false choice between assimilation and self-affirmation. What looks like practicality is, in fact, more denial.
What’s troubling is that, by being forced to change their hair, black people once again are being forced to shoulder the burden of proof: We’re not as fearsome as we look. It’s up to us to mitigate our dark skin and ethnic features by framing them with hair that’s as neat and unethnic as possible.
Read her whole op/ed. The most interesting thing, though, has been to see how white people respond to her fairly reasonable assertions. Via punkassblog, we find these comments over at Kevin Drum’s place:
It’s up to us to mitigate our dark skin and ethnic features by framing them with hair that’s as neat and unethnic as possible.
And what’s wrong with that? Companies are just requiring them to look like normal people and not look like weirdos. It’s absolutely appropropriate for companies to require their employees to look normal. This is no different than companies requiring men to wear suits and women to wear skirts to work. This is just proper business attire. If you wish to work in the business world, you can’t just look any way you want to. If you want to look and dress like a hippie, you shouldn’t expect businesses to conform to your decision. You have to look normal and respectable and not look like a weirdo if you want a good job.
Because “normal” = “white.”
Naive question, I’ll admit: How do you keep dreadlocks clean? Can you shampoo daily with those little beads on? If not, how often can you take them off and clean the hair? And how do you clean (or do you?) the matted, knotted hairstyle that Rastafarians wear?
As a bald guy, I’m just curious. I hope nobody’s offended.
Duh, they aren’t cleaned. This is because people of color are dirty. But don’t worry, no offense taken!
Kev, I guess I don’t really understand what your point is. Do you agree or disagree with her? For the record, I’m a white man who had long hair in college and short hair now. When I had long hair people frequently made comments that I looked like a stoner, a hippie, etc. I don’t think race has much to do with it; there are certain hairstyles that will attract negative attention, and it’s up to each individual to decide whether the negative attention is worth the desire to express oneself.
Of course it’s not racism when we’re targeting hairstyles worn disproportionately by black people, and insisting that they take time-consuming and expensive steps to make their hair more like “white” hair.
I am confident that black women feel discontent because they can imagine better hair than theirs, but how much of that is due to racism and how much of that is the discontent that all women have with their particular hair?
See, it’s just because black women are sad because their hair is bad. Fantastic.
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