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“Ethnic hair”?

May 28, 2010

I had a couple of other posts lined up in my head, and not the spoons to tackle them the past few days. But, this topic came up again (and again). My first reaction was that I’m risking sounding like a broken record, or at least like someone with an unhealthy obsession–but I strongly suspect this is because a lot of people get uncomfortable when you start looking too closely at stereotypes.

What topic is this? Hair and race. Reading through the CurlTalk forum at naturallycurly.com, I have repeatedly been impressed at the level of ignorant racist drivel people–particularly in the U.S.–have been subjected to. It’s hard to escape.

Not that I hadn’t already thought there were some serious problems going on, but you’ve definitely got several on your hands when complete strangers feel entitled to comment on your perceived racial/ethnic background, much less try to define it for you and argue you down about it.

Coming from a different background, I have been interested to see just how much ignorant racial policing based on hair goes on in the Black community. I was aware of some of the continuing issues around going natural, and “Good Hair” vs. “Bad Hair”, but I didn’t know how many people will decide that because of your “Good Hair”, you can’t possibly be as Black as they are and possibly think you’re better in some way. And badger you in public about it, apparently. The collection of nasty internalized crap showing through in that behavior is kind of amazing.

Now, where I’m from, AFAICT most Black-identified people are very aware they’re mixed. I’ve seen more (too familiar) “how much Indian is in you” eyeballing going on, based on hair and skin; “Good Hair” is likely to get coded as Indian. People are at least mostly aware that there are not two, and only two, categories available. More recent “mixing” is somehow different, as I have seen come up repeatedly in online discussions as well. More on that later.

BTW, I don’t really mind the “Are you Indian/mixed/whatever? I am too!” kind of thing I got back home a lot, based on eyeballing. The secret club vibe is kinda creepy (if understandable), but that is polite and coming out of genuine curiosity from someone who is identifying with your situation and eager to talk about shared experience. Not the same at all.

One poster summed up the problem nicely:

But my question is why is it that when black people have curly hair they are accused of being mixed. And non-black people have curly hair they are told they must have some black in them.

Am I the only one who finds this strange… Curlies can come in all colors.

This central premise is the reason I mentioned Black people first, since discussion of race/ethnicity and hair in the U.S. is firmly fixed in the color line dichotomy and the one drop rule. To great extent, so are the meant-as-inclusive “all colors” and “People of Color” descriptions, with so much mythology having been built up around skin tone over the centuries. Hair texture is no different there.

As Frank Sweet points out, in one of his excellent essays on the subject:

As explained in the previous essay, a successful endogamous barrier between those of African descent and those of European descent appeared only once in history—in the Chesapeake around the turn of the eighteenth century. It had never arisen before, anywhere else on earth. And, although it gradually spread through British North America over the next half-century, an endogamous color line has never arisen since.

Thence also comes the idea that someone else has a right (if not a responsiblity) to define your racial identity for you–and the whole idea of a need to police against “passing” and other ambiguity. Based on mystically telltale physical characteristics. It’s messed up. And we keep replaying and interalizing nasty colonial policies based in subjugation. How else can you even get the idea of “some $group in you”, lurking mostly out of sight, very possibly for some nefarious reason? It makes no sense. Defining other people == absurd racism. Really.

One of the things I’ve liked about living in the U.K. is the lack of this kind of attitude. It may have been the source of an awful lot of colonial racist policies, but things are different in the Mother Country. Not once have I had a stranger run up to me and quiz me about my racial background, much less try to argue with me about it based on their own ignorant preconceptions. And nobody who has found out that I identify primarily as Native these days has thought they knew better than I did about that, based on how I “should” look. Nobody has pretended they know much about that particular exotic group of people, halfway around the world; at least kneejerk hostility does not come along with the surprise that we still exist. It’s very possible to be part Black, or any other ethnic/racial group, without people insisting you must only identify under one category. Much less that your racial makeup somehow magically determines your behavior and culture. There seems to be less hostility toward the whole idea that “mixed” people might exist, even if it wasn’t until 2001 that the census added that as a cluster of categories instead of just “Other”. There just isn’t the same history of political convenience there. That is not to say that there are not plenty of problems with attitudes toward race–hardly limited to the BNP, as much as a lot of people would like to pretend otherwise–just that they’re very different ones to what you find in the former colonies. (Former colonies outside North America seem to have their own sets of problems.)

