Voices from Russia

Friday, 8 February 2013

Hair Politics: American Black Women Face Unique Dilemma

00 Black hair. 08.02.13

Natural doesn’t mean ugly!


Esi Ozemebhoya remembered the jaw-dropping disbelief of classmates when they saw her for the first time after the “big chop”. Ozemebhoya, a 19-year-old student at Georgetown University said, “It was a big deal”, describing the reaction of classmates to her decision to cut off her chemically-straightened hair and allow her tightly-coiled curls to grow out naturally. “They were shocked. They stared at me and said: ‘But … WHY?!’” Ozemebhoya’s experience, experts say, spotlights a unique dilemma faced by millions of black women eager and able to meet career challenges in America’s resolutely-conservative workplace, yet, compelled to subvert their physical nature… at their own expense… to do so.

For black women in particular… in contrast to black men or people of either gender from other races… it’s a subliminal and, critics argue, unfair pressure to conform to a standard of “professional” appearance in corporate America by artificially altering a basic body feature. Lori Tharps, co-author of the 2002 book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, which examined African-American hair issues over the past 500 years, stated, “The historical brainwashing we’ve received as a people is that black hair showed inferiority and ugliness”. In an interview this week with RIA-Novosti, Tharps explained that the goal of the book that she wrote with Ayana Byrd was to raise awareness about the issue among fellow women of colour and help them understand that decisions on hairstyles must be a choice… not a requirement, saying, “The opposite of straight hair is not ugly hair”.

Women achieve the straightened-hair look, glamorised by US First Lady Michelle Obama, television talk show star Oprah Winfrey, pop diva Rihanna, and numerous other high-profile personalities, in a variety of ways including chemical relaxers and hair extensions. Many black women, including 29-year-old Lauren Williams, said that for them the decision to suppress or alter their natural hair it is purely a matter of aesthetics, convenience, and personal choice. Williams, a Washington-based political communications professional, said, “There are certain styles I just don’t feel would be accepted. Historically, if African-Americans wanted to progress both personally and politically there had to be some assimilation that occurred during the process. I have to fit into the ideals of what a hiring manager thinks would make for the best candidate”. However, whilst Williams compared the cost of maintaining her hair extensions to investing in a quality business suit, she also confessed to a “secret love affair” with natural hair, a topic she’s addressed on her political style blog, Posh Politics.

Commentators in fields ranging from sociology to entertainment point out that straightened hair may be lower-maintenance than grooming and training natural curls, a booming, multi-billion dollar black beauty product industry may also influence the choice black women make about their hair. In 2011 alone, African-Americans spent 7.6 billion USD (230 billion Roubles. 5.7 billion Euros. 4.8 billion UK Pounds) on personal care products and services including hair, spa, and other beauty treatments, according to a report from Target Market News, a Chicago based firm specialising in black consumer market trends in the USA. Professional hair stylists in New York and Washington contacted by RIA-Novosti said chemical relaxers and hair extensions can range in price from 100 to 10,000 USD (3,020 to 302,000 Roubles. 75 to 7,500 Euros. 64 to 6,400 UK Pounds) per appointment, depending on the client’s location and the services delivered. The 2009 documentary Good Hair starring comedian Chris Rock captured the centrality of “the hair question” to the lives of African-Americans in general, and to black American women in particular. Actor Paul Mooney joked in the film, “If your hair’s relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy… they’re not happy!”

Historians, hair-stylists, and student activists all said that American black women face unique challenges on a variety of levels in making their natural hair “acceptable” enough to level the playing field with any other colleague in the workplace. Nevertheless, they also said that there’s progress on the issue. Christopher Chambers, professor with the Georgetown University Culture, Communications, and Technology programme, said, “I think the barriers are slowly coming down”. He went on to say that we’ll need more high-profile black women wearing their hair naturally… and serving as role models for younger generations… for the walls to disappear entirely. Patrick McKay, chairman of the Human Resource Management degree programme at Rutgers University in New Jersey, concurred. He said that differences in tolerance levels were starting to become more apparent in various industries and sectors of the US economy, observing, “What I’m finding is that it depends on the diversity climate of the company”.

Over the past decade, the so-called natural hair movement has gained momentum, with the help of social media and blogs serving as a resource for women curious about leaving the chemicals behind. For Georgetown sophomore Ozemebhoya, the issue is less about whether her peers approve or disapprove of her new look than it is about basic freedom and acceptance of her natural appearance, saying of her decision to cut her chemically-straightened hair, “It was liberating”. She called it the “Big Chop”… for the first time since she was five-years-old, she felt the texture of her natural hair.

8 February 2013

Sasha Horne



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