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Did it have to be the hair?

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‘Going with the natural look as I start my 36th year,’ said the caption above a series of selfies of a woman with caramel-coloured skin and a loose afro (type 3b/3c), admiring the silhouette of her hair from different angles. Rachel Doležal is reported to have published the photos on Facebook in November 2013, around the time she was elected president of her local chapter of the NAACP. Last week it transpired that Rachel Doležal’s skin shade and hair texture might be the result of a spray tan and a wig, rather than the natural complexion of a person with African or African American heritage in her immediate family history. It appears that Doležal is a white woman who has gone out of her way to pass as black: ‘our’ hair, she said in a lecture on the history and politics of African American hair – while seemingly wearing an afro wig over her naturally straight, blonde hair.

Several black cultural critics have been astonished by the verisimilitude of her ‘natural look’: Tamara Floyd at Natural Hair Rules wrote about her ‘natural hair game’; ‘how did she get her hair so on point?’ Kara Brown at Jezebel asked. For others, the verisimilitude has provoked alarm and indignation. ‘Black is not something you can just put on,’ Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at Ebony told HuffPost Live:

Those are not what make you a black woman. The lengths she went to to play at this character of a “strong black woman”… while benefiting from the privilege we give to white women which is to be seen… as fragile and in need of defending – which is something not afforded to black women.

Doležal ‘thinks that by co-opting Black hair (oh, god, did it have to be the hair?!),’ someone wrote to me, ‘she can put herself in a Black woman’s shoes.’

Did it have to be the hair? It had to be the hair. ‘The line between colored and nigger was not always clear,’ Toni Morrison wrote in The Bluest Eye:

Subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. He belonged to the former group… his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool, the part was etched into his hair by the barber.

In 2009, the comedian Chris Rock released Good Hair, a documentary about the $9 billion industry that taught black women their natural hair was unacceptable. Rock made the film because his three-year-old daughter had asked him why she didn’t have ‘good hair’ – meaning ‘straight hair, not-black hair’. (‘Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?’ Morrison wrote in 1970.)

I was 22 when I ‘went with the natural look’ (more a fact than a look, really). When my hair was artificially straightened I passed as not-black to people who didn’t already know that I was black. I’d started a new job and in my first week my white colleagues made racist jokes about black people, expecting me to join in. I wanted the privileges available to people who were not black; but I didn’t want not to be black. I believed we were still working towards Plan A – race equality. I declined to pass.

I’d seen the photos of my mother’s angelic afro in the 1970s and knew the pride with which she’d kept it in perfect shape. I also knew that wasn’t me. What I wanted for myself was the Little Prince, or the Dream King in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, or Edward Scissorhands. I liked their cryptic power and ambiguous stories. I discussed it with one of my family’s usual hairdressers, who had known me since I was a teenager. Once she realised that when I said I wanted an afro, I didn’t mean I wanted to look like Diana Ross, she would have nothing to do with it. ‘That’s not like any afro I’ve heard of,’ she said. Good, I thought. I took my mood board to Toni & Guy, who were promoting a tousled, bed-head look. ‘We can’t do an afro,’ the white stylists told me. ‘You don’t have to do an afro,’ I explained. ‘It’s afro already, I just want it tousled and bed-head.’ They took me to the only black member of staff. ‘How would I know?’ he said. ‘I’m a barber. I don’t do women’s hair.’ Eventually the manager took me on, with the understanding that I wouldn’t make a complaint if it all went wrong. The staff gathered around to watch. ‘It’s fascinating,’ he confided happily to his team, ‘because they have techniques we don’t even know about.’ Who are ‘they’, I wanted to ask.

Shortly afterwards, Austin Powers in Goldmember was released, starring Beyoncé Knowles as ‘Foxxy Cleopatra’. White men driving past would honk their horns and lean out of the window to shout ‘Foxxxxxxy!’ at me. Unfortunately they always drove on before I could find out anything about them: were they interested in my doctoral research in philosophy of mind, for example? I like to think so. Black women I didn’t know approached me in public places: as children they hadn’t worn their natural hair and now they didn’t know how to start and were afraid to try; could I help them? White women strangers, too, seemed to feel a new closeness to me. I’d be in a queue and I’d feel someone behind me tugging on my hair. ‘I thought it was a wig,’ she’d say when I turned round to ask her what she was doing. ‘It isn’t,’ I’d say, ‘I can feel it and it hurts. And even if it were a wig, why would you want to take it off me?’ No answer.

