On Sunday, after the Academy Awards, Giuliana Rancic, co-host of E!’s Fashion Police, made a few contentious comments in reference to the locs worn at the ceremony by 18-year old actress/singer Zendaya.
In a previous post, I touched on the complicated relationship many black women have with their hair. I shared that in the present day black women have faced reprimands and job dismissals for daring to wear their hair in natural styles. Giuliana’s language touched a sensitive nerve in many, including Zendaya who responded in an eloquently worded message posted on Instagram.
This whole Zendaya/ @GiulianaRancic drama is bull. If you don’t have thick enough skin to take some badmouthing, don’t try and be different. — Lizz Hartman (@lizzhartman) February 24, 2015
These are the fiery retorts that almost inevitably materialize when someone objects to language steeped in ignorance, bigotry, prejudice, racism, sexism or many other -isms.
A quick scan of user photos when I searched Twitter for “Zendaya, sensitive” showed that many of the people instructing Zendaya to “stop crying” aren’t the ones likely to be impacted by negative hair stereotypes. Yet, they think they’re qualified to tell Zendaya how to feel and respond. They haven’t lived her life, but they have all kinds of opinions about it.
Who is anyone else to decide how another person should feel and react to their environment? Who are any of us to tell someone else they are being too sensitive? Why is it often that the folks not directly affected have the most to say about others’ sensitivities?
Giuliana issued a sincere and adult public apology to Zendaya, the type of which we rarely see when a celebrity atones for a public snafu. She accepted responsibility for her words. She referenced listening and learning why her comment offended instead of focusing on her intent and defending herself.
Instead of deriding other people for being too sensitive, we should ask ourselves whether we’re being sensitive enough.
As someone who’s had a lifetime of people telling me that my own feelings and experiences are invalid because they don’t match the narrative of the dominant culture or viewpoint, my skin is pretty damn thick. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t last very long in this America where I am at a disadvantage from the jump just by being in the body of a black woman. A society that tells me that my gender is weaker, too emotional; my hair too nappy, my skin too dark, nose too wide, intelligence limited. To withstand years upon years of ignorance directed my way or anyone else who shares the designation “female” or “black.” A society that tells me I have to act, speak or dress a certain manner just to be respected. If I’m offended by someone coming at me with ignorant nonsense, it’s not because I’m weak. The “strong black woman” stereotype didn’t come from nowhere.
We have to get better at practicing empathy. We have to become comfortable with the idea that we may not always be qualified to speak intelligently on a subject. It’s okay sometimes to stop talking and typing and just listen. To dig deeper and THINK about why someone might be offended. We shouldn’t dismiss other people’s emotions and thoughts as less valid than our own. None of us is better than the other, even those born into royalty, wealth or the dominant ethnic group or gender.
Just because you’re not offended, doesn’t mean another person isn’t and doesn’t have the right to be. Not a one of us is the center of the universe.
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
The beauty shop has never been a place of relaxation or pleasure for me. I associate it with chemical smells, scalp burn, lots of time spent waiting around, listening to catty gossip about the lives of strangers, and hours of sitting in the same chair forced to make conversation with someone pulling on my hair, knowing that any personal details I share might become future salon fodder.
Once, a braider yanked my hair so hard she PULLED SOME OF MY HAIR OUT OF MY SCALP! It’s been years and that hair still hasn’t grown back right.
Up until late last fall, I’ve worn my hair in some form of “protective styling” like braids or weaves. For nearly 20 years I shielded my hair from the elements, the public and myself.
I have never liked fooling with my hair. I would get my hair braided or weaved up and not have to do any heavy styling for at least six weeks. I could wake up, brush my hair or shake out my braids and be done, until I had to repeat the process. Low maintenance. Kind of. Though, not inexpensive.
I always intended to go back to natural, but …
Sometime around age 10, when my family lived in Atlanta, my mom began taking my older sister and I to the salon to have our hair relaxed and styled.
[For the uninitiated: a relaxer straightens curly hair. Commonly, black women refer to it as a “perm,” but this perm is straight, not curly. The relaxer is made up of a chemical compound which, up until recently, usually contained lye and if left on too long, basically burns the crap out of your scalp. It also typically weakens the hair leading to breakage, split ends and other hair horrors.]
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to permanently alter my hair from its naturally tightly coiled state to a bone straight texture. Hair, which now required touch ups every six to eight weeks lest the undesirable curls rise up from the roots and ruin the iron-flat look. Almost every black girl in my school had relaxed hair. The ones who didn’t, got teased and mocked.
If the fuzzy coils returned or I didn’t style my hair “right,” this group of mean black girls in school would let me know by tittering and throwing stank looks and snide comments my way as I walked by. Over the years, I’ve met more of these types – the self-appointed black hair police who insist on issuing judgmental and cruel verbal violations to those whose ‘dos don’t pass muster in their hating eyes. They definitely were not fans of “nappy” hair.
I learned that white people also had opinions on how I wear my hair. In fourth grade, it was Nick – the blonde haired, blue-eyed 10-year old print model with Tom Cruise hair whom all the girls, black and white alike, swooned over – who looked at my relaxed hair, sprayed with oil sheen to give it shine, and called me a “greasehead.” I rebutted with a passable insult and kept my face neutral, but his words infiltrated and left a bruise.
My hair was in crochet braids when I served as a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding in the early ’00s. I’d stopped relaxing my hair by then, no longer interested in the ritual of maintaining unnaturally straight hair. I recall one of my friend’s soon-to-be new family members, a white girl a few years older than me, asking “So, are you going to take out your braids for the wedding?”
