the politics of being transracial & light skinned #racheltaughtus

RDat first, i laughed at rachel dolezal.  i’ve witnessed blackness get colonized so many times until i immediately found her blackface antics more pathetic than anything. however, after she sat down for an interview with melissa harris perry and refused to answer any question directly, i’d had enough — my giggles and indifference turned to anger.

what disturbs me about dolezal’s actions is not only the performative aspect of her self-proclaimed black identity or the hate crimes that some say she falsely claimed to be the recipient of, but the fact that she conveniently left one privileged position for another.  when presenting as a white woman she leveraged the resources attributed to her whiteness, and as a lightskinned black women, she could leverage the resources attributed to having light skin. whether it was the race or gender hierarchy, dolezal always found herself on top.

for dark-skinned people of color, passing is not an option.  race marginalizes us the easiest, acting as the visible embodiment of past and present oppression.  beyond skin color is the complicated history around our hair — black women’s beauty has been tied to the tightnRachel_Dolezal_zpswhmev7y4ess of our curls since slavery. dolezal never had an authentic experience with this very painful narrative, yet told melissa harris perry that her hair journey has been “interesting,” claiming:

it also felt like an affirmation of black is beautiful, you know? because for so many centuries, you know, there’s been … the relaxers and the long weaves and the skin bleaching and all that fallout of psychological disorientation and certainly trauma came.

as if adorning her hair like a black woman’s is a tribute to blackness, she even claimed to have become a hairstylist to help black children feel beautiful. guess what rachel, we don’t need you to pretend to be black to make women who were born black feel better about their blackness. that’s called cultural appropriation, and it actually has the opposite effect.

in fact, dolezal’s egotistical analysis around her hair, adopting her younger siblings and activism have all given the white savior complex a new meaning.

whether led by curiosity, adoration or bad intentions, rachel dolezal made a conscious decision to maneuver through spaces focused on black empowerment as a lightskinned black woman. the privilege to choose not only one’s race, but color is power that most racial minorities will never experience. in the face of constant white terror and efforts to democratize standards of beauty, her blackface performance is not only exploitative, it’s despicable.

black women’s scalps matter

DSC_0064 1i’m still traumatized from the ceramic flat iron event of 2014 when i damaged my hair in a straightening incident gone bad. so you can imagine my excitement when i realized my hair had grown long enough for two strand twists. a pat on the back and a few shea moisture products should have been enough to celebrate my accomplishment, but noooo i decided box braids were the perfect turn up to salute a 1.5 inch twa.

like most black women, i grew up getting braids; in fact, i have lots of memories from childhood and early adolescence picking out $.99 packs of hair and spending hours at a cousin’s/family friend’s/aunt’s home getting my hair braided.  time-consuming and painful, the results were usually “worth” it — women learn early that beauty requires the sacrifice of comfort.  however, as i became older and developed greater agency over my body, i decided both long hair and extensions weren’t my jam, choosing to rock short hair (even a caesar cut in 10th grade). by my early 20s, i went natural and changed my entire beauty paradigm. so i thought.


columbusing alert: gelled edges & big butts

just as christopher columbus “discovered” the new world, high fashion magazines and celebrities continue to appropriate black culture, naming things like big butts and gelled edges the newest trends.

despite vogue’s article titled ‘we’re officially in the era of the big booty‘ and gelled edges being spotted on this season’s runway shows, neither round backsides nor prominent baby hair is “new.” in fact, black folks kinda invented both.  while we appreciate the rare occasions when mainstream society recognizes our contribution to this country’s very existence, especially pop culture, the kind of appropriation pictured above is offensive. why? because it involves failing to recognize the history of an act, as if its originators are invisible.  this fact is especially problematic for black people who are often denigrated for the very things that white americans can espouse as displays of “coolness”.  using black vernacular, rocking gold grills, twerking — and now gelled edges and big butts — breed street cred for whites and limited socioeconomic opportunities for blacks.  this skewed dichotomy is emblematic of larger society and goes far beyond the fashion and entertainment industries.

despite columbusing’s macro origins, one chip in cultural appropriation’s armor could be having more black models, writers and bloggers to fact check these egregious claims and ensure a more responsible cultural exchange. however, until that happens, i’ll continue to feel mocked and exploited by katy perry’s braids and vogue’s recent “discovery” of the beauty of big butts.

is natural hair only for black women or nah?

