New York Law School

Good Hair

The fine line between ethnic appropriation and ethnic embrace has always been vague. The discussion about whether a specific style of music, clothing, or image has been ripped from a particular cultural group is an issue that has been at the forefront of race relations.

Rachel Dolezal is a woman who, at the time her story made international news, was at the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington. She identified as black and was “outed” by her parents as a white woman with no trace of African-American ancestry. While identifying as a black woman, Ms. Dolezal attended Howard University, a historically black university, married a black man, and worked part-time as an African studies instructor at Eastern Washington University. However, it was not just Ms. Dolezal’s actions that had caused uproar, but also her appearance. Gradually, Ms. Dolezal had transformed herself from a blue-eyed, blonde haired girl from Montana to a woman with a darker complexion and what many would consider “black hair.”

As the thorough examination of her life continued in the press, dozens of pictures from her social media account arose depicting Ms. Dolezal’s varying hairstyles.   She had sported box braids, dreadlocks, and springs, hairstyles traditionally associated with the black community. At one point Ms. Dolezal even worked as an “ethnic hair” stylist. In fact, in an interview with Amber Payne of NBCBLK, an affiliate of NBC, Ms. Dolezal admitted that she wears a weave and take cares of much of the upkeep herself.

This is not the only instance of ethnic hair being a topic of headline as of late. Fashion spreads in high fashion magazines, like Vogue and Elle, have elicited negative responses to photos that depict women of European descent with traditionally black hairstyles. Most recently, Teen Vogue was criticized for using a woman of European decent to model Senegalese twists [1]. Many were outraged: why was the magazine unable to find a Senegalese woman to model the beautiful hairstyle?

The fashion world has also recently “discovered” and attempted to “elevate” baby hair. For those unfamiliar with baby hair, they are the wisps of hair that grow from the front of the forehead towards the hairline. For women of color, who traditionally have coarser-textured hair, baby hairs are difficult to incorporate into a perfectly coiffed look.   They usually end up on the forehead or shooting straight up from the hairline.

Many women of color have embraced their baby hair as a manner of forging their own cultural identity, including Chicano women from Southern California known as “cholas.” Since the 1970s, cholas have been lined their lips with dark liner, plucked their eyebrows thin, and gelled their baby hair to their foreheads due to the needs of women within the marginalized Latino farming communities of Southern California to embrace their femininity and to find a sense of unity in a society run mostly by men [2]. Today, many Latina women, not just Chicano women, have embraced the chola look as a way to express confidence and independence. Unfortunately, popular culture has frequently generalized the chola culture to the point it has become a caricature associated with gang culture and low-income Latinas in the United States.

This past spring, Givenchy, a French Haute Couture fashion house that produces extremely high-end clothing, paraded fifty-one women on the runway with their baby hairs slicked on their foreheads with gel. The designer, Ricardo Tisci, described the collection as “Victorian Chola” [2]. Out of the fifty-one women who walked the runway for the collection, only four were women of color.

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As a young girl, I struggled with managing my hair.   Although my mother has always beamed with pride while telling the story of how she was able to put my newborn head of hair in a bow when she took me home from the hospital, growing up I found my hair to be more of a curse than a gift. It was incredibly thick and prone to tangles. It tended to get matted and stuck in the most random places. For the first few years of my life, my mother and grandmother attempted to tame the beast. Eventually, they gave up and decided to leave it to the professionals. My first blow out was at age five.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I remember going to the salon with my mother and my grandmother every Saturday to get my hair blown out. For my mother and grandmother going to the salon was a fantastic social opportunity, as it is for a lot of women. It is a gathering spot to talk about their children, their jobs, their worries, and their friends.  It was the one day of the week that they were able to let loose. However, for me it was the equivalent to a torture chamber. The waiting around for the stylist, the scrubbing of the scalp and the hair with scalding water, and the final fiery blast of hell from the blow dryer were not the ideal way for a five-year old to spend her weekends.

At the age of eight, my family and I moved to Florida. While we were still trying to find our bearings in our new suburban neighborhood, the struggle to find a stylist that could “handle our hair” was becoming increasingly difficult. My mother rightfully believed that the struggle of moving to a new city and learning the new language were difficult enough. Therefore, she decided to leave my hair alone for the time being. I was elated to no longer have to endure long hours at the salon. I loved my natural hair in all of its curly, kinky glory.

That love was short-lived. I was one of two Latino kids in my fifth grade class at a small private school in Florida. Even two years after our move, it was difficult for me to find friends, as I was still learning the language and the culture. In a juvenile effort to assimilate, I begged my mother to brush my hair out into a ponytail and place butterfly clips in it. My mother, after struggling for hours to tame my hair, did the best she could. The following day, I went to school with my head held high thinking that I would finally make some friends. However, I was only met with chuckles and the new nickname “hairy forehead monkey girl.” Pulling my hair back into a ponytail had called attention to all of the small, dark hairs on my forehead.

Of course, children will be children; sometimes they will be mean-spirited without realizing what they are doing. Yet, this time the children were targeting me not because I misspoke in class or tripped on the playground, but specifically because I looked different than them. The children were mocking me because my baby hair was something unfamiliar and scary. That day, the hair issue became less about aesthetics and transformed itself into an issue of race. I came home with eyes swollen from crying. I never wanted to see my hair again, not as it was that day. I begged my mother to fix it. That afternoon, she made an appointment to permanently relax my hair.

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Many women in Latino and black communities love, respect, and cherish their God-given hair and don it proudly as a badge of honor. However, there are many, like me, that because of the stigmatization of ethnic hair as something that is “ghetto,” “unkempt,” and “dirty” because it does not conform to the Eurocentric standards of beauty that our media promotes, have spent thousands of dollars on straightening, frying, and dying their manes in an attempt to not stand out. It is therefore incredibly ironic that the seizure of black and Latino hairstyles by the fashion industry has been used to make models do just that, to stand out. Of course, it is in the very fabric of our country to be a melting pot of different cultures. However, the line is drawn when cultural practices of certain groups of people are ridiculed and then used to marginalize them. Yet, when these practices are sported in the name of fashion, they are chic. The practice of cherry-picking certain aspects of any culture for any selfish or commercial reason is a pervasive form of racism. The fashion industry steals identifying aspects of cultures and exalts them while leaving the people who have created these styles in the dust.

This is where I must divert back to Ms. Dolezal’s hair. Ms. Dolezal’s hair and the styling of it in traditionally black styles permitted her to legitimize herself in the community she was involved in as a black woman. Although Ms. Dolezal appropriated certain aspects of black culture for purely selfish reasons, she supported the societal bettering of individuals in the black community through her work in the NAACP. Yes, Ms. Dolezal is not perfect and guilty of some morally reprehensible offenses, but, arguably she has at least done her part to give back.

 

[1] Julia Brucculieri, Teen Vogue Under Fire for Featuring ‘White Model’ in Senegalese Twists Story, Huffington Post Canada, June 24, 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/06/24/teen-vogue-senegalese-twists_n_7655962.html

[2) Barbra Calderon-Douglass, The Folk Feminist Struggle Behind the Chola Fashion Trend, April 13, 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/the-history-of-the-chola-456

[3] Alice Newell-Hanson, What’s the deal with baby hair?, i-d Magazine, March 9, 2015 https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/whats-the-big-deal-with-baby-hair

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