hairstory, and discussions about race

I’m going to be blunt: I have really beautiful hair.

But I didn’t always think so.

For many women, hair is a visual marker of race. I don’t know if this is true for me; I suspect mine is a little more visually ambiguous, which would be a good thing, because I really don’t identify with any particular race. “What are you?” a question I’m asked often, is most likely to receive the response, “I’m Muslim,” than any reply involving race.

It is because of this that I bring up my hair, because I’m so distant from race that I’m not at all passionate in its regards, and I have a hard time writing about things I don’t care for, and so I kind of need a little bit of help to open up about it. Race, after all, is not what I feel. It’s not something that exists until I step outside, when others decide for me where I belong.

Race is a social construct more than a phenomenon of nature, and what dictates who belongs to what race is, surprisingly enough, rarely geography. Oftentimes it’s drawn depending on how one looks more than where one is from; sometimes it’s even dependent on cultural divisions. We’ve been inconsistent historically on who is to be considered “white.” Germans, at least in the United States, obtained “whiteness” later than the English, Greeks, and Italians. The Irish had to actually adjust into “whiteness.” All these “races,” however, are of drastically different cultures, but over assimilation these distinctions had been forgotten. It all became a part of “white culture”–not Irish culture or Greek culture or German culture.

Outside of “whiteness” we are defined by it. There is a hierarchy in which minorities are most recognizable. Blacks and Asians are most commonly listed as examples of minorities. Hispanics come closer, Arabs are mentioned even less often. Native Americans are pretty much invisible. Even without having assimilated, even with clearer distinctions between cultures, we are grouped into one class–“non-white.”

In examining what it means to be white in the United States, the definition of race becomes more and more obscure. It is an appearance, a social class, almost a way of thought.

Must we, the “rest of us,” like those who came before us–like the Germans and the Irish–who were not at once considered “white”… must we lose our differences to be considered “more white”? What is the price of being accepted?

While race may be obscure, the effects of racism and a visually arranged hierarchy are blatantly harmful.

I distinctly remember sitting in my second grade classroom and running my fingers through the light brown hair of one of my friends. It slid from my hand like water. She didn’t have nearly as much of it as I did, and I would think wistfully of how easy it was for her to manage, how quickly she could whip it into a ponytail. My hair was so abundant the scrunchy wouldn’t make it tightly enough around the circumference, and the bit of the scrunchy that was left too short to circulate around the thickness of my hair again would cause the whole thing to come undone. If I did manage to tighten it enough, the weight of my hair would pull it down.

To keep my hair up, I would really have to put all of it up (nothing hanging like a ponytail to drag it down) or wear it in a half-ponytail, with only the crown lifted. My mother tried to braid it often, but I didn’t like braids. I didn’t mind half of it up, but because children are a little sloppy–and the fact that my hair itself is difficult to manage wasn’t much help either–I would create tangles between the two layers by neglecting to piece out wandering strands before I tied it. This was painful to undo and created nightmarish dreadlocks.

And so, it was kept loose.

At home I stood in front of my bathroom mirror. When I was certain my mother wasn’t looking, I reached into my hair and pulled out a handful of it. I did this repeatedly, attempting in vain to thin it out.

I’m not sure exactly what it was that made me do this. I didn’t care about physical appearances. I climbed trees under the sun when other girls stood watching from beneath rooftops, fearing the light would tan them. I didn’t feel the need to be thin (though to be fair, this may be because I naturally am) or the pressure to constantly find physical characteristics of which I disapproved so no one would think I was stuck-up. (Girls bonded over their “imperfections.”) It was strange, then, that I had declared a war against my hair.

My glossy, abundant, thick-textured, tumbling, stormy waves were not “white” enough.

Beginning from the forth grade I was told constantly that I had beautiful hair. Women would come up behind me and run their fingers through it, amazed. “Sorry, I just had to touch it. It’s so shiny! Is it real?” Beginning from high school, men would exclaim in astonished tones, “You have beautiful hair!” (A man has yet to question whether or not it’s real.) These things happened when I left it the way it is.