natural hair blog curly nikki has been in the natural hair game for a minute. helping to build the natural hair movement, both the website and its founder, nikki walton, have increasingly gained national attention over the past few years. writer jamilah lemieux fired shots at the popular blog last week after it featured a white woman’s natural hair journey (pictured below) on its website. Curly Nikki

in an article titled “white women on #teamnatural?” no thanks,” jamilah stated:

community is important.  black spaces are important, and in the era of self-proclaimed “new blacks” and the gentrification of both black popular culture and neighborhoods, they are increasingly rare. so when the sacred sanctity of black girl space was violated via the inclusion of a white woman on a natural hair blog, it should come as no surprise that a number of people were disappointed. and i’ll admit, i was one of them.

throughout her opinion piece, jamilah was very unapologetic about advocating for spaces uniquely for black women.  she goes on to speak about the commodification of the natural hair movement and cultural appropriation writ large.

not surprising, nikki walton responded on her site; here’s an excerpt:

now, unless you’ve been in the natural hair game for less than 15 minutes, you know this whole argument is old as hell. i’ve come down clearly on the side of inclusion before.  the reasons are simple, but i’ll state them again. success in the natural hair movement is defined by the total acceptance of our hair by ourselves, and then ultimately, others.  i and other bloggers have been working hard to make the natural hair movement popular. it’s obvious now that our impact on the hair care industry and popular culture has been tremendous. generally, this has led to good outcomes like a crap load more product options, and a warmer reception among friends, family and colleagues. without popularity, none of this would have been possible. however, we can’t have popularity without sacrificing privacy. is it worth the trade? hmmm…who knows. as a practical matter, what i do know, is that it is difficult to try to make something popular and accepted by not sharing it with others.

as an attorney, i’m not often neutral in arguments. in fact, i typically choose a side just to argue for sport, but this one is sticky. what say you politics and fashion family? is the term “natural hair” only for black women or nah?


c’mon and braid my hair lupita

vogue got lupita nyong’o and her six friends together for the oscar winner to play beautician — who knew she could braid hair?!? she say she learned from her aunt in kenya after having a bad experience in college.

 for all the complaining i do about the oppressive standards around black women’s hair, i forget to celebrate what lupita calls our “frame.”  this video shows the bond we create when taking part in a beauty ritual with deep cultural roots.

my hair, my way, go to hell

french montana learned the hard way about messing with a black woman about her hair. after posting an instagram picture clowning tichina arnold’s gelled down edges, the actress snapped back with the toughest read i’m sure he’s ever received.ta and fm

hearing about this situation begged a larger question for me: why is there so much commentary and criticism around black women’s hair? for example, twitter is constantly ablaze about blue ivy’s hair. you’d think beyonce and jay z were depriving the child proper nutrition the way people feel the need to go in. then there was that whole gabby douglas fiasco.  the poor child couldn’t even relish in the glory of winning an olympic gold medal without folks talking about how her hair was poorly groomed. and don’t forget all those chewbacca memes poking fun at pam oliver during her super bowl coverage. according to the masses, she offended humanity by not having a fresh weave for the event.

add tichina arnold to the cast of sisters mentioned above, and there’s an undeniable pattern of black women being victimized by our community’s stringent standards regarding our hair. like most black women, i grew up getting my hair pressed, braided, pulled and curled, but must admit that i never enjoyed the experience. while it was a chance for me to bond with my grandmother who was a dynamic kitchen sink beautician, we certainly could have found other means to deepen our relationship outside of mild-grade torture.

with these experiences in mind, i’m extremely critical of any beauty standard in our community that 1.) removes people’s individual agency over something as superficial and insignificant as strands of hair and 2.) lacks a clear male equivalent.  the former plays into respectability politics and what black folks, in particular black women, must do to remain upstanding ambassadors for our race. dare to miss your appointment to get your weave tightened and you shall be outcast and ridiculed, fodder for social media posts that reach millions of people. the latter point connotes the role patriarchy plays in forcing women into a role where our appearance is grounds for widespread celebration or degradation — both defined by the male gaze.  it’s not surprising that french montana and not a sister posted the above photo of tichina arnold. it’s male privilege that gives him license to fire shots at a celebrated actress in such a public manner.

in light of yet another hair controversy, i have a psa for my beloved community: whether our names are blue ivy, gabby douglas, pam oliver or tichina arnold, we will do whatever we good well please with our hair. we invite you all to go to hell on scholarships if this fact displeases you.