“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” - Maya Angelou
Recently an old buddy of mine posted an article she found in the wellness section of the New York Times detailing an interview in which the Surgeon General called for women, especially Black women, to choose exercise over hair. The Surgeon General herself, Dr. Regina Benjamin, is a Black woman. She noted that some Black women not only choose a good hair style over getting a work-out but choose seeing their stylist on a regular basis rather than their doctors.
Despite my friends good intention with posting the article, along with another commenter who was incensed at the idea of beauty before health, I got a whiff of that new version of racism known as white privilege. "I don't get it" is an understandable response to something unknown of course. Thinking "that's crazy, why would someone do that" is also a fair reaction. Where privilege raises its perfectly coiffed head is in its own laziness by not going beyond the initial singular response to ask meaningful questions.
"Well who cares if hair is straight or curly" or "I like hair when it's all wild looking" also highlights the lack of interest in really understanding where these women are coming from. That lack of interest is racism. Just because there is no burning cross doesn't mean there isn't a serious problem. Such responses to the hair/health issue completely ignore the question as to why women, especially Black women, literally sacrifice their health and shorten their lives in the name of something so seemingly superfluous as hair. Dr. Benjamin was right to point out this hair phenomenon but made a mistake in not addressing what she darn well knows is the underlying reason for such behavior.
Shame based in a long standing history of racism.
When I was twenty-six years old I had my first surgery. My doctor was a white man who was about to perform a laparoscopy to diagnose and treat endometriosis. Being a woman of color and a descendant of slaves I am aware, on a historical/spiritual level of how my people have been treated by medical professionals. Trusting doctors doesn't come easy for many folks regardless of race, but for Blacks, all one has to do is mention the word Tuskegee, and all faith goes out the window. As I was being rolled into the OR my doctor and his assistant were having a jolly conversation of sorts. I was nervous but ready to be rid of the chronic pain I had been having. As the gurney came to a stop I clearly hear the words "my pet pig" uttered by my doctor. Now in all reality, these two men were likely discussing farm animals and randomly chose my OR entrance as the time to speak of such matters. However all I could think was that they were going to sterilize me without consent or experiment on me, because I am brown & therefore not much more to them than a pig. I was in so much fear I couldn't talk. I began to cry. They thought I was scared because it was my first procedure. I was scared because my humanity and dignity felt acutely threatened. But I also felt powerless against history, medicine and racism. I let myself succumb to the anesthesia because in part, back then I felt that when it came to racism, if you're wanted dead or injured, there wasn't much you can do about it anyway.
No one should ever have to feel that way going into surgery. At least when I go to my hair stylist I can trust that if she makes an accidental or even malicious mistake, my fertility is not in jepordy. It's doubtful she'll give me syphilis or experiment on my internal organs in any way. Perhaps going to the hair dresser is safer after all.
So here are the questions that would be a bit more enlightened and quite frankly more interesting to ask about the hair/health issue:
-What would cause a Black woman to feel that her hair is more important than extending her life by a few or even several years?
-Why is hair and the issue of beauty so important to these women?
-Is it possible I'm reacting to this issue without looking at the whole picture?
For that third question, we all do that on just about every issue on the planet. We react without thinking of the root causes or that our understanding or the context may be completely different from what is or was really happening in a given situation. In this particular instance the first two questions provide the context and causes.
SimplyComplex_87's response to Dr. Benjamin's call to bear well toned arms provides a great glimpse into this issue:
"how backwards is it that black women care more about looking like something they're NOT (read: keeping their hair silky straight like Europeans, because their naps are "ugly") than ensuring their lifespan isn't cut short by 10 years or more...
if that isn't proof of the collective shame we feel about our natural curls, then i don't know what is. white supremacy is something else, i tell ya"
Call it nature, to want to be attractive in order to propagate the species. Call it racism though to be told over and over again, even these days, that nappy hair is not "regular" hair or "good" hair. This time it's not whites who overtly tell Black women that (though I still see my fair share of hair touching and wig/weave commentaries by white women - yes mom, that means you) their hair is sub-par but other Blacks who reinforce old notions of European beauty standards.
