Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Empowerment of Willow Smith is About More than Gender

Feminist blogs have been all a flutter about the following statement by Will Smith, regarding allowing Willow to cut her hair.
“We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.” [source]

Most of the conversation surrounding this statement have been reduced to gender, which I suspect is why it has made the rounds in feminist spaces.  Will Smith has cultivated the every man image, which clearly is modeled on pre pound cake Bill Cosby. He tells his jokes and he makes White people feel safe, because neither he or his wife, ever challenges White supremacy.  It stands to reason that as a public figure, with much class privilege that Will Smith is now immune to many of the daily insults that African-Americans live with, but he is still a Black man in America.

The moment the topic of hair and Black womanhood comes up, there will always and forever be a connection to race, but you wouldn't know that from reading the White feminist coverage on this issue.  For them, empowerment of girls, regardless of frame reference, is always reduced to teaching them to fight patriarchy. Allowing a White girl freedom to cut or dye her hair, is a completely different thing than allowing a Black girl to do so.  One is about bodily integrity and the other is about bodily integrity and racial freedom.  I can say this unequivocally because I am a Black woman and have spent a lifetime dodging the hair police. Consider for a moment the White women lined up to defend the appropriation of Willow's Whip My Hair.  Clearly, this song is an anthem for Black girls everywhere and so of course a White woman had to horn in on the action.  Can't have the darkies believing that we have the right to celebrate anything about ourselves.

Will Smith is in the business of being safe and approachable and so he is not going to talk about the racial aspect of this.  Allowing Willow to do as she pleases with her hair, teaches her that she does not have to conform to the beauty standard set by Whiteness - a beauty standard that is unattainable to Black women by virtue of our race.  Other than the colour of our skin, hair is the next largest indicator of our difference.  It is something that is used as a weapon to assault our femininity and to mark us as inferior. White women and White men are equally guilty of hair policing and that is why giving a young Black girl the permission to make decisions about her hair care is absolutely about more than gender.

The focus on gender allows White women to absolve themselves from the racist and sexist policing of Black female bodies.  Over the years, Willow has rocked some amazing styles moving from straight, to natural, to shaved with ease.  Each time she has changed her style -- there has been some sort of discussion on the degree of appropriateness of the style in question -- as though this is something that should be up for public debate.  Many times, this even extends to what she is wearing.  From start to finish, Willow is constantly being policed and this has everything to do with the fact that she is a young Black girl in patriarchal, White Supremacist America.

Giving Willow autonomy over her hair not only frees her from patriarchal appearance demands,  it frees her from White supremacist constructions of Black femininity.  It is incredibly important that Black girls learn at a very early age to love themselves without equivocation, because social institutions will send the message repeatedly that they are unwomen. Black women are largely erased socially unless the narrative of the welfare queen, bad mother, hyper sexualized, loud, aggressive and angry trope can be employed.   Many Black women still cannot wear their natural hair at their jobs because it would be considered unkempt, or too political. Even in cases where they manage to do so, they have to deal with White people who think it's okay to pet them and to ask rude and intrusive questions about our hair.

While Jada and Will may play it safe in public, they both have the experience of growing up Black in America and it is impossible to suggest that they are unaware of the expectations placed on Black girls when it comes to things like hair.  To parent effectively, they would have to talk to Willow about how the world perceives Black women, and why it is important to fight negative stereotypes. The fact that Will was asked about Willow's hair evidences the degree of policing involved.  Keep in mind that Willow is only eleven years old.

I don't expect real intersectionality in White feminist spaces and that is why I am not surprised that they grabbed a hold of this statement and went on and on about gender, as though women all face the same oppression.  What was so patently obvious to me as a WOC, was ignored by them because it allowed them to present gender as the primary site of oppression, while allowing them to absolve themselves of the degree to which they participate in the racist and sexist oppression of Black women while going on about sisterhood.  If we are going to have a conversation about empowering Willow Smith, then it needs to happen in an intersectional manner, because she will have to negotiate both racism and sexism. Excluding one to elevate the other, does not even come close to telling the whole story.