Saturday, December 13, 2008

Michelle Obama:Hair and The Politics of Submission

I have dreadlocks that reach to the middle of my back.  I love them and feel that they are an expression of my racial pride.  My femininity and sexuality are quite tied up in my locks.  By now the cat is out of the bag that black women have some hair issues that are completely unique to us.  We have traditions tied up in hair care and routinely spend a sizeable chunk of our disposable income to tame it into submission.  We wrestle with it from birth and very seldom are we ever at peace with the final result.

Often much is inferred from the way in which we choose to wear our hair.  Braids, dreadlocks, or afros are considered socially radical hairdos.  What these hairstyles have in common is that they require a woman to wear her hair in a natural state.  Imagine the way that you were born being considered counter-culture. 

It tells us that no matter how progressive we believe we are, socially whiteness still stands as the model we are meant to follow if we are to achieve any form of acceptability.  Unless I use a relaxer filled with chemicals that will eventually lead to balding (now you know why so many older black women wear wigs) I am deemed radical, or unkept.

For those black women with the ambition and the drive to reach the highest levels of professional achievement, the choice to forgo the weekly visit to the hairdresser is not optional.  Yes you read that right, WEEKLY, to say nothing of the activities we don't participate in for fear of our hair turning back.  It's no accident that so many black women do not swim.  Even as children playing at the park we are already aware that getting snow, or sand in our hair is completely unacceptable.

When a woman such as Michelle Obama decides to lead a public life, just like everything else about the black female body, hair quickly becomes an issue.  Each media outlet feels that they have the right to weigh in without even being really cognizant of the issues at play. Lets have a look at some commentary from the Hartford Courant.

Obama, who sometimes wears her dark shoulder-length hair flipped at the ends, often is compared to Jacqueline Kennedy, considered by many to be the most stylish first lady in history.
Her youthful look is a stark contrast to Laura Bush, whose traditional side-parted hairstyle, similar to that of Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, reflects her image as a supportive mother, teacher and librarian, hair experts said.

Right because she has a flip she cannot possibly be the supportive mother, teacher and librarian...Let's just ignore the fact that Michelle gave up a flourishing career in order to be there for her children while their father pursued his political ambitions.  I suppose her declaration to be mom in chief means nothing, her radical hair tells us so.  OOh but she is still a stylish one. You know how us black women just keep up with the latest trends and breed as a hobby in our free time.  We're not real mothers, we're all baby mommas. Motherhood is the realm of respectable white women.

"She has to deal with white people's stereotypes of a black woman," Weitz said. "She has to project an image the public will find acceptable, comfortable and appropriate"...

"It's a kind of racial politics," said Jacobs-Huey. "Michelle conveys a sense of realness in her hairstyle. It says she is an attractive, modern woman who is aware of her femininity and sexuality and does not try to hide it."

No she does not have to project an image.  While white people may get upset when they see our natural hair because we are refusing to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, ones appearance is always an active choice within what one can financially afford.  Michelle did not always relax her hair.  Certainly choosing to embrace our locks may not be politically expedient, but how about we all admit that the decision to run for the lye solution is a conscious choice. You don't trip and end up in the hairdressers chair.

I find the last part of this commentary the most disturbing of all.  How does adding a chemical to ones hair mean that you are embracing your femininity or sexuality.  Does the lye come blended with a pheromone that gets released slowly over time?  Why is it that we are only women when we are mimicking Eurocentric qualities?  Finally please explain what is real about dumping a bunch of chemicals in your hair so that it is far removed as possible from its natural condition?

I understand why Michelle made the coiffure choices that she did, but let's not pretend for one second that it was not a conscious decision, or that the reason it is viewed as beautiful is not because it mimics whiteness. As a WOC, Michelle is more than aware of the consequences that occur when white people are uncomfortable.  Just like any other black woman it is safe to assume that she has had to deal with the ignorance and outright privilege that masquerades as concern, curiosity or even envy.

So how about we all resist the temptation to compare her to other first ladies and just acknowledge the obvious elephant in the room...MICHELLE IS BLACK, That means no matter what parallels that we attempt to make, her colour must be included in the equation.  A flip is more than a flip on a WOC.


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