PRIVILEGE & POSITION: My Debate On...Well, The Black Hair Debate

black-women-washington-post-survey I'm not sure about y'all, but my Twitter timeline on Friday was taken over by the #blkhairpenn hashtag, full of tweets and thoughts from the University of Pennsylvania's special event, The Politics of Black Hair Symposium. Guests included professor Anthea Butler, MSNBC show host Melissa Harris-Perry, Patrice Grell Yursik (aka Afrobella), and others - all deciphering, celebrating, and debating the state of Black hair in today's society. UPenn was very forward-thinking by allowing the entire symposium to be livestreamed on the web, but alas - there was no way I was pulling off watching the event while I was at work. Thankfully, Twitter kept me in the loop - and from that medium alone, it looked like a really intelligent and thought-provoking gathering of minds.

I'm not sure if the #blkhairpenn discussions were the catalyst, but I ended up engaging in a friendly debate with a fellow Tweeter about the seemingly never-ending discussions around Black hair. At the end of the day, I agreed to disagree, but I left the debate wondering about how personal privilege plays into the way we take in conversations around hair. Let me explain.

The points my debate partner made were:

  • The constant "debate" over natural vs. relaxed is tired.
  • Perming (or going natural) doesn't change who you are as a person or what you've accomplished.
  • It's time to debate over more important things like investing stocks and best ways to earn more money.
  • Linking hair to self-esteem is a point she would pass on, as there are better things to discuss.
  • Hair (for her) is fun, or an expression of mood. It's not a reflection of worth.
  • Hopefully we reach a stage where the discussion isn't relevant.

Now, I didn't totally disagree with some of her points. I do think the surface discussions of "natural vs. relaxed" are exhausting and pointless, because the divisiveness of the "vs." creates more problems than what one chooses to do with their hair. In that same vein, I also hope we reach a point where the debate isn't constantly at the forefront. However, I personally feel that the only way we'll get there is through the discussion and debate, so to deny their worth outright is faulty.

To me, the kinds of discussions we're having about hair now are new. If we look at our parent's generation, these debates and expressions of self were not happening the way they are today. I was having a conversation with my mom and one of her friends recently. My mom is in the transitioning process, but still struggles with negative self-talk and isn't yet able to see the beauty in her natural hair. In the conversation, it was crystal clear that so many notions around hair that my mom and her friend held were deeply embedded from their own childhood and life experiences. They spoke so reverently of the difference with my generation - how so many women my age were proud to own their hair choices without the same anxiety and negativity that they did. Not only was it re-affirming for them to see me and others wear our hair naturally and proudly, it was interesting for them to see women (like a friend of mine) who bounce back and forth from relaxed to natural simply because they want to. Their generation was taught that natural hair was for little girls, and relaxed hair was the only suitable option for upstanding and worthy women. You didn't choose natural hair (because it wasn't preferable) and you didn't choose relaxed hair (it was just what you did). So, to have the discussions about the choices and acceptance and why we choose to do the things we do with our hair - and all of the underlying things that weigh into that - is new, and can't be discredited in my eyes.

Another thing that I took away from my Twitter discussion was to ensure that I monitor my privilege in these kinds of conversations. My debate partner mentioned that she was able to confidently wear her hair in any way she wished, and knew that no matter what, her style choice wouldn't affect the trajectory of her life or her self-worth. In her words, she felt other women needed to "get over it and move on". I applauded her for her confidence, but had to remind her that not everyone shares that same sentiment. For SO many women I know - of all races and cultures - hair is indeed a marker of self-esteem. For Black women particularly, whose hair has been the source of much political and personal scrutiny by ourselves and others, we are just now moving into an awakening of healthy self-esteem - and hair plays a major role. For every woman I meet who says she's 100% confident in her hair and how she chooses to wear it, I meet at least 5 others who definitely aren't. Just because my debate partner and I may feel confident, it doesn't mean that we must force every other woman to hurry up and get over it to join us. Sometimes, I feel we need to put down our privilege and meet people where they are, instead of minimizing their current point of development. If we use that self-confidence to inspire others and introduce them to a new way of thinking that may serve them better, that is much more beneficial than discarding the discussion altogether.

Now, do I feel that every debate or conversation about Black hair is worthwhile? I've seen quite a few that, as Kanye would say, have people worried 'bout the wrong things. Combative discussions, "let me talk over you because I think my point is the only correct one" conversations, conversations that are a waste of time because we aren't even scratching the surface of what needs to be discussed...I've seen them all, and leave much more frustrated than enlightened. As I mentioned to my debate partner, I think the conversations are important, but the way we are having them may not be effective. In my eyes, two things will help us move to a place where we can effectively move past the divisiveness and combativeness: we need to have intelligent and honest conversations about hair (like UPenn's Symposium), and we need those with unbridled self-confidence to share it with those who may need the boost.

What do you think of debates and discussions on Black hair? How confident do you truly feel in the way you choose to wear your hair? Did you tune into the UPenn Symposium on the Politics of Black Hair? What did you think?

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