I had the intense pleasure of sitting in on a lecture today by Dr. Yaba Blay. She is kind of an expert on the the issues surrounding skin color and hair politics. No matter how much I read about these issues and see them play out in the black community, I am still shocked and a little pissed off by how easily and thoughtlessly we participate in our own sabotage, even though we know exactly where these practices come from and how they fit into the framework of a system that puts us and who we are at the bottom of the pile, and makes us see ourselves as a less than perfect version of humanity. A version which needs fixing.
One of the great things about taking on this “find-palaver” persona, is that I throw any notion of being PC and pussyfooting around issues out of the window. I can speak my mind and anyone who wishes to speak their minds is welcome to. I’d rather have a conversation about this than none at all.
In therapy and medicine, one of the lessons taught is “don’t lie to the patient.” If they are dying, tell them they are dying. If the have cancer, tell them they have cancer. If they are never going to walk again, tell them they are never going to walk again. Call it by it’s name. Acknowledge it. Knowing the problem, being able to accept that is is a problem, is the first step to healing from it, accepting it and/or solving it.
This colorism and hair politics issue is a much needed conversation that desperately has to be had but the biggest obstacle in that conversation is not white people, many of whom are confused by the extents to which we go to “feel good about ourselves.” It is us black folks. We are the ones who get defensive. It is us who pull out the well worn and quite frankly tired and grossly misused adage “Don’t Judge.” It is us who refuse to acknowledge just how much these practices harm our communities not only physically but emotionally and psychologically. It is us who are the most critical of those who choose to do differently.
Are we so afraid to have made a mistake, to have gone down the not so great path, the path of least resistance, we refuse to acknowledge it even if those mistakes are killing us from the inside? It was survival that drove us and still drives us towards these practices. Times are changing now and we know that nothing we have ever had has been given to us. We have had to go out and fight for it. We have fought for rights and independence, for respect and recognition as viable members of society, why are these two issues the ones we are so unwilling to fight for? So quick to defend? Affirmative Action makes us look bad, how exactly do we think it makes us look when we use toxic chemicals to alter our skin tone and our hair to look like theirs? (Because whether or not you are conscious of it, hair straightening/weaves and skin bleaching have the same historic/cultural roots in the desire to acquire the privilege associated with whiteness). When we take the kinds of risks we take, spend the amounts of money we spend and do it to our children?
If a black woman told her young daughter directly “Your dark skin and curly/kinky hair makes you unacceptable to society and you must do something to fix that so you can look refined and professional, so people can feel comfortable around you and to feel better about yourself” we would have no trouble “judging” her and telling her that is not something you say to a child. But isn’t this the same message we’re putting out by engaging in these practices?
Today, I watched a video clip today of a 4 year old girl doing the Doll Test. When asked which was the good doll, she pointed at the white doll. When asked why that was the good doll, she stated that it was because it was white. When asked which was the bad doll, she pointed at the black doll and stated that it was bad because it was black. Finally, she was asked which doll looked the most like her and she hesitated, pushed forward the black doll and you could see the light go out in her eyes. That is where is starts. That little girl and the other little girls and boys like her who have gone through that test are not making independent choices to see blackness and all associated with it (including themselves) as bad. They are simply responding to the environment which in the past was created and that we are now nurturing and defending vigorously.
We will likely keep going around in circles because we have so deeply internalized the idea that we are less than good enough as we are, divesting ourselves of the very things which are distinctly ours by nature and design (whether intelligent or not) comes as naturally as breathing.
Every time we bleach our skin and yes, do whatever we do to change the nature of our hair or cover it, we affirm the idea that what we have is not good enough. We might not even be thinking about it like that, we might not intend for it to mean that but that doesn’t change the message it carries and the effects it has.When a smoker lights up a cigarette, he/she is probably not thinking about their addiction, how much it costs them, the cancer they are likely to end up with or the fact that smoking is increasingly being considered socially unacceptable. He/she is likely thinking about how good it will make them feel. It is his/her choice to smoke but it doesn’t change the message of “I am a person who does not really care a lot about my health” and it does not change the effects of smoking.
Am I asking you right now to no longer wear a weave or get a perm or bleach your skin? That’s entirely your decision to make. But please, let us stop acting like we don’t know where these practices come from or why we have become so attached to them. Let us stop acting like they are not having negative effects on us and our communities. Let us stop calling it a choice, because a choice suggests that we have the option of freely doing or not doing. We still live in a world where social and psychological pressure to conform is still so very intense, not conforming, more often than not, still means we face challenges and criticisms that would not be there is it were truly a free choice, challenges that are as much internal as they are external.
Let us call it by it’s name, let the bitter taste of it sit in our mouths and sour our stomachs. Maybe then we’ll have the balls to spit it out.
PS: Some might call me a “natural nazi”. Again, let me emphasize that I honestly don’t care what anyone does with their body. I won’t stop talking to you or being your friend if you relax your hair or bleach your skin, wear weaves or tracks or whatever. What I do care about is the knee-jerk defensiveness that some women demonstrate when the topic comes up, a knee jerk defensiveness that shows either an inability or unwillingness to look at things objectively. Also, permit me to remind you all that the derogatory term “nappy-headed” and others like the more playful but no less negative Cameroonian term “cucha banga” existed before “natural nazi” and both originated in the black community.