As I’ve seen pointed out elsewhere, White people here are more likely to assume that a person without a lot of obvious melanin is Like Them–or maybe from an Irish background*, which is true so far as it goes in my case (if not that far). Sometimes they’ll react oddly (endnotes) when they find out that their assumptions are wrong. Sometimes I’ll get that kind of reaction when I open my mouth and Southern American speech comes out, instead of whatever they were expecting. It seems to have more to do with generalized xenophobia than with race, per se. And I have run into some anti-xenophobia backlash from other people based on the same assumptions, which really surprised me the first couple of times it happened; I’m more accustomed to being seen as kinda-pale-but-ambiguous.

But I digress a bit. The main point? Living immersed in a very different set of attitudes has made some of the peculiarities of American two-group constructions of race stand out to me in a way they didn’t growing up right in the middle of them. AFAIK, nobody has looked at my hair here and decided I must be “part Black” and lying about it. If they have, they haven’t felt entitled to tell me about it. Gee, maybe it’s rude to pester people you don’t even know about stuff that’s none of your business in the first place.😐

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of both sides of my family has wavy or curly hair. Unfortunately, a lot of them (including me, until I learned better) have internalized a lot of the “all of this group of people–possibly whole continents full of them–have the same kind of physical characteristics” crap. It’s hard not to, growing up in America.

Everybody knows that Black people all have a certain hair type. So do American Indians, and that definitely cannot be curly (or medium brown). Yep, tell that to Crazy Horse, a.k.a. Curly (also described as light-skinned). If you have curly hair, it must be the “Black in you” coming out. Attitudes on how good a thing that is vary a lot among my relatives, but it usually qualifies as our own “Bad Hair”. Some of them would probably take the drug under development to “cure” this (as reported in Essence).

My flaming anything-but-Black (“mixed” herself) racist grandmother may have taken that to extremes, with some narcissistic resentment over being expected to take care of us also driving the hostility, but I think part of her problem was that people might figure out that we were secretly Black. She kept going on about our “dirty elbows” and trying to scrub off our other other uneven pigmentation**, too. It was not exactly subtle. Once she started going grey, she used progressively blonder rinses–and managed to convince herself that she had always been blonde! (Hell, she even turned my rather dark mother blonde as a kid in her memory–“such a pretty child!”.) In context, that says volumes. BTW, she married my grandfather (who could have modeled for the classic portrait of Sequoyah) knowing full well that his father was Black on paper, and considering his entire family (who could not/did not pass) inferior. Very possibly so she had something to feel superior about. She is still uncomfortable if anyone mentions that he just wasn’t White, and that does include the Native portion (never mind her own passing-for-Jewish branch of the family). She just doesn’t want to think about it, and will turn hostile if people remind her of it. And it just occurs to me now that maybe there was an additional reason she tried to keep me from spending time in public with a couple of “half Black” friends: paranoia. {headdesk}

One of my mom’s cousins*** on the “inferior” side who did hair–a curly herself–concluded that we somehow magically have African hair. This was based on her observations of similarity while working with Black women’s hair, and the success of her experiments using products marketed for Black hair to “tame” her own. (And Everybody Knows that nobody else has “unruly” curly hair.) This probably only occurred to her because she was very aware that her grandfather was, indeed, Black–and she started blaming our “Bad Hair” on him! I just did not know what to say. At least she was willing to identify as “mostly Black”.

And now I’m wondering if we’d have any hair at all, without most of us getting the “White” color and “Black” texture. {scratches bushy head}

Don’t get me wrong. I was not bothered by the fact that she decided we were Black. What bothers me is the reliance on so many layers of ignorant, eugenically racist stereotypes, some odd version of biological determinism, and the One Drop Rule.

