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Jul. 12th, 2006

Erin Aubry Kaplan: Still Trying to Kick the Kink
The debate about the future of African American hairstyles is flaring up again.

July 12, 2006

WHEN I WAS young, one of the first things I learned about myself was that I had "good" hair. It was curly and close enough to the texture of a white person's hair to not need pressing, hot-combing, greasing or some other method of straightening that extremely curly black hair — also known as kinky or "bad" hair — needed before it could venture out in public. Yet even my hair was not quite good enough.

Every Sunday my mother washed it, set it on rollers the size of frozen orange-juice cans and put me under a hairdryer for a couple of hours. When it was over, I had the ultimate "do" — smooth and swingy, with none of the wayward curl or frizz that would have confirmed my blackness as much as the Marlo Thomas look cleverly denied it.

I eventually learned early that this "denial" look was the ideal for black girls and women, and though I had to do less denying than most, I was not exempt. I also learned that good hair on black people was considered good for reasons much deeper than convenience — it connoted assimilation, sophistication, intelligence, refinement, success. Even when I jettisoned the whole hair ritual and got a short, punky cut, I did it more to reject the limitations of an old paradigm than to celebrate a new one.

I might have saved my protest. 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.

That the requirement comes from black institutions only makes it more disturbing. Yes, they are inherently conservative institutions, but they understand the political significance of hair. They should know that this is not the same as a dress code that calls for a suit and tie (understandable), or a Cosby-like antipathy toward trendy, sloppy, vaguely criminal black fashion such as baggy pants or expensive sneakers (understandable, but misplaced).

Unlike any of those looks, braids and other natural styles have long been associated with socially conscious and self-confident black people, the kind who would fit nicely in corporate settings that like to say diversity is a priority. But companies tend not to hire them, and black people with those hairstyles tend to gravitate toward work that's necessarily non-corporate. Yet surely we have all earned the right to wear our hair as we please. The freedom we're still working toward is supposed to be aesthetic as well as economic.

Mablean Ephriam, the black TV judge from Fox's popular "Divorce Court" — who says she lost her contract this year partly because of irreconcilable hair differences with the company — perhaps said it best in a contentious parting statement that concluded with a quote from Maya Angelou: "And still I rise." I trust she meant her hair.

Comments

( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
riecy82
Jul. 12th, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC)
Hold up. HOLD UP.

Hampton and Black ENterprise really have policies against "unusual hairstyles"? Including BRAIDS?

Sadly, this article tells us nothing new. Straighten that hair, darkie, or else!!
yesternight
Jul. 12th, 2006 07:58 pm (UTC)
Hampton? Damn.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - papi - Jul. 13th, 2006 12:15 am (UTC) - Expand
denim_queen
Jul. 12th, 2006 07:59 pm (UTC)
heh. they can and will still fire your butt regardless of what you have on your scalp.

But on another note, when did judeg Mablean get fired?
bessie_smith
Jul. 12th, 2006 08:17 pm (UTC)
The sticking point was hair. In 2005, Ephriam wore a wig on the show, the consequence of a bad relaxant. Fox liked the look so much that it asked her to keep it. But Ephriam wanted cornrows. When Fox said no, Ephriam cried racism. Fox, in turn, declined to renew her contract.

http://www.clevescene.com/Issues/2006-06-14/news/news2.html
(no subject) - thebigbadbutch - Jul. 12th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - toodani - Jul. 12th, 2006 10:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
gal_montag
Jul. 12th, 2006 08:19 pm (UTC)
What was wrong with Judge Mablean's hair?

And if my hair would 'fro, I'd rock it, but it's all weird and won't cooperate.
(Deleted comment)
rubyphoenix
Jul. 13th, 2006 02:03 am (UTC)
whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? i mean, i straighten my hair as well, but i would never expect someone to do the same just to be on a dance squad, just like i can't stand it when natural people pester me with pamphlets on my decision.
(no subject) - stagger_lee77 - Jul. 13th, 2006 11:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rubyphoenix - Jul. 13th, 2006 12:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - stagger_lee77 - Jul. 13th, 2006 12:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rubyphoenix - Jul. 13th, 2006 01:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kittylarock - Jul. 13th, 2006 05:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
zebeagle
Jul. 12th, 2006 08:20 pm (UTC)
I heard that Six Flags amusement park in Maryland recently told their employees that it was against the rules to have braids, etc... and that they would have to change their hairstyle. I'm currently wearing braids, but luckily everyone at my accounting job really likes them. Otherwise I would have argued for my right to wear them. It took me 20 hours to get this hairstyle and I wouldn't change my hair without a fight.
cindel
Jul. 13th, 2006 12:32 am (UTC)
Is this the one in Largo? If so, I see many employees with other hairstyles; looks like I won't be seeing them any longer.
espnchick1920
Jul. 12th, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)
It ain't just Hampton...
There was an issue at Howard last year where they didn't accept a female on the dance team because she had short, natural hair and the director said all the girls had to have at least shoulder-length, permed hair. It's a damn shame that chemically-treated hair has to be the standard of beauty.

