Economies of Color

When we look at certain beauty processes that a lot of black women utilize, such as skin lightening cream, hair relaxers, hair dye, Photoshop, etc., most people assume that it’s in an attempt to look more white that comes from internalized racism. It’s a common practice even in the most powerful and beautiful celebrities – Beyoncé has described herself as multi-racial, implying that being “just black” isn’t enough; been Photoshopped to appear lighter-skinned; and been accused of chemically lightening her skin and hair. When we read articles like this, we assume that even Queen B herself views white features as more beautiful, at least on a subconscious level.

Ginetta Candelario’s book Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity From Museums to Beauty Shops suggests that not all women with African roots change their appearance for this reason. When she delved into the culture of one of New York City’s Dominican beauty shops, she found that the clients and beauticians didn’t necessarily want to be white. She asked them which out of a number of photographs of people were the most beautiful and the most likely to be Latino, among other things. What she found was interesting – the photos perceived as the most beautiful were not of white people. Models who had a mixture of African and European features were both considered to be the most beautiful and the most likely to be Latina. In the eyes of many Dominicans, beauty is less about looking white (at least, the way North Americans understand whiteness), and more about not looking African. The desire to change their appearance is still grounded in racism, specifically anti-blackness, but our assumptions about how women of color view their own race and others are not always correct. Americans don’t view race in the same way Latin Americans do (the one-drop rule that applies here does not apply in other parts of the world).

The natural hair movement is important to both the African-American and Afro-Latina communities because of this huge pressure to deny their own blackness by using painful, dangerous, and expensive techniques to style their hair. Many women, such as model Marcia Mitchell, find that changing her hair can be a double-edged sword: her weave can be styled more easily and makes her less likely to be stared at or touched by ignorant white people, but white stylists never have any idea how to approach her hair. Activist Radamés Julián has pride is his natural hair, but experiences “negative comments and side-eye looks” when he visits the Dominican Republic, where his parents are from.

We (we being black people, Latinos, or white people) all need to stop putting pressure on people because their hair doesn’t fit the straight, shiny, Euro-centric model of what “beautiful” hair should look like. People shouldn’t have to feel pressured to conform if they don’t want to; hair should be celebrated as part of someone’s personal style regardless of whether it’s straight, curly, natural, or sewn in. Here are some awesome hairstyles from Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk Festival back in August.

Photo credit: 1, 2

-Ashley Hicks

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