January 22, 2012

Curls, Color, and Race

Since my locs' big chop a year ago, I have learned a few things about black folks and natural hair.  Until my "big chop anniversary," I wore a wash 'n' go variation every day (pictured below):

To my surprise, I received daily inquiries about my hair.  The first question was always, "How do you get your hair like that?"  And my response was a long run down of my co-wash conditioner and regimen, followed by my leave-in moisturizer, castor oil, and the best darn gel in the world - Eco Styler.  Much to my chagrin, instead of nods and note-taking, what ensued was almost always an "ugly" twisted face followed by, "Oh, so you just have curly hair?"  Reluctant to respond, I would eventually acquiesce and say, "Yes."  To this, I would receive a spectrum of responses - anywhere from shoulder shrugs and ambivalence to downright hostile eye-rolling.

My mother, who is natural too and big-chopped when I did, explained similar experiences.  However, some of my natural friends explained very different experiences.  The key variance was that no one ever asked my friends, "How do you get your hair like that?" When I discovered this, I started to think more critically about the discrepancy.  What was the difference between my mother, my friends, and I?  Sadly enough, the only difference was skin color.  My mother and I are dark-skinned black women, and all the natural friends in question are light-skinned black women.

The interrogation that my mother and I experienced repeatedly was the result of the two of us curly heads betraying an unspoken stereotype, a paradigm.  Apparently, black folks have constructed certain images for blacks.  Until I contradicted this socially constructed image, I never knew it existed.  It is very simple:  light-skinned people have curly hair, and dark-skinned people have kinky hair.  And, as many hair blogs attest, in the politics of black hair, curls have become the holy grail.

So when black women would stop me in the grocery store, at work, or on the street and ask, "How do you get your hair like that," they were assuming that I had "manufactured" the curls they were seeing.  I, however, assumed they wanted to know how I achieved shine and staying power.  So, when my lengthy response betrayed their assumptions, they would become incensed.  My light-skinned counterparts are never questioned about "how" their curls occur, because the expectation is that the curls "naturally" occur.  After all, light-skinned people are "supposed" to have curly hair?  Right?

My experiences over the last decade and half with natural hair are reaffirming rather than contradicting my theories about race and identity.  As much as India Arie and others proclaim proudly that "they are not their hair," there is so much evidence to the contrary.  Women's hair (regardless of race) has been a symbol of beauty, femininity, piety, reverence, patriarchy, sexuality, and the list goes on.  In our contemporary world, we cannot trivialize black women's hair and what it symbolizes.