And why do we do this to each other and ourselves?
A perfect answer by African Export:
"There are too many of us who feel less than if we cannot walk out without a weave or a wig... I know its deeply rooted...confidence and self-esteem is what it really boils down to...a lot of us don't feel beautiful if we don't have Indian Remy (ed. note: this is real hair from India)... a lot of us have deeply rooted issues and we don't know how to get over it."
Self-esteem, self confidence, deeply rooted issues, not knowing how to get over the issues or even knowing they are there.
Almost all North American women have bouts of beauty insecurity from time to time. Now take those U.S. beauty standards and apply the need to survive and the desire to thrive. Add hundreds of years of racism combined with sexism in the form of rape, forced abortions, forced infertility, fetishization/exoticization, professional advancement withholding (yes women have been held back & even fired for having natural hair) and reinforcement of goodness/beauty in those who possess more European physical attributes.
My father had naturally very tight hair. Technically he was mixed race like me but he, because of his hair and dark skin, was perceived solely as Black. My dad loved my hair. Sadly, he was jealous of it and would tell me as I greased his afro how lucky I was to get Indian hair (not South Asian Indian but Indigenous American as we are part Muskogee). Despite the fact that my dad occasionally told me I was ugly, I always knew that according to him, my hair was better than his. Ironically years later in puberty my hair began to curl up and my white mother referred to my hair as a birds nest.
In high school my own racism spewed out about nappy hair one night after I was attacked by a group of teen aged Black girls. Walking in-between my two friends I was without warning smacked so hard in my ear that I fell to the ground. After some nonsense and another ear smack, the girls ran away and in my fury I shouted at them "at least I can use mousse!" I have never forgotten those words and burn with shame each time the memory is discussed.
The truth is that in U.S. history, Black folks like me, who though couldn't pass for white, but were less "African looking" were often given a higher place in society among both Black and white society. A quadroon woman (quarter-Black) had a much better chance of "marrying up" than a mulatto (a now racist term for half-Black) woman. An octoroon (eighth-Black) back in the day may even pass for white if her hair was smooth and her skin pale enough. Even if a dark skinned Black woman was far more beautiful than another light skinned woman, her chances for a better life based on marriage prospects (thank you racism and sexism!), were drastically lower.
Such life circumstances based on racialized percentages may seem strange, but it was the whites, not the Blacks who came up with such a system. Blacks as free people and slaves had to adopt and abide by such principles in order to survive. Do we really think that because slavery is over that there are no lingering affects? Ask any white woman if she still feels the affects of making less money than men and her answer of yes would shock no one. Tell people that some Black women put their hair above their longevity and folks just shrug in willful or semi-fascinated ignorance.
So why do some Black women put their hair before exercise, physical health and doctor visits? Because deep inside they are trying to live. They're trying to live in a world that still tells them that their hair is not enough. Their skin is not enough. Their lips and eyes, and bodies are not enough. That if they are beautiful they are beautiful in an "exotic" way, not a just a regular way. And while some whites may envy being considered "regular" they certainly wouldn't envy the price-tag that comes with being an "other" all the time. We value the way things look in this capitalist society, whether you like it or not. If you do not appear to be "right" than you are wrong or not enough. Really can you blame someone for trying in their own way to be enough though beauty, through even their hair?
If we don't like this paradigm there are things we can do. We can invest in the self-esteem of young women of color. We can tell them that they are beautiful and can be anything. We can represent darker skinned women in the media more aggressively and in proper context (ie. not putting the Black model in the animal prints). We can stop supporting brands that claim to support all women but don't (hello Unilever). Instead of saying "how weird" we can ask why and educate ourselves and not be lazy by simply asking our friends of color to answer all our race related questions.
Racism is death. Many Black women are sacrificing their lives in order to have a life. Whether it be through their hair or not, condemnation without examination only continues to ripen the poison apple we all continue to eat.