Don’t Touch My Hair
What does your hair mean to you?
To me it is an extension of personality, a statement of self, of an identity or of a season. It is a medium for creativity. It is mostly used to enhance beauty influenced by trend. It has been a symbol of political stance, like Angela Davis of the Black Panther Party rocking her afro to signify Black Power. It is also an expression of culture.
Now, as previously touched on in Redemption and Monumental, I acknowledge that systems have been put up to filter out the African phenotype globally. Whereas shadism is discrimination based on skin tone within a given race (for instance, the lighter your skin tone the more beautiful you are perceived to be, and thus the more privileges you get; or the reverse) racism casts a wider snare. Racism affects entire continents. It is a lot more brutal. It deprives majority of the world’s population. Some of the systems used to establish racism have been the police service, security systems, job markets, politics and leadership, dating and marriage, bank services like loans and mortgages, just to mention a few.
The gravity of racism in Kenya today may not be as vivid as it is abroad, but is nonetheless more sickening in Africa, where it is inflicted against and by our very own. For example, Blacks are made to get hospitality or social services after White folk. Whites are much preferred in corporate leadership positions to Blacks of similar credentials. A Black woman is naturally referred to as a prostitute for accompanying a White man in the sandy beaches of Mombasa.
Consider also the many Black girls that ditch the Black boyfriends for a White man they barely know. And it is quite a spectacle witnessing the enlargement of the pupils of many teenage girls’ eyes at the sight of a mzungu male walking by. The same applies to Black males towards the White female. I will be bold enough and admit that I have been struck with the same warped reverence in the past. It bothered me, so I figured out why.
The effects of viewing all those Hollywood movies and soap operas all my life have to manifest themselves somewhere, somehow. All those scenes of White characters displaying romance, bravado and lavish lifestyles for all those years have to have an effect on a young mind. Thus many Kenyans are instinctively wowed by the sight of a mzungu. We quickly give them a free pass in moral judgments and allow them to crash through our self-protected cocoons of dignity – a direct and un-adjudicated absolution for any vices in character, or of flaws of thought, or of financial status that they might have. This happens without as much as a wave or a glance from the foreigner. We are generally much kinder and more forgiving to them than we are to our own. Our thoughts of them are something off a movie theater …
He must be rich.
He must be a romantic.
He is sure to make a good husband.
He must be such a gentleman.
Our babies would be so beautiful.
…Or for Black males eyeing the white woman:
It must be awesome being in bed with her.
Her family must be rich.
I will be the envy of all.
We shall live happily ever after.
Truth be told, these prejudices work against us. I have no qualms about interracial marriages, nor am I advocating for interracial hatred. Far from it. My issue is that we are too quick to put ourselves in second or third place, or right at the bottom of the ladder. We do not see that we are reasoning and acting from impulses that were skillfully, strategically and diligently instilled into our mindsets for centuries for purposes of control. (See Willie Lynch’s speech here)
One way these systems still control and siphon from our relationships and wealth is through the hair and cosmetics industry, which is mostly tailored for the African woman. Stakeholders in the industry have sold to us the image of a desirable woman who looks nothing like us. So we put in all we have, pouring time and money into products and services that promise to match us to the set standard, messing with our emotional, mental and physical health in the process. The funny thing is a very small percentage of the industry is owned by Blacks. So we do not benefit from either end of the trade channel. What is shocking to me is that Black celebrities are educated on this subject and have fallen victim to the negative effects of beauty products, yet have failed to create a new narrative for themselves and those like them. (See Good Hair by Chris Rock trailer here)
Before we were taught to debase our brothers and sisters from the same race, we thought they were the most beautiful creatures on earth. We loved and serenaded, seduced, scouted, courted and betrothed our very own. We sang them songs of praise, and earnestly and sincerely rallied and competed to win their hearts. We broke rules and risked our own lives to secretly meet. We won wars and jumped all sorts of hoops to capture the preference and the favor of their kinfolk so as to be considered for marriage.
