I didn’t write the last post on my blog, although no one would question that it was mine based on the content.
My dear friend Doreen, an incredibly talented writer, gender activist and lovely person did.
In addition to both being 28 year old females, Doreen and I have a lot in common in terms of interests, values and beliefs.
One thing that is different about us is that Doreen grew up in Zimbabwe in a ‘Black’ body and I in Canada in a ‘white’ one.
We decided to post our own personal experiences and struggles around hair on each other’s blogs, in each other’s names.
This idea came about during an impromptu dinner at Matipa’s house. Matipa and Doreen are best friends, work together and both hail from Zimbabwe. While eating Matipa’s beautifully prepared dinner, we (as usual) talked about all the off-limit topics: politics (the recent elections in Zim, the human trafficking bill that recently passed in South Africa) and ‘personal’ stuff/politics.
The ‘personal’ discussion focuses on hair.
We talked about the politics of ‘Black’ hair… how natural is oftentimes not considered as beautiful. How many women wear wigs and weaves, many which seemingly replicate ‘white’ hair (read long, straight, etc).
It is a complex, politically charged topic of which I know little about, save for what I’ve learnt watching Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’ documentary and conversations with friends.
They told me about a blog post The Hairy Nature of our Race Identity that Doreen wrote on hair that caused a bit of controversy after Matipa tweeted it to a Zimbabwean hair blogger. One critique that Doreen received on her post was that she didn’t speak about ‘white’ hair.
They then turned to me and asked my mop-headed self about my hair experience. I told them this (https://colouredraysofgrey.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/hair-part-1/)
Tipa and Dor were surprised to hear the similarities that my experience had to theirs.
Despite having very different hair colours and textures, we realized we had something in common in that we have been conditioned into believing that our natural hair is somehow sub-par. We’ve all spent a lot of time and money trying to manipulate our hair to fit societally imposed ideals of beauty.
The intention of these posts is to point out the widespread societal constructions of what is beautiful with regards to hair (which is usually straight and long). The intention is not to undermine or delegitimize the experiences of ‘Black’ women with regards to hair. Indeed the racialization of hair is a complex and horrific phenomenon which I have not experienced living in the body of a ‘white’’-skinned middle class woman, with all the accompanying privileges.
While not intending to minimize or sideline focus from the political and social evils propagated against ‘Black’ hair (as they have been aptly highlighted by African American comedian and actor Chris Rock in his documentary Good Hair and Toyin Agbetu’s new documentary Beauty Is… and many others), we decided to post this as a general and united commentary of the painful and degrading politics of hair in which people around the world are taught that their hair isn’t beautiful if it doesn’t live up to a narrowly defined norm.
As my dear friend Lesley has already highlighted above, the last post I put up on this blog was in fact written by her, a Canadian ‘white’ woman activist, scholar and writer/ blogger. We decided to do a blog swap after exchanging hair war stories and realizing that a lot of what each of us was saying could very well have come from any one of us as there were so many similarities in our stories regardless of our ethnic and racial differences. (see the post actually written by me here)
I particularly found it interesting because as a womanist/Afro-feminist I strongly believe in the recognition of intersectionality within any conversation regarding the empowerment of women. I also believe that it is important to acknowledge that the oppression of women is not all the same or always informed by the same politics or at the very least, in the same way, and that the different groups of women have different lived realities from that of what is the archetypal feminist i.e. the working class to middle class, heterosexual, able bodied, secular ‘white’ woman; however, during this conversation I was reminded that although our struggles can have their unique aspects, there are similar struggles that we fight as women, albeit informed and exacerbated by different politics, and that is the narrowly defined standards of beauty and acceptability even in these current times in which we live.
However, it is perhaps because we live in these times that the politics of hair have finally found a platform in public discourse where they can be picked apart and interrogated. In the last two decades or so we have seen people challenge the prescribed definitions of beauty with a particular focus being directed at body image and the fashion industry; more recently we saw the German plus size model, Mariesther Venegas protest the Berlin fashion week’s continued marginalization of fuller figured women [models] by walking down the streets of Berlin naked for the Finally – Navabi campaign (which was strikingly similar to brown neo soul/ hip hop artist Erykah Badu’s personal protest against “group think” in the video to her song Window Seat where she also bared all). Also, in the recently concluded Paris fashion week, US designer Rick Owens [controversially] opted to model his creations using Afrikan American stomp dancers instead of the conventional leggy, uber skinny and mostly ‘white’ super models we are accustomed to.
Hair politics are not exclusive to female members of our society but also extend to the male members of our society where there too they have particular standards they have to subscribe to, especially ‘black’ men. A couple of years ago there was an uproar when Nivea produced an ad for their Look Like You Give a Damn campaign for their products for men that featured a ‘black’ male model holding the (decapitated) head of his former self, who’s sporting a beard, an afro, and a pissed-off expression and has the words “Re-civilize Yourself” scrawled across the image, with the smaller phrase “Look like you give a damn” on top, implying that Afrikan men, along with their hair, have to be packaged in a particular way in order to be considered to be civilized. The same expectation is extended to ‘black’ women as we are constantly discouraged from keeping our hair natural let alone finding empowerment and strength in it. However, as we have seen from this exercise between Lesley and myself, that this marginalization of the ‘other’ also extends to white women and perhaps men too, with a certain type of hair although comparatively, the degrees and negative impact of said marginalization differ from race to race, gender to gender and sex to sex etc.
Doing this exercise was not very easy. When Lesley and I set out to write our stories in our individual spaces before meeting up, exchanging them and posting, we realized that it was not going to be as easy as we thought it would be and questioned if it really was a good idea. Thing is, everything seems like a brilliant idea after a couple of glasses of wine and loads of rolling-on-the-floor laughter. We later confessed to each other when we finally got together again that we had both struggled with the initial pieces as we constantly battled to make the post as “racially aligned” as possible (i.e. convincing enough to readers that my piece was written by a ‘white’ woman and Lesley’s by a ‘black’ woman) in order to pull off the ruse. We were tempted to just forget about it, or at least I certainly was, until we realized that deliberately writing in such a way that alluded to a particular race was not only unnecessary but also contrary to the whole purpose of the exercise which was to find commonalities in the hair and identity politics of two women from different racial backgrounds despite perceived physical racial differences as well as informally investigate to what extent these commonalities, if at all, affect women of different races at an individual level.
The issue of hair (although it is a very personal thing) and how it positions an individual in the global economic, political and social hierarchical structure is proof that the personal is indeed political. People’s hair, although personal, is subject to the whims, attitudes and opinions of a society as a whole and not just the individual. It manifests itself as an identifier, a classifier and a political statement, whether we are conscious of it or not. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, our hair plays a huge role in deciding where society positions us politically, economically and socially.
*Note all racial references are put in quotations to denote that race is a social, rather than biological construct.