And yet I continued to straighten it with a flat iron. It wasn’t the curls I minded. It was the frizz. And straightening evened it out. Straightening made it easier to get it trimmed. Straightening made me less of a spectacle. Straightening made me closer to conventionally beautiful–the kind of beautiful that people don’t even mention because it’s just that obvious.

Because along with the extravagant compliments, (“Your hair looks like a Raphaelite painting!”) there was also extravagantly scathing scorn–maybe even more often than not, since kids are, you know, cruel. “You should chop it all off!” a girl at my middle school sneered viciously. “I’d never keep my hair like that!” another, believing I was out of earshot, whispered to her friend as the two walked to class behind me.

It wasn’t only the beauty standards that were blaring obstacles but what they represented and–even more hurtful, as I later came to experience–the denial of these struggles from those who were privileged. ex. “It’s rare that anyone of your race is so pretty.”

“That’s because you have a normalized view of what’s pretty based on white-centrism.”

“No, seriously, foreign people who are really pretty are rare.”

But my favorite is, “Of course she’ll get in instead of me, she’s a minority.”

OR, it might be because I’m smarter than you. Just an idea.

In retrospect, it seems that any group who makes an effort of abandoning differences and conforming into the standards of a majority instead of maintaining its diversity gets to be digested into “whiteness.” And that is a little bit disturbing. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed model of the American woman is practically an icon of international recognition. Other countries have their own. The “ideal” internationally advertised American woman doesn’t look too different from the French or Aussie one. Deciding to assimilate individually isn’t it itself negative, but this structure that exists, almost invisibly, and this demand for everyone in minority groups to assimilate is no doubt potentially destructive.

15 thoughts on “hairstory, and discussions about race

  1. For you it may be because you are smarter, but for many it's because they are a minority and the firm wants someone ethnic.I guess whatever firm hires you will actually get a twoffer. Someone who is actually capable and will up their diversity quotient. But then again if there was someone who was as smart as you but she was a white woman, she wouldn't have a chance compared to you because she is white.Sorry, but in many cases these days being a minority is an advantage.

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  2. "I didn't feel the need to be thin (though to be fair, this may be because I naturally am)…"I felt this was a little bit inconsiderate of you Nahida, and the implication understated how forcefully media demands are pushed. Plenty of girls who are naturally thin fall into the trap of destroying themselves in accordance to the images that bombard them.

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  3. Steve,I can't believing I'm bothering with this…You seem to be able to think of only one "advantage." On top of that, there's a lot of talk about affirmative action based on race. It rarely actually happens.And a white woman? What, we're all applying for the same jobs in accordance to sex now?Or did you mean to imply that I wouldn't have that same "advantage" over a man. I doubt this is you meant this though. I bet you think it's easier for women to find work. (101 stuff Steve!)KelsShells,Yes, it was. I apologize. I'm a bit horrified now that I've realized. Thanks for the check!

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  4. I've actually used that response!Sure thing. I didn't even mean to actually publish it last night because I was really tired and God knows I'm unhealthily obsessed with perfection. Next time it happens I'll write UPDATE in thick bold letters right above it.

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  5. You would absolutely have an advantage over a man. I am of course thinking of white collar jobs as of course if you wanted to become a ice road trucker, or a lumberjack or something like that being a female would be an extreme disadvantage.And as for it being "101" I guess that depends upon the university you attend.

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  6. Steve, from now on any comment involving a reference to whatever university I attend or anything else that is completely irrelevant will not be published.This also goes for any claims you make without providing evidence or any argument with substance.Women face hostile work environments because of their sex. We also get pregnant. I would explain further, but on top of it being obvious, it's really off-topic.