All that has been lost partly by Hollywood make believe happily-ever-after tales that still give Blacks the role of the servant, the villain, the maid, the illiterate or otherwise ignorant, or the weak one that is the first to die in a film; or the desperately poor or undesirable character. And we are only awarded for the said roles. We play the role of the singular black character, or are downright non-existent in the mindboggling number of movies produced abroad at any given year. The black man is never the hero. Please, I stand corrected. I am here to learn too. If I missed an Oscar Award winning movie with the Black man or woman as the hero who saved the day, feel free to call me out with a comment. I would appreciate the enlightenment. And please do not mention Denzel Washington in Training Day, or Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave. That’s a messed up cop and a raped slave who never broke free.
Consider also the literature we have been exposed to since our preteens in Kenya – the motif in Mills and Boon novels: the beastly, muscular, uneducated dark skinned warrior, who always went for the timid, lean and delicate blue-eyed blond girl, who had all along quietly lusted after the brutish native, whom she eventually tamed, and probably bought him his first suit. These are the images continually rammed into our psyches. The mental-conditioning by these forms of narrative were so subtle and effective that we never saw it coming. Now, to be told that your hair is like that of a White woman’s prompts a blush, a sudden struggle for a modest response, giddy excitement, and a quick and elated ‘Thank you!’
Hollywood taught us what is desirable or attractive, how to romance … how to kiss. (Many of us were born and raised in the conservativeness that still exists in many parts of Africa, where the sight of a couple holding hands, let alone kissing in public, is non-existent. So who – pray tell – taught us how to French-kiss?) We are now so enchanted by blue eyes, light skin and long flowing hair, that the image in our mirrors sends itchy spasms through our veins. We scratch and quiver at the sight of our dark eyes, tight curls and dark skin tone. We just have to fix it!
No wonder we go broke buying hair. No wonder we grow bald weaving and relaxing it. But point out to me the fashion icon on The Red Carpet you are seeking to emulate when wearing an Uchumi plastic bag on your head in town, whilst rocking your Gucci suit, afraid that it might get rained on and fall off. Not even Lady Gaga has pulled that one off yet. Or is that us coming up with our own thing?
When you had healthy hair that is now breaking because you added a chemical, something has gone wrong. When your hairline is receding at the temples, something has gone wrong. When you are constantly fearfully covering your hair with wigs at your prime, something has gone wrong. When you shriek at the thought of your hair touching water, and would rather make a mockery of your well preserved self image, something is wrong. When you sit down for hours and go broke fixing your hair to impress your man but won’t let him touch it at all … something has gone very, very wrong. When you can suddenly spot blue veins popping through your skin, or wounds, or dark patches, because of a tone enhancer you are applying … Anyone need a pie-chart or a YouTube demo for the point I am trying to make? Okay. Here goes:
What is good hair?
Good hair is what God gave you when at its best condition. Extensive relaxing, weaving and braiding do not do that for us. The same applies to our skin and other parts of our being. I understand the need to look smart. I think we need to challenge and redefine all these terminologies: good hair, smart, formal, beautiful… We are quick to defend our habits and ideologies, but if they do more harm than good, we sound stupid justifying them.
I remember when many in the world and even here in Kenya accused Michael Jackson (and still do) of defecting from his race by changing his skin color. Whether the explanation given for the change was truthful or not, how come we do not pass the same verdict on ourselves? It is said that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Honey, we broke! It’s all breaking – our skin, our hair, our pockets and our self-worth. We cannot fix what we do not acknowledge. Again, I understand that there are systems that have been put in place that refuse to accept us the way we are. For instance, news anchors may not be allowed to expose African natural hair. But something has to give.
All that has been said here may sound too ideological and far adrift. At least acknowledge this: every attempt we make to fit into the measures that come from discriminative systems puts an approval stamp on their existence. Our vain struggle to meet those standards breathes life into them. They are vain because they are not realistic. They are not achievable. I mean, everyone knows the natural length and texture of African hair and the natural tone of their skin, on a relative scale. All these enhancements will never pass as real. If anything they steal from the real us. And if you think you are an exception to the effects of the harm we are inflicting on ourselves, think again. Check it out when you are past your prime. If it is breaking you it is not meant for you. But of course it would already be too late.
At some point we have to stand up for ourselves, or lose ourselves trying to be that which we will never ever be. My issue is not that we should hate another race, but that we should love and accept ourselves as equals within the human race – equally loved, fashioned and accepted by God.