I say F*CK EM...and rock my afro/afro-puffs...
animeg3282
Jul. 12th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC)
Re: It ain't just Hampton...
Man! Not just straight, long as well. My hair won't do that, even if you straighten it within an inch of its life. (I wear it natural, as it doesn't look good straight- it's too thick)
Re: It ain't just Hampton... - espnchick1920 - Jul. 12th, 2006 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: It ain't just Hampton... - toodani - Jul. 12th, 2006 10:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: It ain't just Hampton... - witchsistah - Jul. 15th, 2006 08:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
havesomecocoa
Jul. 12th, 2006 09:27 pm (UTC)
I will never relax my hair again. Been chemical free for over 4 years now :D
ktempest
Jul. 13th, 2006 01:43 pm (UTC)
Amen! Going on 8 years for me. Mine was an accident, though. Went to college in NYC and couldn't afford relaxer. oops. :)
(no subject) - bessie_smith - Jul. 13th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
shaniquafromh
Jul. 12th, 2006 09:52 pm (UTC)
but but I love my fro and twists. I wouldnt change it for anything.
dottieneurotic
Jul. 12th, 2006 10:44 pm (UTC)
Man, this has been the subject of the millennium in my house since I got my BA. My old-ass grandma's like, "You need a perm" every five minutes. My mom's okay with me being natural but she's like, "You need to do something to it! Twist it, do something!" But I don't like twists or braids and I'm over locking it and I like having my hair out and confrontational. The whole thing is "how are you gonna get a job with this busted-ass 'fro" and lucky for them, I can't even get an interview to answer this question.

I've been thinking about (well, when it comes up) wearing headwraps and being sort of take-me-or-leave-me about it; I can absolutely look professional with my hair hidden and then everybody wins. If that doesn't work, then I guess my ass isn't having a job, then, 'cause if random white women can have their shoulder-length hair down in the workplace, my shit can be all over the place, too.
kittylarock
Jul. 13th, 2006 03:06 am (UTC)
sounds like my grandma. but her thing isn't just getting a relaxer but me wearing lipstick. she was obsessed with me wearing lipstick. once i decided i would try out the straightened hair thing just to see if that made a difference (i was really desperate at this point). i spent the night before my interview frying my shit with a hot comb.

i looked really bad with straight hair. plus i just didn't know what to do with it. i tried to pull it back into a little bun but it just looked bad. the next day i was in such a bad mood, i was tired and woke up late because doing my hair had taken me forever, AND i smelled like burning. i started driving to the interview and then was like fuck it and just turned around. the hair just felt like a bad omen. if i'm gonna get hired they need to know upfront who they're dealing with. that said, i wore a headwrap to an interview once and got the job.

sadly though, it took me an entire year at my current job before i started rocking the kinky fro in the office. and it wasn't until a couple months ago that i actually felt comfortable wearing twists (i usually just untwist them in the morning to create said kinky fro). i don't know what's taken me so long. my office couldn't be more accepting. one of my co-workers just showed up on monday still wearing a multi-colored multi-tiered 'do a cousin had done for a hair show. anyway, just do you.
(no subject) - ktempest - Jul. 13th, 2006 01:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
littleeva
Jul. 13th, 2006 12:20 am (UTC)
I have long hair, down to my shoulders; but it's a pain in the ass, so I keep it ultra short and color it. Short hair suits me and that's that. Long hair does NOT look good on everybody, permed hair does NOT look good on everybody.

Good hair is clean hair, it's hair that suits someone's face.

Those people in Hampton (my family's from that area) ought to be ashamed of themselves. Fuck them.
charra2005
Jul. 13th, 2006 02:41 am (UTC)
I grew up having my hair always permed and "bone" straight. When I got to high school, I started wearing it short and natural. I remember once that when I let it grow out and got it straigtened, I was told by an older Black woman, "It is so becoming of you". I have continued to wear my hair short and natural, and my husband loves it and so do I. For me, it's about my hair being healthy. And I have a Master's degree and a good job.
kittylarock
Jul. 13th, 2006 03:15 am (UTC)
The teens I work with are obsessed with me straightening my hair. One girl told me yesterday it's such a waste of "good hair" to just leave it out or twist it when it's so long. It's not long but they love pulling my naps down my back to prove "how long it really would be." Luckily, we've started our lesson on body image with them so I'm looking forward to really peeling off some of those layers of brainwashing so they can at least get "good hair" out their vocabularies. I just can't get over the irony of them calling my kinky thick natural mass "good hair." In their minds natural is only associated with unmanageable, frizzy, and bad. I think natural hair just falls so outside of their frame of reference it confuses them to see hair like mine.
delux_vivens
Jul. 13th, 2006 04:52 pm (UTC)
*twitch*
( 32 comments — Leave a comment )

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