Report by Lurie Brian Favors – Photo Mireille Liong
NPR recently featured Tom Burrell, author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, who mentioned that in order to understand Black people, our reality and experiences in the West, you have to first recognize that “Black people are not dark skinned White people.”
In other words, White people and their norms are not a measuring stick against which Black people (and other non-Whites) can or should be measured.
This sentence struck me like a lightening rod as it perfectly states the necessary paradigm shift one must take in order to understand race relations and the intersections of race and the law. One must first understand that it was only a few generations ago (we’re not exactly talking ancient history here) that Black people were actively kidnapped, forcibly transported, brainwashed and tortured in order to extract a lifetime’s worth of free labor from each person of African descent.
When one then realizes that the law was used to actively support and strengthen this regime – from its inception – one can begin to see that concepts of race, the law and justice are never blind and they impact and shape every, single, solitary corner of one’s life in ways that are disparate from the majority and leave lasting domains for institutional racism to thrive.
One seemingly innocuous area in which race and the law have formed an eerie partnership has been in the realm of Black hair. Well, more specifically – Black hair that is not processed and treated with harsh cancer causing (and aluminum can disintegrating – but more on that later) chemicals in order to make it look straight like Caucasian hair.
Hair has always had a significant role for Black people. In any given community throughout the continent of Africa, one can find hair styles that may reveal information about the wearer, including things like one’s marital status, the community group from which one hails and one’s position in society. Due to the tight coils indicative of Black hair, people of African descent have traditionally used tools and technology specific to the dictates of Black hair in order to care and style it.
Once on the slave plantation, however, Black people were not only not permitted to continue their hair care traditions, they were systematically made to feel and believe that their hair was somehow, wrong, ugly and in need of “fixing.” In comparison to Caucasian hair, Black hair was deemed simply inappropriate and not in keeping with the (still) prevailing standards of beauty. Those standards were defined by the image of White womanhood and physical characteristics.
Now, remember – Black people are not dark skinned White people. Our hair – in its natural state – does things that White hair does not do. Braids, Afros, locs and twisty styles are not just fads or recent trends. They are staples of Black hair. They are styles that are properly suited for hair that grows the way that Black hair grows.
Sort of the way that it is totally appropriate for a White woman to wear her hair in say, a pony-tail or with bangs.
Seems simple enough to understand right? White hairstyles are appropriate for White people and Black hairstyles are appropriate for Black people. And since Black people are not dark skinned White people – it makes sense that Black hair and White hair may do different things, require different treatment and result in different styles.
Ok. Unfortunately, the law simply does not see it that way. In Rogers v. American Airlines, 527 F. Supp 229 (S.D.N.Y. 1981), Renee Rogers, an African American employee, filed an action that challenged an American Airlines grooming policy that prohibited employees from wearing an all braided hair style. Seemingly unbeknownst to the airline – an all braided hairstyle is an absolutely normal hairstyle for Black hair. It is as normal as a White woman wearing a ponytail (with or without bangs).
The court did not agree. It ruled against Ms. Rogers finding that, since “the grooming policy applies equally to members of all races” the policy was not discriminatory. So basically – since no one can wear an all braided hair style, Black people are not being discriminated against when they are told they cannot wear their hair that way.
Essentially, Black people do not have a right to wear our hair in styles that are properly suited for our type of hair in the professional environment. Rogers is a perfect example of how the law can, at a minimum, be used to limit non-White people’s ability to just be non-White. Rogers set a legal precedent that reinforced long held racist beliefs that Blacks need to conform to the standards of Whiteness in order to be acceptable.
Now if one thinks Black people are dark skinned White people – this makes perfect sense. It even makes sense if one thinks that Black people should be forced to conform their body and genetic phenotype to that of Caucasians (and if you think people who think like this are a thing of the past, you must not have seen the average aisle in your local drug store dedicated to helping Black people “turn” their hair texture and skin color to look more like White hair and skin tone. The hair processing and skin bleaching cream industries are multi-billion dollar industries).
But for the rest of us who recognize that Black people are not dark skinned White people, you can see how this can become problematic. There are millions of women in this country alone (don’t even get me started on the international scope of the hair straightening and skin bleaching phenomenon), who for years apply non-FDA tested chemicals to their hair in order to get their hair to do something it was simply never intended to do: look straight and grow the way White women’s hair does.
These chemicals are so toxic, that Chris Rock’s latest comedic venture, Good Hair, depicts a scene where a White scientist performs a simple experiment to show the viewer what these chemicals are capable of. The scientist places an aluminum can in an average Black hair straighter product and the viewer watches as the can is completely dissolved – by the very same chemicals Black women put in their hair to make it straight. This is what countless Black women subject themselves to if they do not want to risk being marginalized and discriminated against in the workplace.
The Afro in particular, is a hairstyle that has come to symbolize Black people’s “otherness” in highly visible and even political manner. The New Yorker Magazine “satirically” used a caricature of Michelle Obama sporting an Afro as a way to depict her as an angry, undercover revolutionary – complete with an AK-47.
The Afro is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of what has come to be a “politicized” hairstyle. Rising to prominence during the age of the Black Power Movement (at least in this country anyway), the Afro represented a full embrace by Black people, of Black people. It was a hairstyle so completely opposite of the standards of Whiteness that to this day, it is considered a political statement.
Can you imagine? Wearing your hair the way God designed it to grow out of your head is actually a political statement? An “anti-establishment” symbol. Can you picture a White woman’s ponytail ever acquiring such status?
Traditionally, Black people have used conformity as a survival mechanism. “Lightening” the race and altering the chemical make up of our hair was what many did simply to make White people comfortable enough to hire you, not arrest you or otherwise use privilege and entitlement to make you more of an “other” than you already were.
There was a time when Black hairstyles like the ones discussed above were (are?) a sure fire way to get fired or not hired at all. But at long last, Black women are beginning to embrace the fact that we simply are not dark skinned White people. We are different. Not deficient by any means. Simply, different. And so is our hair.
Mireille Liong is a photographer of African descent who has so embraced this concept that she has an entire website (www.going-natural.com) dedicated to helping Black women accept the fact that we can grow our hair the way God intended it to grow and still be (gasp!) perfectly and professionally groomed.
To show how strongly she believes in this principle, the photographer sent a 20 x 24 portrait of the Afro pictured above to President Obama as a birthday gift. After a short while, Liong received a note of gratitude signed by the President and First Lady, thanking her for the portrait.
If the White House can recognize that Black hair is perfectly acceptable and beautiful standing on its own – then it is past time for the courts and the rest of society to do the same. Black people are not dark skinned White people. Neither is our hair. And that is perfectly ok.
It would be wonderful for the judicial system to recognize this principle (with regards to hair and so many other areas). But like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, sometimes you just have to “do what is right and let the law catch up.”
You can follow Lurie Brian Favors at Afro State of Mind.