Monday, July 18, 2011

The unbearable nonsense of hair hierarchies or No, Andre Walker my hair isn't "limited"

I am a writer, black woman, bibliophile, music lover, nappy head, geek, eccentric, Midwesterner, wife, stepmother, sister, aunt and daughter. I am a liberal progressive. I believe in equality...of gender...of race...of sexuality...and I believe in working PROACTIVELY toward same. I am anti-oppression. I believe in justice for ALL. (Knowing that, you may label me as you wish.) I am a genealogist and I believe there is strength and knowledge to be found in the lives of our ancestors. Good living, good food, good music, good books, good people and good conversation turn me on.You can find me at What Tami Said.

If you follow any natural hair blogs, then you know Andre Walker, hair guru to Oprah, has put his foot in it. Walker told Elle magazine:
“I always recommend embracing your natural texture. Kinky hair can have limited styling options; that’s the only hair type that I suggest altering with professional relaxing”.
*side-eye*

The suggestion that hair can simply be too kinky to wear naturally set off a furor among the nappy community. And so, Walker responded on his website:
"That statement is a very short version of what I also said in my book all those years ago, but almost immediately after the Elle article, the internet was abuzz with people questioning why I would recommend chemically relaxing a particular hair type Some even said my advice suggests that kinky hair is “bad” hair.
Let me first say that there is no such thing as “bad” hair, and I have long ago freed myself from being afraid to use the word “kinky” and also from being accused of not liking natural hair. We have become a multi-cultural society that embraces many different looks and styles when it comes to hair. It is my Mission to help you grow strong, healthy hair, and wear it in the style or styles that best suit your likes and particular hair type.
When it comes to curly and kinky hair (there is a difference), I leave the political correctness of “going straight” or staying natural to a woman’s personal preference. Once again, my advice is based on how to best achieve strong, healthy hair. So for those who would like to engage me in a debate about who has more racial pride and self esteem, based on hairstyle preference and use or non-use of chemical relaxers, know that I believe in personal freedom, and in the use of advanced technology when it yields positive results, which many of today’s (versus yesterday’s) chemical relaxers do deliver.
It is a fact that kinky hair (my Type 4 definition) is extremely fragile and breaks easily. Even when you are very careful, something as simple as combing can break this texture. It is very difficult to achieve a longer length when the hair breaks, even with simple combing. That being said, there is the style option of wearing braids, dreads, or twists, which allows the hair to grow longer because it is combed less often. Another style choice is to simply wear a shorter cut, which is very attractive on some women but just not right for others.
So when I say to embrace your natural texture, but consider relaxing kinky hair, am I contradicting myself? I don’t think so! You see, even relaxed hair can still be worn naturally. If you want a natural look, but find that your kinky hair is difficult to manage, breaks too easily, lacks shine and luster, and limits your preferred styling options, I say feel free to consider a mild chemical relaxer, sometimes called a texturizer, that eases your hair to a more manageable texture and allows you to Make Peace With Your Hair.” Read more at Black Girl Long Hair...
Still...no.

Walker threw up enough straw men for 100 cornfields. No one is questioning his racial bonafides because he uses relaxers as a styling option for black clients. When anyone raises the specter of "political correctness," you know they're about to be on some bullshit. What many women are questioning is the stylist's assertion that kinky-haired black women, apart from all other women, need chemicals and modern technology to have healthy, manageable, attractive and versatile hair. That is simply not true. That notion is a byproduct of racism and the demonization of physicality that is considered black.

Count Walker among the semi-converted-- folks who sorta think natural hair on black women is okay...if the wearer possesses the right "grade" off hair (i.e. "good" hair)...if the natural hair is straightened by heat...or, better yet, if the natural hair is straightened by a "mild" relaxer, making it not "natural" at all. The kinkiest hair needs help to be right. People like Walker still see black hair through the prism of straight-hair supremacy.

