hair politics

kendall jenner's teen vogue shoot this year
kendall jenner’s teen vogue shoot this year

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fka twigs
fka twigs
katy perry's "this is how we do" video
katy perry’s “this is how we do” video

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We’ve all seen a lot (too much?) of Kendall Jenner recently. Her modeling career is blowing up– and with it, her, I guess, signature cornrows. This is a style that, when worn on black men and women, risks garnering unwanted, racialized attention and pernicious discrimination. I’m sure that Marcia Mitchell would have been relieved to skip all that chemical processing on her hair once in a while and sport braids for a modeling job or two. As a black woman in fashion, though, she is not afforded the luxury of letting her hair show the way it grows naturally out of her scalp. Print and editorial simply aren’t ready for that! But suddenly, when tight braids are seen on a white girl’s head, it’s fashion forward and edgy. Perhaps the worst part of Marie Claire’s inane fascination with Kendall’s hairstyle is that they hail it as something “new,” thereby invisibilizing and delegitimizing black women’s age-old contributions in hair. It suggests indifference at best (at worst, aversion to) black hair styles on black bodies and celebrates these styles when they are grafted onto white bodies. Whoever styled Kendall’s look in the teen vogue shoot I included was clearly referencing signifiers of blackness (the hair, the hoops, the gold chain… there is even a boom box placed next to her in another shot), but on a thin, white, young woman’s body, these coded symbols are stripped of their violently fraught history and sanitized into supposed novelty, context-free.

White artists stealing and profiting from black art is older than the Beatles, but discourses of calling out cultural appropriation publicly have only begun to gain a foothold in progressive media in very recent years. At this point it almost seems like we go through a routine every time Katy Perry gets on stage or a hopelessly misguided (or arrogantly unwilling to learn) white artist releases a new video that uses black women’s bodies as props. And while I love hearing from the powerful multitudes of voices that make up black twitter every time we inevitably see these problems arise in pop culture, I wonder why we are making such microscopic progress.

But back to hair. In her ethnography of a Dominican hair salon in New York City’s Washington Heights, Ginetta Candelario emphasizes the nationalist project that Dominican women’s hair has come to embody– once in the United States, immigrant Dominican women do the work of “displaying Dominican-ness” via the studied and time-consuming management of their hair. Candelario rejects what she understands to be a paternalistic view of Dominican hair care as a “white wish” and instead positions the beauty world in female Dominican New York as the bedrock of collective “economic, emotional, and social well-being” for otherwise marginalized women. I guess I’m wondering about the tension between this vision and a tweet (image included) I saw from a Dominican woman that critiqued white hair professionals’ unwillingness to engage with black hair. While I fully believe in the sanctity of black spaces and Latina spaces, how can we reconcile this with the clearly harmful racial segregation that is the governing rule of haircare in America? How might we maintain beauty labor spaces for people of color but also work against insularity and intolerance in white America when it comes to dealing with all different types of hair?

-Zoe Zachary

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3 thoughts on “hair politics

  1. I’d like to focus on the image you brought in that shows similar hairstyles on a black woman and a white woman with one being considered “ghetto” and the other “high fashion.” The objectification of black females is an ongoing issue in popular culture. Expressions of blackness are all but limited to the wild (see Beyonce’s “Grown Women” music video and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”). Not only are they often over sexualized (As seen in “Anaconda”), blackness is equated with exotic and “other” in these cases. Which then has lasting social implications. We are constantly consuming all sorts of media that upholds whiteness as the standard for beauty.

    Beyonce rarely ever wears her hair naturally styled, most often wearing weaves—most often these weaves are blonde. She adapts her beauty to fit a whiter standard. Yet when she and Jay-Z went to the Dominican Republic and she wore braids there were headlines about it. She has become so distanced from her actual heritage by popular culture that when she represents it, it gets called into question. Celebrities are on a pedestal; millions of girls look at them as role models and/or fashion inspirations. While your post interestingly shows how white celebrities take on black hairstyles, as a form of appropriation, there is also a lot to be said about how black celebrities take on white hairstyles in order attract a certain portion of the market. I agree with your title: hair is most definitely political.

    Beyonce wearing her hair in braids:

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    1. Kate – I think your bringing Beyonce and Nicki Minaj into this discussion is really great, not just for the commentary it raises about how black women are over-sexualized and made exotic, but also as a prime example of the pervasiveness of colorism. Compare the reactions to Beyonce’s album “Beyonce” to Nicki Minaj’s song “Anaconda”. Beyonce’s overt sexuality throughout the album has been hailed by feminists for showing that there is no contradiction between being a sexual being and a feminist. A similar argument has been made about Minaj’s “Anaconda,” such as this great piece at autostraddle.com (I really recommend reading it; it’s quite interesting: http://www.autostraddle.com/nicki-minajs-feminism-isnt-about-your-comfort-zone-on-anaconda-and-respectability-politics-251866/). Yet Minaj has been quite roundly vilified for this display. Why? What makes these two cases different? They are both women expressing themselves as sexually empowered women. So why is one praised and one condemned? I would argue that it lies in how each presents herself musically, and how that colors our perceptions of her. While their skin tones appear fairly close in color (at least based on Google images, which is obviously not a good barometer), Nicki Minaj’s music has always been firmly in the rap genre, which has typically been associated with black culture. Beyonce’s music, especially her more recent work, on the other hand, is primarily pop, a genre perceived to be more white. I think that affects our perceptions of them – since we associate Beyonce with something more “white,” our inherent colorism biases cause us to view her as more “white,” so she gets more of the symbolic capital that Glenn argues comes with lighter skin and is thus praised; by contrast, Nicki Minaj’s association with the “black” genre of rap makes her appear more “black,” so she does not get the same capital and is vilified.

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  2. I want to respond to the comments about anaconda. I love the video & get a lot of gushing feminist pride when I watch it. Here’s the thing I take issue with: your concerns about Nicki Minaj being “oversexualized” paint her as passive and not in control of her own image when she totally is in control! The video is specifically NOT catering to the male gaze. Anaconda is about women. And I think it’s *for* women, too. It’s about subverting the desire for images of “acceptable” bodies (e.g. f*ck the skinny bitches in the club). Facing judgments of her promo photo for the single, she hit back powerfully on instagram: http://www.spin.com/articles/nicki-minaj-anaconda-single-cover-response/

    You can’t see it in the article, but on instagram she captioned all the photos of white women “acceptable.” When she got to her own, she jokingly marked it “unacceptable.” I loved how she used this platform to draw attention to this racialized double standard. Sexualized images of white women’s bodies are ubiquitous– I think Kilbourne would call it the toxic air we breathe– but they are never discussed as vulgar or over-the-top.

    I think that when you go down the road of using the anaconda video as evidence in a statement about the objectification of black women, you’re not far off from respectability politics, which is just unfair and not going to move us forward. As in, yes there’s ample evidence for the sexual objectification of black women by white men, but the anaconda video just doesn’t belong in that category.

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