Gabby Douglas, the 16 year-old Olympic gold medal gymnast, had no idea her hair was at the center of a Twitter-led “controversy” that has consumed much of the Black internet world. That is, until a reporter from the Associated Press asked her what she thought about all the negative attention her hairstyle was garnering. She aptly responded, “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair? I’m like, `I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’”
Miss Douglas asked the right question. What’s wrong with her hair? Nothing. Nearly all bloggers and sensible people who’ve addressed the criticism agree. However, a number of those respondents have admonished the young Olympian’s naysayers into shame and claims of self-hate. Always eager to dig a little deeper and in the theme of hair, I see stopping the analysis there—that these critical Black women all over social media must simply dislike themselves and live in a pressured universe of their own making—similar to looking at split ends to solve a problem, rather than the roots to find the cause.
There’s little doubt that Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, brought the once-secret politics of Black hair into the public light. Disappointedly, Rock only offered a superficial look into the complexities of those politics, minimizing more than a century’s worth of subtle (and not so subtle) devaluation and delegitmization into comedic fodder at Black women’s expense. And like Rock’s documentary, focusing on a narrative of self-hate and “why you mad though?” to explain why folks would care so much about what Douglas’ hair looks like, lets white supremacy roam free and unchecked.
A white/western/European aesthetic and culture permeate nearly everything we look at—from fashion all the way to the graphics on our dish soap. Disagree? Riddle me this: with restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows, and a readymade food line, why is it that Rick Bayless is the face of Mexican cuisine in the United States?
When choosing the self-hate argument, it’s fairly easy to blame the individual without looking for greater context. An overweight comedian doesn’t make fun of herself simply because she arbitrarily chose to hate her body. A young Latino-American man surrounded by white friends does not arbitrarily choose to make jokes about being Latino just because. Black women frowning and offering hair advice to Gabby didn’t arbitrarily decide that her gelled hair was a point of contention for them. Self-hate comes from societal hate, not an inherent state of being.
We’re in a culture that, at every opportunity, pushes Black women toward not loving ourselves. The images and messages we see reflected back to us often suggest that we must look a certain way, dress ourselves in a certain way, wear our hair in a particular way to be loved and accepted.
Check out magazine covers the next time you’re at the grocery store. See how many you can find that don’t have a model or celebrity with long, straight hair majestically blowing in the wind. Then once you get past the cover, how many Black women do you see in those magazines? And what does their hair look like? It’s usually laid out flatter than Little Richard’s first conk.
Hair, no matter whose head it stems from, is political. It carries meaning—from men wondering why a pretty woman would cut her hair short to tiers of religion that suggest women cover their hair to honor their God. For Black people, hair is even more political and carries even greater meaning because we have to deal with it in three layers: our own personal relationship to our hair, the relationship our hair has with our community, and what our hair symbolizes to the world around us.
Most Black-Americans have been raised to not go out of the house looking “crazy” or embarrass themselves or their community. These little life lessons do not come from Black people’s innate desire to always be kempt (that exists too), but because Black people have always been grouped together as one. The individual represents the whole when it comes to Black folks. As the only Black gymnast competing on behalf of the United States, Gabby and her hair were incidentally misconstrued as a reflection on all of us.
So while white supremacy (and don’t forget patriarchy) skips along telling us that light and honey blonde are as beautiful as Black women can get, we have Black women in one corner mad at other Black women, Black men in another corner side-eyeing our unruly mass of hair, asking “why you don’t wear your hair straight anymore?” and white people in the other corner perplexed, innocently shrugging their shoulders, saying, “I just don’t understand where this is coming from…I had no idea this was a thing! I wish my hair could do that.” All of our attention needs to be directed to the center of the room to see what cultural and institutional systems are invented to distract and divide us.
It’s difficult to demand journalists cover stories that actually affect our wellbeing, or push politicians to act in our best interests, or force mass media to reflect the varied and beautiful dimensions of our society – when we’re all caught up in demoralizing each other because of destructive, propagandistic tools created by capitalistic mass markets (e.g. beauty products, television, film, advertising, magazine publishing). To move beyond criticizing criticism, collectively we must recognize the beauty in ourselves and the beauty in others. Through that universal practice of solidarity can we live up to the title of “champions” and “winners” Gabby positively branded us to be.