The politics of black hair

Mainstream conversations about feminism usually proceed from the standpoint of middle-class white women - but they need to know their experiences aren't universal, including when it comes to hair.

White people: The texture of hair that grows from our heads is different to yours. The implications of how we wear our hair, and the meanings invested in whatever styles we rock, might differ from yours too.

And I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but when you see a black woman with a huge glossy mane of blonde hair she is usually wearing a weave or a wig. And yes, my hair does grow, and no, I don’t wear it naturally because I can “get away with a bit of frizz”, but because I like it.

However, lack of awareness about our hair is standard across both society and mainstream media platforms, exemplified here by Hadley “I was astonished when Beyoncé was revealed as a wig wearer” Freeman. What is astonishing is how little you seem to know about our hair, even after all these years of us living in close proximity to each other. Not to mention all the (unacknowledged of course) innovations that have been borrowed from black hair culture and are now considered mainstream.

During the Twitter backlash sparked by Laurie Penny’s recent article on short hair, critics pointed out the way in which mainstream conversations about feminism usually proceed from the standpoint of a middle-class white woman. The temptation then is to conflate the experiences of black and white women - in this instance in their relationship to their hair - and not acknowledge their own very particular position positions itself as universal.

Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe.

It can feel pretty frustrating that white supremacy has bequeathed a legacy in which, for many black women, simply wearing our hair in its own natural state can become a complex and politicised act. At the same time - despite the connection between said supremacy and the relationship that many black women have to our hair - most white people demonstrate absolutely no idea about the everyday maintenance of Afro hair, let alone its politics.

Allow me to reverse the situation for a moment. Imagine we live in a world that is dominated by Black Africans. Imagine your great great-grandparents were colonised and enslaved by ours. Imagine that while those sorry times have passed, and it's all post-racial bonhomie now, the transmission of wealth and power never really shifted. Both are still largely concentrated in black hands. Imagine we dominate the media and beauty industries. Imagine that in order for the beauty of black women to be truly appreciated there must be an ugly, and inferior other, with whom she is compared. This other is the white woman. Her hair is vastly different to the dominant beauty standard. It is thin, lank, stringy and greasy.

All the successful women in society have full resplendent, Afro hair, even the minority white ones.

Their hair is beautiful, it is huge, it makes them taller.

It’s almost as though the Gods, looking favourably upon this chosen race, anointed each and every one of them with a little piece of the heavens - in the form of the cloud of hair- that has been placed lovingly upon their adorable heads. But, in this counter narrative, white people have a long-standing tradition of innovation and experimentation with hair (of course, we black people are largely unaware of it, but it exists) and some of them invest that expertise and knowledge into making their hair look like the hair of the good, the pretty, the successful. In fact when we black women cut off our gorgeous tightly coiled kinks, white women sometimes weave the hair on to their own heads.

Beyoncé.

And after this is done the women with the naturally Afro hair might exhibit surprise that underneath all that gorgeous hair that is just like theirs, there lies a lie.

“Why would they do this?” they might ask. You mean this isn’t really your real hair? “Can I touch it?”

OK, you see where I’m going. Did you bristle a little at hearing your hair described as essentially ugly and bad? Did it seem as though I was being needlessly insulting to make my point?

That was not my intention. It was more a little exercise walking in my shoes. Because, you see, my hair is routinely described in pejoratives. 

Frizzy. Coarse. A problem to be managed. Until the rather wonderful natural hair movement, facilitated in many ways by social networking, this message has been pretty much communicated to me at all times from all angles.

How did you feel when white hair was routinely described as lank and greasy? But sometimes my hair is described as lank and greasy, I hear you cry.

Sometimes is the key word here. It’s also just as common to hear white hair described in highly complimentary language. Think about it; long, silky, shiny, glossy. Don’t even get me started on blonde hair, with all its adjacent connotations of goodness and beauty.

Where are the common phrases used to describe idealised tightly coiled Afro hair? Certainly none come to mind with the ease of the words used to conjure images of idealised Caucasian hair. If there is a beauty standard I should aspire to it is the same as yours apparently; silky and glossy. The expectation is that my own hair must be hidden or transformed in some dramatic way.

About three years ago, I finally quit the whole ‘relaxing’ jive, and stopped straightening my hair. When I was transitioning, I let a white friend feel the new growth. I was excited, as I hadn’t properly felt my own texture in over a decade. However, her response - “Oh my God, it feels like pubes” - brought me slap-bang back to being an eight year old who used to cry themselves to sleep because they were so ugly, and who prayed every night to wake up and have ‘normal’ hair like white people.

Well, those tears were a long time ago. That little girl is now a grown woman who loves her hair (incidentally she has great hair, she always did!) But the journey that led me to the relationship I have with my hair today is likely different to yours. So I urge you to remember, your experience is not the universal benchmark. Such is the ubiquity of whiteness that is this might be easy to forget. Not to worry; we’re here, there’s lots of us, and we’re going to remind you.

Emma Dabiri is an academic and blogger. She tweets: @thediasporadiva

Solange Knowles. Photo: Getty
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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).