The Jigaboos vs. The Wannabees: The War on Black Hair

Spike Lee's School Daze

Spike Lee’s School Daze. Pictured here is the scene with the Jigaboos and the Wannabees

In May of 2012, I had the last touch-up to my relaxer placed in my hair. Immediately afterward, I began considering the idea of allowing all of the chemicals to grow out of my hair. I was thinking about “going natural.” Actually, I had been considering it for a couple years before I made the leap, but in addition to the common reservations of not knowing how to manage it and the fear of how it may look on me, I also had one additional fear: I dreaded (no pun intended) being a part of, what feels like, a growing dissension between black women who wear natural hairstyles and those who don’t.

I absolutely detest the politics of black hair, but as much as I would like to say that my hair is apolitical, it is politicized with or without my consent.

An analysis of the history of black women and images of beauty will reveal how we were (and still are in many ways) made to feel unattractive if we have darker skin and kinky hair. Those with fairer skin oftentimes had access to more resources like jobs, though that didn’t necessarily mean that they were treated well. If you were light enough to pass for white, you could potentially abandon your family and community for some of the privileges of being white, and that came with the price of rarely or never seeing those darker family members who could expose you. Despite your complexion, passing for white was impossible if you had kinky hair, as it was a certain way of revealing your racial identity.

Dorothy Dandridge, Actress

Dorothy Dandridge, Actress

We have internalized this binary of pretty and ugly, where all that is beautiful is white. The converse of that perception indicates that the closer one’s features or physical characteristics are to being African, the more unattractive you are considered to be. Unless, of course, you were lucky enough to get the back-handed compliment, “You are pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”

We grew up in families and neighborhoods where the lighter child with “pretty” hair was more often doted on than the darker ones with tightly coiled hair. We heard those we love talk about “pretty hair” and “good hair” and how adorable it made one child because she was lucky enough to have it. No one had to say that kinky hair was unattractive, though many of our parents/grandparents actually did. The way that wavy textured or loosely curled hair was deemed most desirable, was enough to make the rest of us feel unattractive if we didn’t possess that type of hair. Black girls grew up believing they needed to get as close as possible to having “good hair” and, generally, it meant perming or weaving to accomplish it.

Even today, with so many black women wearing their hair naturally, I hear comments like, “She can go natural, she has a ‘good’ grade of hair” or “Natural hair looks nice on some people, but everyone can’t go natural. It’s not for everyone.” Both statements imply that natural hair is only alright if you have a particular texture hair, and tightly coiled her is never the desired look.

This is perplexing to me: anyone who wants to go natural can and should go natural if she wishes to do so. Not only is it their right to do so, but she can go natural and look beautiful. Taking that choice away from black women is equally as problematic coming from someone who is black as it is when it comes from predominately white corporations that insist on a particular look for their employees.

I certainly feel some sort of way when I hear people make comments like this because, by definition of “good hair”, the tightly coiled hair that grows out of my head is not it. Furthermore, nowhere in this conversation are people talking about the fact that straight hair (whether naturally straight or chemically straight) can be unkempt, unhealthy and unattractive.

The question that begs an answer: Why haven’t we evolved from this old perspective? What sadens me most is that these comments were made by black women in their 20s and 30s, and it does not sound very different from our grandmother’s disdain for nappy hair.

If only this was the only side of the black hair conversation that is disturbing to me.

Me and my hair, styled naturally

Me and my hair, styled naturally

I finally decided to “big chop” in January, and I was talking about the experience with a friend of mine at an event. A woman wearing locks decided to interrupt our conversation and say, “I’ve been wearing my hair naturally when you all were talking bad about me.”

First, I looked at her searching for something familiar in her face–she was speaking to me as if we knew each other. (I somehow refrained from saying, “heifer, you don’t know me,” but I digress.) When I realized that I did not know her, I understood that she was making assumptions about the two of us. For some unknown reason, she was hostile with us about our conversation about transitioning our hair. This hostility about relaxed hair is not new.

On Facebook I have read comments like, “Black women who put perm in their daughters’ hair are committing child abuse” and “Black women who wear their hair straightened or relaxed hate themselves.” The anger that is spewed toward black women who choose to relax their hair by some in the natural community is often articulated in what they call “love.” If this is what sisterly love looks like, I want none of it!

There are some in the natural hair community who are just as hostile about black women placing relaxers in their hair as women with chemically treated hair are about black women wearing their hair naturally. Once, a friend of a friend was stopped by a woman who told her that she was beautiful. She proceeded to compliment her outfit. Shortly afterward, she flipped the script and told her that she would be more beautiful if she didn’t put chemicals in her hair. She told her that she was buying into “the white man’s” perception of beauty and that doing so proved that she hated herself.

What is apparent to me is that this way that some black women choose to engage each other in regards to our hair is divisive, and it seems to me that we cannot afford to be divided on matters that don’t affect real change in our neighborhoods. If this year has taught me anything, it is that there are many issues in black communities that are still pervasive and need the attention of activists. From the violence our young boys face at the hands of racist vigilantes, to the attack on our right to vote, our current circumstances have proven that we have work to do. And, to put it plainly, “Ain’t nobody got time for that” conversation on black hair!