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  7. @Steve, please remember most of us are feminists, and not because it's fun. I'm guessing that's what Nahida means when she says "101." There is a basic understanding you should have when you read this.@Nahida, I've had similar struggles with my hair. The ideal hair is really modeled after white hair. I'm finally on the way to accepting mine. I've stopped doing harmful things to it and am beginning to wear it natural for the most part.

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  8. I knew what she meant when she said 101. She meant things that we should take as fact and therefore undeserving of debate. Liberals often mistake opinions for facts. Global warming – FACT. Whites are evil. FACT.It's a way of shutting down debate really. An illegitimate way.Well, I don't accept some of your basic premises. In American society today, I would rather be a minority than a white. It can really get you ahead as long as you aren't a total loser. It gets you an edge on job promotions, it gives you an advantage when filing for scholarships, and yes, depending on what area you are talking about it can even get you elected to public office.Otherwise, a first term US Senator who mostly voted "Present" would have not even been taken seriously as a Presidential candidate.So, she can play "the victim" all she wants. I know that she is a quite advantaged person.And by the way don't be surprised when you get out in the word to find out that others might not share the "101" you do.

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  9. Yes, because playing the victim is that much fun.I'm not afraid of controversy. Here's the thing: you're being rude. You can't piece together a comment without calling someone a pervert, accusing someone of not being who they say they are as if you know more about that thing than they do, and–in a previous comment I didn't publish–accusing me of not understanding what it's like to be white because I never was and failing to see the reverse on yourself. You've also used arbitrary facts like my age as weapons of argument. I'm not illegitimately shutting down debate–I'm shutting down illegitimate debate. It must be really convenient for you, having all these things at your fingertips because you're here in my space while I know nearly nothing about you.But if I did, Steve, I would be mature enough not to "use" it.Here's the other thing: this isn't the place. If you disagree with the basic premises on which our discussions are built, Steve, you are welcome to open your own space and discuss them there. And the third thing: no one here ever said whites are evil. (wtf?) Put down your defenses. If you haven't noticed, you're the only one attacking. You're projecting your attitudes on others, and you're derailing horribly, which is very very disrespectful.There are ways you can make your arguments without pissing me off. Of all the times you've complained about how hard it is to be white, I never once invalidated your experiences or accused you of playing the victim. Until you figure out how to stay on topic, make points without meaningless personal or political attacks, soundly support your own perspectives, keep yourself from making sweeping generalizations, I won't be publishing any more of your comments.

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  10. …ANYWAY, back to the post.I never thought before about how we actually become white. It's really something to think about and kind of changes your view on the permanence of things. I don't want to have to change to be accepted, and it's really sad that people before us had to go down that road. I mean, it's not really a bad thing unless there's pressure and of course there is. Feels like a loss when you're forced into it by society.

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  11. "Race is a social construct more than a phenomenon of nature, and what dictates who belongs to what race is, surprisingly enough, rarely geography."Beautiful. It's funny all the crackpot theories and ideas people have come up with to justify race superiority. Look at Robert Knox who used biology and anthropology to justify white superiority.

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  12. This is an absolutely fascinating post. ..this demand for everyone in minority groups to assimilate is no doubt potentially destructive. So true.I constantly shudder at people's erasure. It bothers me that my FIL speaks with a British accent — because his Kenyan/Gujarati accent isn't refined enough apparently, and despite his personal successes in life, he is convinced his speech will make all the difference.

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  13. Thanks woodturtle! And yeah, people are absolutely vicious when it comes to accents. And it goes even further than race. And there are stereotypes about which accents fit which jobs. You don't want to sound like a "truck driver from New York" when you interview for a law firm. If you have a Southern accent you can forget it entirely. If you have an accent that other people identify as "belonging" to a minority group they'll designate you to a specific field if they don't immediately push you down, no matter how much experience you have.Which reminds me, I'm very advantaged to have been raised in California. Everyone in the media sounds like us.

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