This is what is called the ‘natural hair journey’ – these startling intimacies, betrayals, intrusions, vulnerabilities and freedoms. Not everyone can undertake the journey (it’d be difficult for a white man, for example); and not everyone who can, will. The process brings a shift to your perception of the social world, a shift as irrevocable as passing for not-black and becoming privy to what some people say about black people when they think there are none around.

Does it matter that Doležal’s ‘natural look’ wasn’t natural and was just a look? That may depend on whether being a black woman amounts to more than a skin shade and a hairstyle. We can gauge the prevailing view by looking at the extent to which black women have been invited to lead the discussion of Doležal’s actions; to gauge the truth of it, we need to ask black women. ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ Thomas Nagel wondered; he might be able to imagine what it would be like for him to be a bat, he concluded, but he could not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. ‘Qualia’, philsophers call it: the elusive, irreducible experience of first-person consciousness. Did it have to be the hair? It had to be the hair.

Comments

  1. suetonius says:

    Great piece. One thing, it is possible for some white men to do the “natural hair journey.” I’m a white guy, Ashkenazi Jew, who had straight hair till puberty, when it got very kinky very fast. Grew what my kids would now call a jewfro, my hair was kinky enough to hold a pick (this was the 70s). In the 90s, grew it really long, used to get hassled in faculty parking lots since they assumed I was a student. I too had people touch my hair without asking, and women used to tell me they always wanted hair like mine. Promised my wife I would cut it off when it got too thin on top, that was 17 years ago. It only took a year for me to stop trying to pull it back into a pony tail…

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      I loved your story – thank-you for sharing it. You’re right, you would be an example of a white man authentically doing the “natural hair journey” associated with black women. I find the differences interesting too – for example, the explicit envy from some women. And I wonder how your experiences would compare against those of a black man. Did you also experience a change in any of your attitudes or understanding as a result of how people were reacting to you? How did black people around you react to you having an afro and wearing a pick?

      • suetonius says:

        Glad you liked the story. No clue what a black man would go through, none of the black men I’ve know cared a whit about their hair that I could tell. I don’t ever remember getting negative comments about walking around with a pick in my hair, from blacks or whites, but it was a looser time. I will say hair is still an issue, after decades in New York, I finally gave in and moved to the suburbs, the one I’m in is very white. My kids, however, go to school in the city, a magnet school, 50% black, 25% hispanic, and 25% white. My daughter has my wife’s very straight, thick hair. She’s always trying to get it to curl. A bunch of her black friends are always trying to straighten theirs.
        Am amused by the comment below about white men and facial hair. Having almost none for a long time (I didn’t shave every day until my mid 30’s), I never had a choice. And interestingly my wife is the same about being scratched, but her solution is for me to shave very close, regularly. If I ever grew a beard she would stop kissing me…

        • John Cowan says:

          My wife cheerfully says your wife doesn’t know what she’s talking about. You might have to let the beard grow out for a while, but beard is always going to be softer than stubble, unless you shave multiple times per day.

          • suetonius says:

            I totally believe you, in this case I think it’s about degrees of tolerance, my wife has no tolerance for any hair, period. So softer doesn’t help. She regularly tells me I deceived her, since for the first ten years or so we were together I didn’t even have stubbel :-)

  2. stopeatingme says:

    Ah, but this is complicated by the mixed race factor, and the subtle differences in shade, texture and spring that you breeze over with the word ‘loose’. I’ve had black (what’s the phrasing here? Full black?) hairdressers struggle in the past, though admittedly not to the extent Toni & Guy did in a remarkably similar situation as yours (as a man the barbers had no excuse).

    I actually think ‘owning’ – by which I mean getting to grips with – your hair is a mixed race rite of passage if you have a white mother. There’s a book, or at least a long scholarly article, to be had over white mother’s fretting as their daughter (aka my sister) screams every morning, and the existential shame they experience as a black aunt or grandma picks up a comb at a family gathering and casually brings things to order with barely a whimper from the little one.

