Oprah’s Hairy Contradiction

The September issue of O magazine tackles hair as its topic.  Gracing the cover is the perennial powerhouse    herself, killing them in a bright orange wrap dress with an Afro that would make foxy jump back.  Oprah smiles out like a radiant sun complete with waving black rays of hair.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a resident of that fabulous country Afromania, just so my bias is clear from the outset.  Bias aside, Oprah can be commended for putting natural hair in front of her legion of readers, showcasing the growing trend of women of color rocking (gasp) their own natural hair.

And as nods to naturals go, you can’t deny she looks fantastic and makes the Afro ultra appealing.
Afros have come in and out of favor as a hairstyle with its heyday in America arguably centered in the black power days of the ’70s.  After the struggle for civil rights , a new image of blacks rose up, a revolution of the fried died and laid to the side world of the mid century. The Afro was an embrace of black beauty, a rejection of hot combs, burning lye, and a story that says your real hair is ugly.  The afro was not only a return to African hair, but also to African heritage.  It came to symbolize the wider ideas of black power and black consciousness.

Search for Afro now,a days and what you’re likely to find are a host of pictures of people rocking Fake ‘fros.  Peppered in among stars and their fantasy wigs are a rainbow of Afrowigs, mostly cheap costume versions nestled in between pimp and funky disco costumes.  Far from the majesty of Angela Davis’s mane these Afros are clearly for play, for rocking in the stands of your favorite college team, or when you want to show the world just how cra-azy you are.  This once powerful symbol of black pride is relegated to the category of costume, fun and always laughable.
For those unfamiliar with the travails of black hair in a Eurocentric culture, lets just say that curls and kink are not the default image of beauty in America.  Our culture glorifies long flowing tresses, sometimes a bit wavy, more recently fish bone straight. If what happens to grow out of your head is curly, god forbid kinky, you are to go post hast to the nearest salon and get relaxed.  Black women spend half a TRILLION a year on chemical relaxers, weave, and a handful of other methods to tame their unacceptable hair. As late as, well, yesterday braids, dread, and yes, Afros grown pasta few inches were not acceptable hairstyle in the business world, the political world, or in short, the real world.  This process-ha ha- leads lots of women of color to spend many dollars and hours trying to change their hair into something more acceptable, something that fits the common definition of beauty.
Even our superstar artists and celebrities celebrate Eurocentric hairstyles.  Beyonce is glorified for her hair, even appearing in hair ads for loreal, but its not a stretch to guess this isn’t really her hair.  Most stars, like their real world counterparts kowtow to the cultur’s straight hairstyles of the runway, weaving in thousands of dollars of someone else’s hair onto their heads to ply the style.
The natural hair movement is made up of women of color who have gotten off the tresses treadmill to embrace the tuff growing out of their own scalp.  Emphasizing acceptance and appreciation of the many shades of black hair, natural hair girls provided much needed addition to th e choices for black women’s hair.  The natural hair movement has been creating a space where the Afro can be restored to its former glory.  And thank god we have Oprah to champion the beauty of black hair.
But, typical of today’s media and certainly not limited to O. Magazine, the cover has Oprah not rocking natural hair, but a wig that looks like natural hair.  Forgive me for being a bit behind on this– if the idea is to celebrate natural hair, would it not be a nice change if we saw, oh, say, some real hair?  Oprah has enough length to blow out a pretty fantastic fro, especially given that its just for a photo shoot, and doesn’t have to stand up to a day at the beach.  Instead she pops to rock a glorious but fake fog of hair.  Like her buddies at your local Halloween party, she relegates the Afro to fantasy land.
Sure the fantasy of Afros is fun and funky, but the reality of the Afro is something worth celebrating.  Like my black power sisters of the seventies, my Afro is about loving myself as I am, and realizing that beauty, far from narrow, is in each of us just as we are.  It’s also about embracing the beauty of diversity.  I don’t want to live in a colorblind world.  I want to live somewhere where culture makes our world a vibrant, and exciting to live and explore.  For that to happen, we need to begin to feed on a wider diet of images, one that shows different people not as costumed creeps, but as real people living lives as real and reasonable as any other

And a Little Cheerio Shall Lead Us…

Earlier this summer, Cheerios released a commercial touting the heart healthy benefits of its cereal.  The ad featured a little girl, a mom and a dad.  No problem.  The family was an interracial family, which you’d know if you just watched it.