Here is where I need to say that black women have the right to wear their hair however they like. I rep for natural hair. I'm a bit of a nappy proselytizer. But that's me. You do you. But what I can't abide is when people attempt to justify hair straightening by repeating biased and erroneous information about natural hair, like:

Women with kinky hair have limited styling options. No, Andre Walker, we do not. My hair is a mix of curls, spirals and kinks. Over the last month I've worn twists, twist outs, afros, fro hawks and a simulation of a conservative bun. As Dodai on Jezebel said, anyone who thinks natural heads have no style options hasn't cruised Le Coil, a site that has definitely helped me up my nappy game. It is true that I cannot get my halo of hair into a smooth and sleek chignon without straightening. But then, a woman whose hair can be naturally smoothed into a sleek chignon can't achieve the spectacular twist out I'm rocking today. So, every woman has some limit to what her natural hair can do. Black women with kinky hair are no more limited than others, unless of course you live in a headspace where "style options" equals "things straight hair can do."

Curly and kinky hair is fragile. Okay, this is true. It's the solution to curly hair's fragility that I find irrational: "Curly hair is fragile, but slathering it with caustic chemicals will make it less so." Since I've been natural I've learned ways to treat my hair kindly, such as only combing it when it is wet and moisturized, avoiding certain ingredients in hair products, and "conditioner washing." Now, natural hair is not the only hair that can be healthy. My hair was thick, shiny and healthy when it was relaxed; it is equally so now. I reject the notion that anyone needs a chemical relaxer to have healthy hair.

Hair must be shiny to be attractive and well-kept. Walker suggests that hair without "shine and luster" is not healthy. But some hair does not naturally shine--no matter how well-cared-for it is. My hair shines, but take a look at some of the sharp and stylish women on Le Coil. Not all of them have shiny locks. It is unfair to judge nappy hair based on whether it does things that straight hair naturally does. 

Is is time-consuming to manage natural hair. If by "manage" you mean "treat it so it mimics straight hair," then, yes, that would be time consuming. Otherwise, I've found that being natural has greatly reduced my hair grooming time. Not having to spend half a day in the salon every other week is a huge time savings. Like a lot of things, the amount of time you spend on natural hair depends on what styles you wear. Rocking a TWA or wash-and-go takes a lot less effort than constant twist outs. I'm at a stage where I've having fun experimenting with new hairstyles that take some practice, but there are plenty of weeks when I throw in some twists and keep them in.

The online natural community may be partly to blame for this misconception. Drop into a natural hair forum and you might think that having natural hair necessitates a raft of expensive, hard-to-get products and special techniques involving bags and bands and You Tube instructionals. The reality is that some of us, me included, are in awe of what our natural hair can do, and we're having fun sampling new products and new looks. But don't get it twisted; if you want simple, you can maintain natural hair simply.

Walker himself has also contributed to the idea that natural hair is complicated and mysterious. He is the creator of a hair typing method that labels hair from straight to kinky. It has its uses, but in many ways Walker's system has encouraged a hair hierarchy with kinky-haired women as the marginalized ones. It is good to be able to describe your hair and to know how it works. Are you kinky or curly? Is your hair spongy or coarse or silky? It is not necessary to know which combination of numbers and letters on the Walker scale your hair fits. 4a? 3c? Who the fuck cares?

I've heard plenty of professional stylists say exactly the things Walker did in Elle. Graduating from beauty school does not make you immune to Eurocentric beauty standards. I hate though, that such a high-profile, revered stylist spouted such biased nonsense in an international mainstream magazine. Way to reinforce negative beliefs about black hair--not only among the black community, but the broader community. Just when we've convinced our non-black friends that Chris Rock does not have a doctorate in the black female hair experience, here comes Walker. But Oprah's stylist said women like you shouldn't wear natural hair.

Look. It is awesome that women today have so many style choices when it comes to hair. We can wig it, weave it, wrap it or wear it in a free flying fro. We can work with our stylist to make a gazillion choices, but we owe it to ourselves to make choices based on the best information possible, not age-old prejudices.

Sisters, wear your permed hair proudly, cause you love it--not because, like Andre Walker, you think your natural kinks are deficient.