    • John Cowan says:

      Me again, this time as the parent of the brown child and grandparent of the black child. We managed to buy and use a pick.

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      Someone else has asked about categorising and classifying afro hair and I’ve answered below.

      I can readily believe there are distinctive rites of passage for mixed race men and women – and for their families – and it’s something I’d like to know more about.

      My own feeling is that the barber at Toni & Guy made the right judgement call in declining to do my hair. Essentially what his colleagues were indicating to him is that the time and effort he had invested into training as a barber, and any aptitude or talent or vision he showed for it, counted for less than his skin colour: in their eyes he was primarily black and secondarily a barber.

  3. goedelite says:

    In my view, the important question is not that of lying but of fraud. Lying is pandemic in the US, from President Obama down. His lies have harmed countless people. They have profited the wealthy and harmed all others. When he leaves the W-H, he will profit from his misrepresentations. What harm has Doleval done? What profit has she made? These are the questions by which I should judge her. To hold her to a standard of honesty in a society of dishonest, indeed fraudulent politicians, corporations, merchants, etc., would be yet another form of dishonesty.

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      I’m not sure I understand your distinction between lying and fraud. My piece above includes a link to a 30min video from HuffPost Live. The first c10mins are an interview with Rachel Doležal’s parents who report that the story about Doležal’s ethnicity came to light as local police were investigating her background after she reported being the victim of a race hate crime as president of the local NAACP chapter. It appeared that the crime may have been fabricated by herself. (On her academic staff webpage – hyperlink provided on her name, above – Doležal claims to have been the victim of eight previous race hate crimes that the police had failed to solve.)

      The remaining 20mins of the HuffPost video is a panel discussion of the helpfulness, or otherwise, of Doležal’s actions. The discussants are Anita Thomas at Loyola University, an academic specialising in mental health, and a black woman; JeffriAnne Wilder at University of North Florida, an academic specialising in sociology of race, and a black woman; and Jamilah Lemieux, black cultural critic and senior editor at Ebony, and a black woman – I quote some of her remarks in my piece.

      • goedelite says:

        Lying is certainly not acceptable in most cases, but it is not so bad as fraud which, legally, in the US, requires a for profit motive. An exception to the reduced offense would be when lying is done to injure another person, libel or slander. Not an attorney, I cannot claim to have drawn a complete distinction. I can see circumstances in which someone wishes to cast off her identity as a way of rejecting others who have given her that identity.

        • M.G. Zimeta says:

          Thank-you for clarifying the lying/fraud distinction – it is new to me, and your summary is helpful.
          The Thomas-Wilder-Lemieux discussion in the HuffPost Live video explores the ways in which Doležal benefitted, materially and politically, from her actions, and the harm or costs she incurred to the black community (bear in mind she did a postgraduate degree at Howard University, and taught Africana studies at EWU, and so understood the issues very well).

          I understand the desire to escape or reject one’s past, and maybe create a new identity. But do you believe that someone being black (or trying to be black, or claiming to be black) is a responsible and respectful way to express their rejection of white parents, white history, or white culture? I happen to think that approach causes more problems than it solves. It reveals a disturbingly instrumental view of black people. It reduces and mischaracterizes black history and culture as some kind of political protest or reaction – rather than something valuable in its own right. It places black and white in unnecessary opposition. None of these things are particularly good for black people, as far as I can tell.

  4. John Cowan says:

    The natural hair story for (white) men is not about the hair on our scalps but the hair on our jaws and lips. For myself, I tried shaving very briefly when I was in my early twenties, but I gave it up when my girlfriend (now my wife of 35 years) told me the bristles hurt her face, so I’ve grown a full beard and mustache ever since. I get it cut every few months when I get my scalp hair cut, and my wife trims my mustache (I’m rather clumsy, so I don’t try) about halfway between, just to keep it out of the soup. When in a hurry of a morning, I thank her silently for sparing me the time I’d otherwise have to spend on shaving.

    In my profession (computer programming), beards have always been acceptable. My boss once told me “When they bring a beard to a meeting, I have to bring a beard too”, and I was the beard. Now, of course, we know that nerds don’t have to have beards, but I still see more of them among my peers than among my non-nerd colleagues.

