The Michelle Obama Hair Challenge

Erin Aubry Kaplan, Salon, February 3, 2009

Are we moving toward a “black hair” moment?

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Consider: Michelle [Obama]’s hairdresser, Johnny Wright, just signed a development deal for his own beauty reality show. Chris Rock recently went to Sundance to screen his documentary “A Good Hair Day,” a look at the enormous but mostly unexamined industry and culture of black hair care. “[Black women’s] hair costs more than anything they wear,” Rock recently said in a Salon interview. “It’s like the No. 2, 3 expense of their whole life.” Meanwhile, in a recent discussion on MSNBC, black Princeton prof Melissa Harris-Lacewell agreed with Rachel Maddow that an Obama administration meant white people would be more emboldened to ask black people about previously taboo issues, like how they do their hair (Harris-Lacewell admitted she wasn’t looking forward to that). The interest is encouraging to a point. And like all white scrutiny of any aspect of black life, it also feels like voyeurism, to a point. The gray area is just one of many reminders that bridging the racial divide, like black hair itself, is going to be complicated.

But first, let’s take a look at Michelle. Her hair represents the highest aspirations and also the limitations of a certain black style. It’s always immaculately done, straight and shiny. On Inauguration Day, it complemented her cheekbones; it riffled gracefully in the frigid wind. Nothing wrong there at all. And that’s potentially the problem: Nothing’s wrong. It’s perfect. {snip} I wonder whether such a young, high-profile black woman who gets her hair straightened or relaxed as a matter of course will occasionally let it be something different: unstraightened, less straightened, or anything that doesn’t bounce, lie flat or swing like a pageboy. In other words, a do that suggests her ethnicity rather than softens it.

I know firsthand how complex these choices of style and identity can be: I’m a black woman with curly hair, but it’s not curly enough to be considered kinky (aka nappy) and typically black. Yet my blackness dictates perceptions and expectations about my hair; non-black people assume I have a relaxer or a weave and are always curious about what I’ve had “done.” I’ve had very little in the way of chemical or heat straightening in my life, but I didn’t escape black hair rituals altogether: Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to wear my hair “natural” or “out” because that was simply too ethnic. {snip}

A hair change shouldn’t be a radical notion; every beauty magazine I’ve ever read trumpets makeovers every month. But black images–indeed, the very idea of beauty–are still inherently political, mirrors of our national mood about race and ancient tensions between reality and what we prefer to see. Hair is a particularly good mirror. A reality check: In this alleged new era of racial enlightenment, how would we see Michelle if she switched to braids, twists, curls or dreads, if she looked more like the black person she is? {snip}

Hair is a very complicated piece of that model, historically speaking, as brutal a demarcation of worthiness as skin color. Hair texture and skin color work in tandem: The darker you are, the harder you have to offset it with “good” hair in order to be considered attractive or acceptable. If Michelle weren’t dark-skinned with classic black features, she might not be so wedded to super-straight locks. Of course, this is also about class and station–most professional black women of a certain pay scale adopt the relaxed look as part of the overall look of success. And then there’s convenience. A good friend of mine pointed out that processed hair is often more convenient than unprocessed black hair, which requires quite a bit of maintenance and time. {snip}

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The way out of this tangle is, I believe, Sasha and Malia Obama. Throughout the campaign and the inaugural, they were regularly pressed and straightened for the public–“Sunday hair,” we used to call it. And like their mom, they look wonderful. Adorable. But the public also sees that in the girls’ everyday lives, they literally let their hair down with braids and cornrows and puffs and whatever else black girls wear. Now that they’re no longer groomed for the Corn Belt voters on the campaign trail, I see the Obama girls casually affirming the black mainstream in a way perhaps their parents can’t yet. {snip}

[Editor’s Note: Chris Rock’s comments on blacks’ hair can be read here.]

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