Cute, right?  Well what was not so cute was the response to the ad. On YouTube, hundreds of people ranted that the ad heralded the apocalypse and coming race war and all the rest, all because of the depiction of what is for millions of Americans is simply what we call family.
First to the ad.  The first step in figuring out if a piece of media is racist is to see if race is a significant part of the ad.  Does the story tell us something about race?  In the Cheerios ad, we see a white mommy, a black daddy and a mixed race child, so we do see people of various races represented together.  But does it tell us something about race?
Lots of people thought it did from haters who thought it an abomination to the many more who were happy to see a family like their represented.  But first let’s look just at the story with a simple technique: some might call it the commutation test, but were going to keep things simple and call it sign switching.
Just like this web page is a bunch of coded symbols that the computer makes meaning of, media messages are strings of codes and signs that we, the human computer makes sense of. in the Cheerios ad we have three actors playing roles we can identify– without Cheerios saying outright– as a family.  How?  The setting is in the home, the child refers to the woman’s character as mom, the male is lying on a couch sleeping, presumably not a home invasion.  See, codes that you interpreted as an indication that this is a family at home.
Race often acts as a code, sending us sign to help us fill in the story.  For instance, if I show you images of characters of different races, will it help you to fill in the story?  Lets see…
          One of these guys is really good at basketball and one is really good at martial arts.  Codes       that we are familiar with make it seem natural that blacks are better at ball and asians are all good at martial arts.
Stereotypes use these codes to reproduce the same old stories about race that are shaped by long history and social influences.  If we are looking to see if a code is communicating about race we can try to imagine how we would read the story of the races were switched.  Ever see trading places?  ( clip) here we see a movie about what it would be like.
Back to our Cheerios ad.  Lets switch the actors around and see if the story changes.  If we had three white actors, or three black actors the story of a family scene at home remains the same, and the basic meaning of the ad is not different.  What Cheerios has achieved is quite rare– and ad free of racial stereotypes.  There are no messages about how these characters will act that we can interpret solely from their race–inside the ad itself. But outside the ad in the real world is another story.
 Our Cheerios ad isn’t hanging out at home.  The ad ran widely on television and on the web.  The ad ran in a world where people haven’t yet packed away their attachment to Jim Crow, where people are ignorant of the fact that interracial families are not only legal–as they have been since 196x, but are a growing part of US, with over xx people identifying as multiracial in the last census.  While the ad itself is free of stereotypes, the audience, unfortunately is not.
Any given audience will have multiple perspectives.  The reaction of audience members, especially this case, can tell us something about race.  The reaction to the Cheerios ad points out that while more members than not were happy to see our beloved post racial country represented in this lovely family tableaux, the racism that we’d like to leave behind isn’t gone from the rear view mirror yet.
So the Verdict on the Cheerios ad:  not racist.  And Cheerios, bonus points for showing us a family from our race-no-longer-matters-future. I hope we see you in that post racial utopian someday.
As for the brouhaha, the racism here lies not in the ads stars, but in the throwback trolls selves.

Let’s Go, Smarty-Pants!

I get it.  You are the master of the Information Age.  If you’re like the rest of us, I know you’re spending 8 maybe 10 hours a day glued to some screen or another–the smart phone wrapped around you like a leash or the giant screen tv that awaits you in your man cave, the computer you’re  locked in a staring contest with at your desk all day or the laptop that’s an extension of your very soul.

Like potato chips, you probably don’t even realize just how much you’re consuming, but trust me, we’re eating the whole bag here.

 But its not like you’re zombifying out to marathons of reality tv.  It is the Information Age and there’s a lot to stay up with.  How else can you stay current with a world of news, a host of celebrities competing for air time and the 648 friends that you’re keeping up with on Facebook?  You’d hardly know what to tweet about if you didn’t.
Whether you can remember the Dos prompt or you cut your teeth on an iPod, we all spend more minutes staying up to the minute than ever before.  So you’re savvy.  You’ve binge watched all of the Walking Dead and you could blow through a double jeaopardy round of questions on pop culture.  Sure you’ve seen every Super Bowl ad and seen more than a few bad public relations disasters.  Hardly a week goes by with out one.
And more often than never race and racism are in the mix.
So here comes your coworker/ professor/ boyfriend/ sister-in-law.  They want to know if you saw the latest and what you think.  They’ going to ask you to render an opinion on the most recent brouhaha over race in the media.
They’re going to ask you, ” did you think that was racist?”
Hey, you know what to do.  You live in what they have assured us is a black-president-electing-diversity-loving-open-minded-post-racial America.  So now we all agree on what’s racist and so you know just what to say to not look like an ass.
Except, maybe you’re not sure.  Even though we’ve all been chewing on this media diet for years, rarely have we ever learned how to stop to decode what we’re seeing based on more than a passing opinion.
And even though we want to live in post racial America, maybe we’re not quite there yet, and we could stand to talk some of this stuff out rather than shouting each other down.
This isn’t just water cooler chic.  Media messages about race are all around us, and they affect the way that we think about race, privilege and people in the real world.
But you’ve got smntks.
Here well get into the thorny patch of race in American media and clear a path for you.
Let’s get past the same old he said she said around race in the media and come to some common ways to talk and think about what we see.
So the next time they ask you at the church picnic/ boys night out/ book club if you thought something is racist.
You will have THOUGHT something.
Don’t you look smart?