    When I talk to men who complain about having to shave, they too point to their wives and girlfriends, claiming that these women wouldn’t tolerate beards. Some also point to my luxuriant beard and claim they could only grow patchy ones. “So what?” I say to the latter. “Patchy or full, a beard is a beard.” I get nowhere.

    At least nobody pulls my beard to see if it’s real.

    • Harry Stopes says:

      From one white man to another John, this comparison is silly. Whether we have facial hair and how we style it are not loaded with the same meanings as how black women choose to wear their hair. It’s just not the same, at all.

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      I think you make some interesting points about the politics and practicalities of men’s beards, and I agree that this is a kind of “natural hair journey”. I am not sure it is comparable with the natural hair journey of black women, though, in terms of political and economic significance, and personal and cultural trauma. Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “violently repelled” by how black women seemed to hate their natural appearance, how early it starts, and how widely it is enabled: “A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment.”

      Chris Rock made Good Hair because he was appalled his three-year-old daughter had somehow already learnt to hate her own hair. One of the things his documentary explores is how the people profiting, financially, from the $9 billion black hair industry, are not black. The trailer, and some clips, are available here:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m-4qxz08So
      It’s Chris Rock, so it’s very very good.

  5. George Hoffman says:

    Yesterday in an interview with the Washington Post, David Chapelle, who was in town to give a speech to seniors at the high school of the arts he had graduated from, stated he would avoid making jokes about Rachael Dolezal in any future comedy routines. And he did a very funny and politically incorrect routine on his show about a blind black man who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. So I’ll defer to him on this latest crisis du jour in the MSM. Having come of age in the sixties, I recall a non-fiction book, a best seller at the time, entitled “Black Like Me.” A doctor artificially darkened a white journalist’s skin, John Howard Griffin, so he could pass as a black man. He went through the South on Greyhound buses or hitchhiked. Sepia Magazine funded his skin darkening and his trip through the South, because the magazine had first rights to publish his exploits. After the magazine article came his book, and Hollywood adapted it into a movie in 1964 starring James Whitmore. But Griffin wrote an essay in 1975 and said because of death threats to him and his family he moved to Mexico for several years. Chappelle did also note in his interview that the N.A.A.C.P. welcomed white citizens also into its organization. Perhaps, I’m getting to the age where such a news story seems like something from the scenario of “Back to the Future.”

    • Areiner14@gmail.com says:

      Youngsters can feel the error of their gender identity and seek “realignment” and undertake transgender to a greater or lesser degree including genital transformation with growing emotional and psychological support. But when a young white woman who has lived closely in and with the black community she likewise “feels” black she is vilified not only by the white community but black women who accuser of “appropriating” blackness. Would they say the same to a young boy who has transgendered into a young woman, accuse her of appropriating “womanhood”?

      • John Cowan says:

        Some do make that accusation, yes.

        There are lots of white and black Americans who are convinced they are partly Indian / Native American, whereas in fact they belong only to the Wannabe tribe. Where do you draw the line? The person who believes he is a reincarnation of Napoleon is not quite the same as the person who believes he personally is Napoleon, but both of them are allowing their private judgment to override the evidence.

      • M.G. Zimeta says:

        It is difficult for me to respond to your comment and question because these are not claims I made in my piece. Have you tried directing your comment and question at the specific black women who made those specific claims? (Seeing as we are not interchangeable with each other, and do not have monolithic beliefs and experiences.)

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      David Chapelle’s blind black KKK leader who hates black people, and doesn’t know he is one (the other KKK members don’t tell him because he’s doing such good work for the KKK…) is a fantastic creation.

      I have a copy of “Black Like Me” but I haven’t read it yet. I bought it after reading “Self-Made Man” (2006) by Norah Vincent, where she goes undercover as a man for 18 months. I thought it was fascinating and I found particularly thought-provoking her observations about how men manage and hide their emotions, and the importance of not apologising, not showing weakness, and only being allowed to express a strong emotion if it was anger. Vincent concluded she preferred to be a woman.

