In Which the NYT Notices the Politics of Black Women’s Hair

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It’s news at the NY Times this week, even if it’s not news to those who have been living these conversations for generations.  In “Black Hair: Still Tangled in Politics,” reporter Catherine Saint Louis frames the discussion this way:

“For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,”said Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at the  University of California at Santa Barbara.”If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair,”she said,”you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.”

Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated would have been reminded otherwise by some negative reactions to the president’s 11-year-old daughter,  Malia Obama, who wore her hair in twists while in Rome this summer. Commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic attacked her as unfit to represent America for stepping out unstraightened.

The full NYT story is here.  Accompanying the story is this “interactive feature” — pictures and audio clips of nine African-American women discussing their hair choices.  As a teaching tool, the first-person accounts could supplement a variety of law school discussions.

Over at, blogger Alienated does a riff on Gloria Steinem’s 1978 essay, “If Men Could Menstruate.”  Alienated asks, “What if black women were white women?

The answer is clear – Black women would represent value, purity, and based on their natural traits; be worthy of protection and instantly become the objects of universal desire. White women would represent the opposite.

“Beauty tar potion”would become globally popular to get the”black look.”  â€œDove”would be replaced with a black soap called”Raven”to help exfoliate the skin and bring out subtle hints of melanin. * * *

Straight blond hair would be considered”wild and unruly”because when the wind blows, it does not stay in place. Women with natural straight hair would hide their”unruly”and”wild”stick-straight hair in public. The desire for”Lightweight hair”that defies gravity would permanently end the use of blow dryers. Keeping ones natural blond hair wild and straight would become indicative of a political statement.

The anti-aging properties of black female skin combined with soft curvy bodies would be proof of the overall reproductive health of black women. Scientists would argue that black women are naturally preferred as long term mates and mothers because they are”healthier.”Men’s attraction to women is based on overall  health and fertility, after all. * * *

Statistics would equate the fact that white women make up the majority with their”overpowering”and”strong”population. This would be proof that they can handle unsafe neighborhoods, as they have created a”strong culture”amongst themselves to withstand their lack of protection from predators and criminals. Statisticians would argue that men are attracted to black women innately because they make up a small percent of the population.  â€œWe tend to value what is rare”they might say.

The full post is here.

-Bridget Crawford

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