Why would I take out my braids? The braids that I spent nearly 4 hours in a chair getting put in? She must be crazy. What’s wrong with wearing braids to a wedding? They’re versatile. Besides, the bride had no issue with my hair, so why should she?
When I interviewed with a staffing agency in Los Angeles, also in the early 2000s, the middle-aged white recruiter inquired, as she looked at my braids:
If a client wanted you to change your hair to look more professional, would you be open to that?
Unlike my more vulnerable fourth grade self, her words didn’t sting me the way Nick’s had; rather, her question offended me. “More professional?” Who would ask me to change my hair and why?
I emphatically said no in such a way as to shut down that line of conversation. No, I am not changing what is a perfectly normal, common and acceptable style among black women.
But, my hair does not grow like a white woman’s does. So…
Even men had an opinion about my hair.
While hanging out at a friend’s place in L.A. one afternoon, one of her guy “friends” – a late twenty-something black dude with a gut, receding hairline, bad breath and yellowing teeth – gave me this gem of unsolicited advice:
You know, if you got yourself a weave, got you some long nails and your pedicure hooked up? You’d be perfect.
So, that guy was an ass.
I did eventually get a weave, but it wasn’t his words that prompted me. I’d noticed that a lot of the black girls in L.A. wore their hair in weaves. Long, straight, flowing hair – much like the white girls. Everybody wanted that Beyoncé hair.
My middle sister installed her own weaves and taught me how to do mine, sparing me trips to the beauty salon. Notably, the type of men I attracted changed once I switched from braids to weaves.
When I moved to the Bay Area a couple of years ago, it surprised me how many black women wore their hair naturally – in puffs, spirals, coils, locs and twist-outs. No one looked at them sideways for it. Seeing these women confidently rock their beautiful, myriad curl patterns encouraged me. Even at work, in professional environments, quite a few black women wore their natural hair for all to see.
There’s no one day when I woke up and decided, “Today is the day I’m going natural!” I’d told myself and others for years, “I’m going natural one day. I am! I just, I’m waiting. I’m not ready yet.”
In the ’90s my mom traded her own relaxed hair for sisterlocks and never looked back. My youngest sister, a true millennial, was the first of all my sisters to make the transition. She did what’s known as the “big chop” and cut off her relaxed hair to start over. She rocked her cute teeny weeny afro with such confidence; it inspired me. Several of my cousins on the east coast also wear their hair natural. I definitely wouldn’t be alone when I finally made the change.
Solange Knowles famously did the big chop about five years ago. She has a gorgeous mane now.
Solange pre-big chop (2008) Source: J&R Music World, flickr.com
Solange after her “big chop” (2009) Source: imgurhd.com
Solange’s hair a few years after her big chop (2012). Source: EventPhotosNYC, flickr.com
Oddly enough, getting laid off from my job last summer helped propel me to action. The role I played at the office, both professionally and personally, was increasingly at odds with who I am, my beliefs and my values. It felt fake and I was tired of it; exhausted from not being true to myself. I just want to be myself and that includes wearing my hair in its “natural” state.
In November, I went to a salon known for their Deva Cut. My hair hadn’t seen the shears of a professional in years. When I scheduled the appointment, they advised me to set aside at least 2 1/2 hours for the cut. 2 1/2 hours? For a haircut and shampoo?! This is why I hate salons! Still, I went. If I was going to be a natural girl, I needed someone to shape my coif into something cute. Besides, women online swore by this cut and as we know, everything online is true and awesome.
I’d heard rumor of these peculiar places where women of all colors converge to beautify. Seeing it with my own eyes delighted me. Black women. White women. Latina women. Jewish women. All with curls. Curls everywhere!
I was a bit skeptical when I met my stylist. A tall, young white woman with bright tangerine hair, absent of any curl pattern, and a ’70s punk rock vibe introduced herself. She is going to help me with this hair?
I’ve walked into “white” salons before and seen the terror in the stylist’s or receptionist’s eyes as I ask, “Do you do black hair?”
“Uh…well…um, we have one girl who does that, but she works the third Friday of every fourth month.”
Or they’ll just eke out, “N-n-noooo, sorry.”
Well, whatever happened to me in the salon, my hair couldn’t possibly look more of a mess than it already did., could it? I can’t say I’d been a poster child of proper hair maintenance.
Two hours later – after pleasant conversation with Tangerine (not her real name), a very thorough dry haircut and a soothing sulfate-free shampoo and conditioning – I left the salon with expertly shaped cut and new knowledge about how best to care for my curly hair.
I used to say that taking care of my natural hair took so much effort. In reality, it was taking care of my relaxed hair that took all the time. My natural hair is the lowest fuss hairstyle I’ve worn to date.
When people ask me when I went natural, I’ll say, “November 2014.” Though truthfully, the transition itself took years. It’s a lot of mental and emotional work. You have to unlearn all the negative messages you’ve internalized about your natural hair.
You may have to re-learn how to properly take care of your own hair. I consumed a lot of information through natural hair blogs; blogs which continue to grow in popularity.
You also have to get comfortable with the fact that there will always be people who have a problem with your hair. Screw ’em. They don’t own the hair rules. If such things exist.
This is the hair that grows out of my head and there’s nothing wrong with it. I love it. It’s part of me. I am still amazed that these curls grow from my head. They are so cool. I can’t believe I ever wanted to hide them.
Me and my long weave in Seville on the Triana Bridge, Fall 2013
Me and my curls on a train in Copenhagen, 2014
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I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.