      Doležal’s story is startling and I’m not sure I can speak to it. What I do feel I can speak to – and what I have tried to speak to in my piece – is how her story highlights the everday invisibility of black women. One of the comments going around black Twitter is that only a white woman could get this much attention for being black.

      • Weiss says:

        I have heard people from a background similar to Dolezal’s say that that background regularly uses abuse/trauma to reinforce falsehoods (e.g., beating children until they confess to crimes they didn’t commit, refusing them food or water until they make their version of facts conform to the parents’), and that her attempt to invent a black identity for herself might have been some reaction to and extension of that, which just adds another layer of confusion to any attempt to piece together what she may have been thinking. But I appreciate the point you’re making in your article (insofar as I’m understanding it correctly) — American society is so little concerned with black women’s inner lives that its interest seems to begin and end with hair, and that one object of interest is fetishized and devalued.

        Many women’s ways of wearing their hair — cropped, dyed, hairsprayed into a helmet — are politicized, but few women have their entire selves so painfully reduced to a reading of their hair. I wonder if women in hijab may have a parallel experience, of being blotted out as individuals by strangers’ opinions on their heads?

        • M.G. Zimeta says:

          I’m reluctant to spend too much time and effort speculating about Doležal’s possible motive or intentions. I’m sympathetic to Lemieux’s concern (in the HuffPost Live video) that we’re only making an effort to “understand” Doležal because she’s white. I’m also uneasy that many of us are not articulating that what makes the Doležal story so extraordinary is that she chose an identity in one of America’s (and Britain’s) most disenfranchised communities – I’m uneasy that we seem to be taking that for granted, as if it’s something metaphysical or inevitable, and that we’re scrutinising Doležal rather than scrutinising the political reality and our own role in it.

          There’s more than one idea in my article – and in the discussion in the comments thread – and I’d agree with you that one of my points was a widespread lack of recognition of or interest in the inner lives of black women. But does it stop there? From the encounters I described, and the encounters commenters here have described, do you not think those inner lives offer observations and insights that make an original and valuable contribution to wider society?

          I think your remark about the hijab is really interesting. I don’t know much about it (and would like to). A few years ago I did come across this article in The Guardian by Zaiba Malik who spent a day or two wearing the niqab in London, and documented how people reacted to her and how she felt:
          http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/oct/17/gender.religion

  6. MSibhat says:

    I am Ethiopian-American (the sort with nappy hair) and I relate to your piece. I’ve had short afros throughout my life intermittently, and my latest stretch has been for over a year. People’s reactions are always amusing. In 2009, the male person I was involved with flat out refused to help cut my hair when I decided to switch to a short afro. He thought I was crazy/having some emotional issues (and he’s black/Ethio-American). I don’t understand what makes people freak out about cutting one’s hair short – it’s just hair. But that’s another conversation…

    The more interesting reactions have been assumptions about my gender/sexuality whenever I go for an afro. My sister told me I looked like a lesbian. It pissed me off — not because I didn’t like being likened to a homosexual, but because I was actually one. I wanted her to be wrong so badly! (I hadn’t come out then). Last year in Jamaica, I was called “Mister” a few times and, once, I was wearing a dress! And as my traveling companion (straight) and I were taking an evening stroll by the beach, two men whispered, “lesbians.” Gotdamnit. Had she been looking on that trip, it would have been a futile exercise because my hair would have been c*ckblocking her. Perhaps it’s because my face doesn’t help the situation — I look exactly like my dad. But I don’t get these comments when my hair is longer and straight. So the hair seems to make all the difference.

    Another cute reaction was from a Chinese Masseuse who was awestruck when she touched my spongy head and asked, “is it real?” And of course my Caucasian colleagues, who seem to want to say things so badly but are afraid to, so they end up asking such ridiculous questions as, “does it keep your head cool?” I want to ask why they would think that to be the case with my natural African hair as opposed to all other hair, but oh well.

    Thanks for writing!

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      I thought your observations were brilliant – thanks for sharing them!

      I also sometimes get misgendered as a man when my hair is in an afro. I had thought it was because of my height – just under 6′ – but on reflection, after reading your comment, I realised it had never happened when my hair was straight. So: it had to be the hair…

      I don’t frequently get labelled as a lesbian, as far as I know – I get to be Foxxxxxxy!. Do you think it is possible that for that type-casting, hair length might be more of a factor than texture? I have female friends with short hair, that isn’t afro, and they, too, have mentioned its c*ck-blocking powers. Amazing and wonderful that so much of a person’s interior life can be gleaned from their hair.