The idea of “ethnic hair” with mystically unique qualities is very entrenched in the U.S. The first glimmer of the ridiculousness of this construction came for me about five years back, when someone asked on Mingo-L if her “hard to manage” hair (which sounded an awful lot like mine) was an Indian thing, based on the number of her relatives who also had it. One simple response, which should not have rung so many bells? Every group of people has members with different hair textures. Period.

The author of the Live Curly, Live Free site expanded on this somewhat in one article, The Curl Whisperer on Ethnic Hair:

I get a lot of questions on whether or not I know how to handle “ethnic hair” or about the special needs of ethnic hair. And I’m here to tell you there is no such thing. Hair is hair is hair. Period.

Your hair is fine, medium or coarse. Your hair is porous, overly porous, or has low porosity. Your hair has normal elasticity or low elasticity. Your hair is thin, medium or thick. It does not matter what your ethnic background is. Fine, porous, elastic, thick hair is fine, porous, elastic, thick hair whether it is on an African-American woman, a Caucasian woman, a Native American woman, an Asian woman, a Latina woman…you get the picture.

Now, you may have a genetic predisposition to have a certain type of hair based upon your ethnic background…There is, however, no guarantee your hair will follow a certain pattern just because you belong to a particular ethnic group. I have African-American clients with loose waves and medium texture; I have white clients with coarse hair and extremely tight coils. And that’s just the way it is.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t take pride in ourselves and where we come from, or not seek advice from others who share the same culture as we do!

It’s a sad indication that this stuff needs to be said, at all. Much less that these kinds of commonsense statements did change the way I looked at things.

There are some very good comments about this kind of thing in a Turning Point thread, Do Indians have Curly Hair?, which is well worth a read. What prompted the question in the first place was one person’s daughter getting harrassed by a teacher. Some relevant samples:

On December 13th, 2004 samia goudie (not verified) says:

GOOD GRIEF…

THIS SOUNDS LIKE DARWINISM AT ITS WORST. next they will emasure our noses and pull out the color charts and issue us dog tgs. for goodness sakes.. race is a bull **** concept…. we are who we are by heritage, by birth, by our cultural and social exposure… not by dna or by some hair colour or ahpe or nose length.. that teacher should be reported or at least eduated, what a insult….. its funny as well… because its so ignorant….

stay strong…

hmmm, i wonder where my toes come from? i wonder if my eyes are aboriginal enuff… man oh man…..
my adopted mother used to wash me in amonia baths to make me more white… lets not get back to that ….ok….

Without the attitudes that created the earlier (used in very important legal contexts) idea that African heritage could be detected by looking at things like hair texture and the shape of a person’s heelbones, would anyone still be thinking these things? It is eugenically racist. Period. And I’d have been subject to ownership based on both of those criteria (yep, I’ve got “chicken legs”, from my father’s side!). This kind of thing still shows attitudes of ownership; other people own our identities and our ancestors.

Then there’s the time the BIA sent their pet scientific racists to eyeball the Lumbee, to determine their “degree of admixture”. Surprise, surprise: siblings were deemed to have very different blood quantum! That official farce 50+ years ago was bad enough, but Joe Q. Public still feels entitled to judge people that way. Even worse when it’s other members of the same group who have been convinced to do the policing.

Similar fail: Dare to Ask: Do Native Americans have facial and body hair?. Why are people even asking this kind of thing? And why are even other Native people giving ignorant racist responses? “The guy who told you that he was 100 percent Native American was a 100 percent liar.” Because he had arm hair. Not to mention the (paraphrased) “I can’t grow a beard, therefore no other $group_member can. Haha.” The need to even trot out historical images says a lot.

I am only posting the first response in an illustrative thread further down the Turning Point page:

On December 13th, 2004 Tionkwaronkwas (not verified) says:

dear krystyna,
YES it’s possible for a native person to have curly hair. it’s evan possible for a native person to be blond. i have couzins that are full blooded as can be and they have blond hair. My father whose is full blooded mohawk who has his language and a clan has curly hair, and hazel eyes. i am full blooded mohawk as well, and i have light skin and reddish hair, but i am still mohawk, who speaks mohawk, i have a clan, and still actively take part in traditional ceremonies. i agree with other that, that teacher should no longer be teaching.

