The Politics of Hair

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In 2008 the America tabloid In Touch published a story about Beyonce Knowles wig collection. In the story they estimated that Beyonce’s wig collection was valued at in excess of $1 million. Five years later and she is probably the most famous singer in the world with a much larger collection of wigs, weaves and other fake appendages attached to her scalp, with a much bigger social impact. She is frequently lambasted by pop culture and sociological pundits for buying into the Barbie doll aesthetic and promoting an unreal image of black womanhood. She has been accused of lightening her skin tone, having rhinoplasty and overall changing her appearance from that of a beautiful black woman to that of a beautiful white woman. Above all though it is her hair that garners most attention. Google ‘Beyonce hair’ and of the 105,000,000 hits a large portion of them are debates on whether her hair is real, a wig, a weave and the politics that surrounds hair in black culture. The scion of pop culture may not identify solely as African American (she has more than once stated she has a multi-ethnic background – African American, Irish, French and Cherokee, but the impact of her hair choices resonate through debates on race, ethnicity and feminism.

Hair has never been just something on your head. It is chopped, braided, dyed, spiked, back combed, shaped, plucked, implanted and pretty much anything else you can think to do to it. In pre-transatlantic slave trade West African cultures hair was central to defining culture, status and identity, as it still is today all over the world. The absolute horror and personal annihilation that slave traders inflicted on their human chattel would not have been as effective if culture, status and identity were allowed to continue after people were kidnapped and shipped across the ocean. One of the principle means of dehumanising their victims involved shaving their hair in an effort to wipe out culture and identity. Over time the know-how and ability for personal hair grooming particular to people from West Africans was lost amongst the slave population. In addition slaves didn’t have the hair care products that generally suited their hair type, such as palm oil, and had to rely on other easily attainable products such as bacon grease and wool combs for their hair care.

Hair and skin tone became further politicised when second and subsequent generations of slaves were born. Frequently they were the result of the slave masters raping slave girls and women. Genetics being genetics skin tone, facial features and hair texture clearly identified who was related to the slave owners. Frequently the children of slaves and slave masters were afforded better living conditions (such as living in better houses, better food and so on) and a better chance at making it through what was a harsh existence.

Overtime the politicisation of hair had reached new heights. Emancipation didn’t change much as the more similar one was to the dominant economic culture (white) the easier it was to get on in life. It is in fact estimated that hundreds of thousands of African Americans with light skin tones and straight hair passed themselves off as white and completely changed their identities in order to blend into white society.

The ‘one drop rule’, adopted into law in the 1920s deemed that anyone with even a bit of African heritage would be seen as legally black, and thus subjected to demeaning prejudice in their everyday lives, made ‘passing’ as white an attractive option for those who could. They didn’t have to sit on designated seats on buses didn’t have to use separate facilities, could get better jobs and weren’t abused because of their race. It is hard to know exactly how many people crossed the ‘race line’ but various research projects into ethnicity have found that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of those who identify as white in America have some African ancestry. The same phenomenon has been observed South Africa and no doubt in any other country where one group was repressed to such an extent that it was easier to pretend to be someone else. Hair, skin tone and features became one of the main identifiers in a hierarchy of ethnicity that for better or worse that facilitated easier lives. It might not be as evident nowadays but it is still present and very much a social phenomenon.

The legacy of ethnic hierarchies permeates through American and pop culture to this day. Eurocentric models sell clothes and goods. The Barbie-doll aesthetic is pervasive in music and movies. No doubt Beyonce makes millions from her numerous advertising endorsements where she is styled to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Having long lustrous blonde hair is central to this appeal and central to her bank account. She may define her ethnicity as multi-ethnic and thus it is not fair to label her as someone who rejects her heritage. However, her visual appearance, at least in her public life, would suggest that she identifies a lot more with one of her ethnic heritages more so than the others.

The Eurocentric media that has been pervasive in America is of course changing to accommodate the increasing diversity in American society. With more and more people identifying as multi-ethnic and celebrating their diversity advertisers and pop culture is beginning to represent this. But until the time when all hair types, skin tones and features are perceived as equally beautiful in pop culture the melting pot will be nothing more than an inadequate representation of a society still obsessed with race.


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