      Did these experiences have any impact on you – in terms of how you understood or navigated the world? When I went natural I thought I was just changing my hairstyle – a minor personal preference, no controversy involved. But the reactions I got from people, and the way I had to change to respond to those reactions, made it a fundamentally transformative experience – for the better.

      • MSibhat says:

        Sorry for the delayed response…

        Yes about length having to do with the type-casting. And that brings up another issue: I have wanted to get a big afro like yours for a long time, but didn’t want to put my Texan employers in a difficult position. Don’t ask me why I think they would have a problem with it — it isn’t like painting my hair pink or purple and, hence, “being unprofessional.” But for whatever reason, I feel they might think it is “too much.” I already suspect that my switch to a short afro is somewhat of an issue. One of my managers once ‘jokingly’ commented that the barber went “too far” with an attempt to give me ‘The Lupita’. :)

        Impact. Yes.

        1) On a dating website I go to, if someone’s profile says, “message me only if you are a femme,” I avoid them. I know I fail that criteria *because of my hair*. One might say, “but long hair is not the only thing that makes one a ‘femme’.” Yes, but the thing is: when I had a long straightened hair, I could get away with not wearing make up, dresses, and high heel shoes. I didn’t even need to wear earrings for a long time. I was still “a girl” — feminine enough. With a short hair, it all goes out the window. Suddenly, I need to work on magnifying my other feminine aspects in order for the world to know that I’m “a girl.” I don’t care enough at the moment. (This too could be filed under: ‘the c*ckblocking powers of a short afro’)

        2) At one point, I noticed how I had internalized some of the negative perceptions associated with the way my hair is. Short thick hair = not feminine = you look like a man = “men are not as beautiful as women” = you are not beautiful. Hence, when I wanted to “play woman” for my 30th birthday last January, that somehow meant I had to get my hair straightened.

        3) An Ethiopian friend told me she would love to introduce me to her family IF I GREW MY HAIR!!! She didn’t want them to think she is a lesbian by association with a short-haired female friend. As you can see, I am like a dog that entered a mosque or an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Untouchable. Haha!

        4) Let’s not even get started on my friend (Ethiopian born and raised in the US) who tells me frequently and shamelessly, “you need to get your hair pressed.” It’s irritating. I just want to exist in peace with my hair the way I like it.

        Despite the performance for my 30th birthday, I am increasingly falling for my hair and its versatility. Old perceptions of it as the source of most of my childhood headaches are giving way to appreciating it for the countless things I can do with it. I can’t wait to succeed as a self-employed person so that I can get 35 different haircuts to go with every mood. :)

        • M.G. Zimeta says:

          Thank-you for sharing these observations – they’re really interesting. Well, now I know what to expect if I ever get my hair cut. I’m particularly intrigued by the phenomenon of lesbian-by-association-because-of-a-haircut (who knew?); and also by how, on the gender scales, short afro hair alone is apparently a sufficient counterweight against every other female or feminine marker – even between women.

          Quite a few of the anecdotes on this thread have been about the misery and drama caused by what should just be a simple choice of hairstyle (or beard). Let me lighten the mood by sharing a happy story. A female friend with long flowing tresses discovered that she could often manage straight men into doing her bidding if she played with her hair while talking to them.
          On reflection I realise this is a happy story for women with long flowing tresses. Not so great for straight men. Sorry.

          • MSibhat says:

            Ha! Very funny. Thanks for the article, again, and for the discussion. Look forward to more from you!