Indeed. The whole racist house of cards this kind of thing is based on is crap, and it hurts people. This is why I keep pointing out some unpopular things, to the point that I sometimes feel like I’m repeating myself too much.

Edit 1 June: I just ran across an excellent example of this kind of thing in action, and had to add it. Finally looking at ordering Lorraine Massey’s Curly Girl, I looked at another book included in one of Amazon’s package deals (not that interested), and ran across its sole review on amazon.co.uk:

This review is from: Hair Rules!: The Ultimate Hair-Care Guide for Women with Kinky, Curly, or Wavy Hair (Paperback)
This short book contains as it title describes hair rules for women with non straight hair. The rules are simple and may seem like common sense but as many women do things such as use a hair dryer everyday they do need to be iterated.
I read on the US amazon site that the most of the books descriptions apply only to African American women, but having lived near and lived near big cities in the UK for most of my life, I have come across women of all ethnic backgrounds who would have healthy hair if they heeded these rules, followed some of the styling suggestions, and most importantly -learnt to love their natural curls.

_____________

* The specified categories on forms in England? “White: British”, “White: Irish”, and “Any other White background”. So there is still some distinction made there. I don’t think that identification works to my advantage, in some cases. None of the Irish people who have assumed I was also Irish reacted in the same way when I opened my mouth; not too surprising, with the history of emigration there. People, including Irish ones, have also assumed my Swedish husband was Irish, probably because he does not appear to be English either. One guy in Dublin assumed he was just sounding odd because he’d been living in London for years. (Again, true as far as it went!) It’s a lot like my mom getting mistaken for Mexican, in areas with a higher Mexican population: people see what they’re expecting.

** My mom and I both got light-brown post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, among other uneven pigmentation. Mine is especially noticable on my legs (it stays there all the time) but shows up elsewhere especially when I get bug bites. And yes, I used to just accept that my lower legs looked dirty all the time.:/ I’ve got splotches on my forehead from that now, which will probably eventually fade. It used to be that I would have tried to cover that up with makeup, but it doesn’t bother me much anymore.

*** This was the sister of another one who tried to Pleckerize us, and was sheepish when she looked through a box of old family photos full of generations of people who did “look Indian” by her standards. (Yeah, a lot of them had curly hair too.) And stuff written in the Tsalagi syllabary. So many layers of stereotype fail.😐

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 12:15 am

    I never noticed the discussions of racism on that forum, probably because I didn’t look (because it doesn’t affect me much). In my case my hair being black confuses people as to my ethnicity as much as the curls do. And then I get the “you must be Irish” bit from English people, which is another kind of racism that assumes all dark Celts are Irish, when a good portion of them are native to Britain and are Welsh or Scottish.

    And I admit I didn’t used to know, either, about racial differences, or the lack thereof. You get the basic stereotypes when you’re young, and then many of us never learn any more. It’s just luck when we come across better information.

    Curly Girl (the book) has a photo of an East Asian woman with curly hair.

    • urocyon permalink
      May 31, 2010 11:31 pm

      The discussions I’ve seen are mostly in the Hall of Shame section (where they belong, IMO!). Glancing in there, a couple caught my eye.

      And then I get the “you must be Irish” bit from English people, which is another kind of racism that assumes all dark Celts are Irish, when a good portion of them are native to Britain and are Welsh or Scottish.

      *nods* I’ve heard more about their being Welsh, actually.🙂 Indeed, that’s another strange one.

      You get the basic stereotypes when you’re young, and then many of us never learn any more. It’s just luck when we come across better information.

      Very true. Not really wanting to learn better can be the big problem there.:/ I guess the stereotypes are more comfortable, in some cases.

      When Nigel and I were watching a few Korean films and commentary, I couldn’t help but notice quite a few people with naturally wavy or curly hair. I got a bit of dark amusement out of it at the time; obviously they didn’t know their hair couldn’t do that. *wry smile*

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