Saturday, April 26, 2008

Of Natural Hair and Role Models

I've talked in this space before about my fraught relationship with my hair. After getting my hair relaxed in October of last year, I decided to go natural. Being too chicken to cut all my hair off (the easiest way to go natural after having relaxed hair), I decided to let my relaxer grow out and try various hybrid hairstyles while decided exactly what to do with my hair. Alas, my inherent hair laziness kicked in and three weeks ago I was back at the salon getting my hair chemically treated. I thought a lot about the decision and thought I felt good about it (reading the comments on a post about natural hair at Stuff Educated Black People Like got me really thinking about the fetishization of natural hair in certain circles) until I went to work the next day.

Several students on separate occasions came to me to ask about my hair. Did I get a relaxer? Did I get my hair pressed? Was all that all my real hair? Not only was I caught off guard by those questions (who knew people were paying that much attention to my hair?), but I was also surprised at their sense of betrayal. These students, all young black women, were clearly very disappointed in me. I'd let them down.

I hate the very idea of making choices about my personal appearance based on other people's expectations, but at the same time I understand that my public persona is very important. Being a black professional in a place like Charleston, SC matters in very real, material ways. My very presence, my actual physical body as well as the idea of me, intervenes into all kinds of weird racial histories and tensions here, so it's important that I take seriously what that presence says. I get that. Yet...there also needs to be room for me to be the me that I'm going to be. And maybe that me has chemically straightened hair. I know that sounds defensive and maybe it is just my justification for participating in my own oppression. Who knows?

I haven't made up my mind about how I feel about all of this.


CT said...

Just a thought: isn't it also an important thing for role models to illustrate complexity and conflict in productive ways? Seems to me you're doing just that.

While this is a fraught issue, both personally and politically, it also provides a good teaching moment to talk with students about personal choice and messy feelings in the midst of all that institutional and cultural complexity.

In other words, I think you should see this as a potential break through vs. break down in the role modeling you do. It may be all in the way you frame your choice--to yourself, to the students, to others. Should we see all acts of conformity as oppressive, even if they are consciously debated and then chosen? Is there the possibility for subversion within conformity?

ThatDeborahGirl said...

I think there was an unspoken question: Did you get pressure to change your hair or was it your choice?

It never ceases to amaze me how much people pay attention to other folks personal details.

SolShine7 said...

I wish hair in general didn't have a bunch of drama surrounding its appearance. Women in every ethnicity have hair issues in one way or another. Hopefully in Heaven we'll all have perfect hair. ;)