  7. MajorBarbara says:

    Yes, Areiner14, we would. Moreover, Dolezal did not need to undergo radical surgical mutilation of her body to create nonfunctional ‘black’ physical characteristics, in order to embody a cultural stereotype.
    I think we need to have an honest discussion of ‘transgender’ in the context of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. It’s not the same as sexual orientation – and if it were, it should be treated the way we treat sexual orientation, with therapy aimed at getting the sufferer to accept him/herself. You cannot preach ‘rejoice and love yourself today ’cause baby, you were born this way’ for every other condition. If you applaud surgery for ‘transgenders’ you must also, as a matter of logical consistency, allow those who are not happy being gay to attempt ‘ex-gay’ therapy. (I happen to be gay myself and don’t believe it would work; but then, I’ll believe Jenner is a woman the day I see his used Kotex.) Just as we need to have an honest discussion of ‘race’ as a cultural construct. But we won’t. Because it’s easier, and so much more fun, to shout PC slogans.
    Go ahead and scold me. I’ve given up on reading replies, because, as noted supra, no one wants to discuss issues – just parade their stigmata, mount their soapboxes, demand apologies, flaunt their medals, etc.

    • John Cowan says:

      This is not a scold.

      Who’s telling people not to attempt “ex-gay therapy”? If they are doing it with public moneys, that’s another story. In any case, not all conditions are treated with mere acceptance: we don’t tell people with arterial stenosis to accept being cardiac cripples, we perform stent operations on them. I lived with being morbidly obese for years, but finally the side effects (including diabetes) got serious enough that I had “radical surgical mutilation”. There are probably some “fat-acceptance” people who would denounce me as a traitor to the cause, but I don’t have to care.

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      Did *I* shout PC slogans? I wasn’t aware that I had. Apologies if I did…

  8. dsueii says:

    I am comfortable in my own skin and wear my hair as best suits my age and amount. I’m not as tolerant or intolerant of Caitlyn or Rachael as much as I am unconcerned whether they’re appropriating womanhood or blackness or feeling a genuine need or deceiving themselves. Whatever be the basis for their choice they’ve moved ahead and done it. Cheers to them. Jeers to all who find they must approve or disapprove.

  9. HankSedan says:

    I’m curious about this 2 through 4 (subclasses a-c?) hair-type scale. Where did this come from? Does it have a name? Hair Texture Scale? Texture Type? Is texture the key factor? Is it only for women’s hair? Only for longer hair? This is the kind of thing there should be a wikipedia entry for.

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      Thanks for asking. The scale runs from 1-4(a-c); type 1a-c is Straight hair with no curl, (a-c) classifies the texture and density. Most black women will have types 2-4(a-c). There’s more information about the background here:
      http://www.curlynikki.com/2012/08/decoding-hair-texture-hair-typing.html

      In her 1993 foreword to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes about her choice to use and create a literary language with “reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, [her] effort to effect immediate coconspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric).” We decided to include that “type 3b/3c” reference, knowing that probably only black women would understand it on first glance, because we wanted to show that there are aspects of black culture and experience that can’t easily be gauged from the outside looking in but may be instinctive for black women, for example. This is why it’s interesting how many people who are not black women, and don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman, have felt qualified to make a judgement call on Doležal’s case.

      Carole Reeves at UCL (Science and Technology Studies) has also drawn to my attention the Haarfarbentafel, a hair classification instrument (sample case + chart) developed and used by Eugin Fischer – one of the founders of eugenics. I believe there is a Haarfarbentafel in the UCL collection.

      • HankSedan says:

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. The 3b/3c reference immediately made me think, here’s a lot of something i know nothing about. A system of organizing pretty everyday human facts that I’ve never heard of. It really is something that it’s not on Wikipedia. Nothing is grist for that mill like a taxonomy. That absence itself speaks to race and gender.

        This is a hard idea to think, or, I can sense I don’t quite get it yet: “people who are not black women, and don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman, have felt qualified to make a judgement call.” Of course I — anyone in my position: white American M. 31, recently balding :( — cannot be the operator designating who’s a black woman and who’s not. But I do get an itch when someone leverages, for their own benefit, another’s victimization (or history of).

        Regarding the Haarfarbentafel: there’s not a lot that’s creepier than a German eugenecist’s hair sample spread. It’d be ironic if his divisions of hair types aligned with those of the Natural Hair Scale (my term). The latter doesn’t seem to care about color though, which is also a bit interesting.

        • M.G. Zimeta says:

          I found your comment interesting and thought-provoking – thank-you. I had never tried to look up anything about black culture or the experience of black women on Wikipedia, and so I hadn’t been aware of the absence. You make a good point about the possible pattern of exclusion. Could it also be the difference between know-how and know-that? And perhaps also how these different kinds of knowledge are valued or shared in different communities?

          I agree re the discomfitting similarities between the Haarfarbentafel and the natural hair type scale! I don’t know more than the basics about either, so I’ll leave those points for someone better informed.

          As for Doležal: I have serious misgivings about her integrity, intentions, and understanding of race and ethnic identity. Her story came to light when police were investigating her background because it seems she may have fabricated race hate crimes against herself. When confronted with the truth of her white parentage, the response she gave was that “we are all from the African continent anyway.” These behaviours call into question, for me, her self-description as someone who identifies with the black community and is committed to social justice. But as for who gets to say whether she is a black woman- so far on this comments thread alone there have been at least three quite different experiences of being a black woman. Attempts to define “black woman” by necessary or sufficient criteria risk excluding someone with an otherwise valid claim. Would it be so loaded if the inequalities and exclusions were less stark? And has coverage and commentary on this story reduced, or reinforced, those inequalities and exclusions?

  10. antoinettenicole says:

    Great Piece, Thank you!

    However, as a black woman I find that often there is a tendency for people to categorise whether someone is ‘Black enough’ or not. For example, you having natural hair seems to imply you are more connected to your ‘Blackness’ and gives you a (presumed) authenticity. Yet, a black woman like myself with long, honey brown hair extensions is not considered ‘black enough’ or deemed ‘trying to be white’. It is absolutely ridiculous to create an identity through someone’s hair type or skin shade and your comment; ‘Does it matter that Doležal’s ‘natural look’ wasn’t natural and was just a look? That may depend on whether being a black woman amounts to more than a skin shade and a hairstyle.’ really resonated with me but it is not just about race, really it is about whether anyone’s identity is constructed through their hairstyle and skin shade – I am adamant it is not. It makes me rage against the people who view my choice of hairstyle and overall style as ‘not really black’ which goes hand in hand with the comments I get from White colleagues when they make derogatory comments about black people then turn to me and say ‘Well, we don’t mean you, we don’t really see you as black, you don’t really look black’. Really?!!

    • M.G. Zimeta says:

      Yes, that has been my experience too – a lot of people making assumptions about how I relate to my culture and ethnicity almost entirely, as far as I can tell, based on my hairstyle (instead of, for example, having a conversation with me about it). Although my afro was in part inspired by Edward Scissorhands, in their eyes my hairstyle still counts as evidence of my authentic blackness: Edward was pretty pale.

      I think the reason these choices about hair are so loaded is because the privileges and deprivations at stake – for being on the “right” or “wrong” side of the dividing line – are so significant. It’s a measure of the pressures and injustices, rather than the cause of them. And I think if there were more black women in public life, then there might be better understanding that there isn’t a single authentic way to be “a black woman”: so, again, the confusion and cariacatures are a measure of the injustice.

      As for “authentic blackness”: I think it’s interesting how this intersects with socioeconomic status and cultural capital. A few years ago a black male friend pointed out to me that middle-class bohemian/intellectual black women could afford to have natural hair because it could even be an asset to their professional personae; this was less true of middle-class black women in other types of employment, or black women from less socioeconomically privileged backgrounds. At other times, it seems that to be authentically black, socioeconomic disadvantage is key. Percival Everett wrote a wonderful satire about this – Erasure (2004). The protagonist is a black academic and intellectual who is so enraged by the commercial and literary success of semi-literate supposedly autobiographical novels about gangsta and ghetto life that under the pseudonym Stagg R Leigh he pens one of his own: My Pafology. It gets a six-figure book deal and is lauded by literary critics for its “authenticity”. In an attempt to sabotage the book and make it impossible to distribute, the protagonist retitles it: Fuck. This actually seals its success.

      • John Cowan says:

        Contrast the very real case of Samuel R. Delany, a novelist and essayist from a prominent black family (the famous Delany sisters are his aunts). For most of his life he suffered from inattention from critics interested in black American writing because his fantasy and science fiction novels were seen as “not black enough”. Delany’s response: I am a black American writer, therefore what I write is black American writing. If your theory of what black American writing is does not encompass my work, so much the worse for your theory.


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