Tag Archives: black women

Gentrifying Shampoo

This week Pantene rolled out a beautiful ode to black women to artfully showcase what they present here as a line of products for natural hair.

So this is the part of the post where you think I’m going to praise Pantene for dope visuals, a rainbow of brown skinned lovelies, and a little finger-snapping slam-lite–wrong.  Sure this video brings the love of natural hair to the mainstream, making visible the black women who have been so ignored by the hair care industry.  Sure the video chants a little manifesto singing the praises of black beauty and power.  But don’t sleep, Pantene didn’t wake up one day with visions of Angela Davis for the masses.  Pantene is just gentrifying the natural hair product neighborhood and throwing some shade in the process.

If You Build It, They Will Come (And Take It From You)

Natural hair care products are a $946 million dollar industry, a sector of hair care that has seen explosive growth over the last few years.  Long before Pantene Gold started growing dreads, hair care for natural hair was nowhere to be seen on the mainstream scene.   Even the brands that did cater to unprocessed hair were few and far between.  As the natural hair movement grew, there were attempts to grab a share of the market with products like an early attempt for women of color called Pantene Naturals.  The problem was that these products were more about marketing, with formulations that were not markedly different from the rest of the brand’s lines.  The product packaging targets women of color but sulfates and dyes destroy their hair if they use it. Now that the natural hair care market can’t be ignored, Pantene is back for another slice of the African (hair)pie.

 

Meanwhile natural brands like Miss Jessie’s, Shea Mountain, As I Am and others did the real work finding ways to truly care for black hair–working directly with the women who used their product, learning from the ancestors secret recipes, and redesigning the natural hair care regimen with modern formulations that actually work for a diverse group of often ignored customers.  These companies, many owned by women of color, did the hard work to build a cottage industry into the natural hair juggernaut that it is today.

And then here comes Pantene.  Like a Starbucks in Brooklyn.  Sure, it seems nice at first until you can’t afford to live in your own apartment. Or until you can’t, as a small business owner, compete with a huge corporate entity like Pantene and you get knocked out of your own market. The natural hair movement is democratic with hundreds of bloggers, businesswomen and home product developers following in the steps of Madame CJ Walker, but it looks like this nation is about to be attacked by shamPutin Pantene.

By the Way, We Still Think Your Hair Sucks

I couldn’t help but notice when I looked at the actual product that is celebrating black women that nowhere on the product packaging does Pantene Gold say that is its designed for natural hair, or black hair beautiful in that many ways the commercial described it.  The line is aimed at “dry, damaged hair”.  That’s right, you snapping-your-fingers-as-you-snap-up-Pantene-queens–they just called your crown dry and damaged.  All that lovely poetry isn’t on the package.  Instead, just a reminder that the world still sees your hair as fundamentally flawed.

As_I_Am_Coconut_Cleansing_Conditioner_-_16_oz___TargetOther natural haircare lines use language that celebrates natural hair on the product line itself, not just pays lip service to it in ads.  Without the ad above, you wouldn’t know that Pantene was even trying to connect with the black community–and frankly, that wouldn’t be anything new.   I’m going to skip the hype on this one and keep supporting the business that cared about me and my hair, not just my wallet.

 

Pass to Power: What is Race and Passing?

Update: I posted this 666 days ago but blue eyed devil Rachael Dolezal is back in the news with her snake oil version of racial identity.  She got a book deal and all I have is this blog so I’m reposting this in hopes someone may share it with her and read educate this white woman-Rachel, please have several seats, and be humble.

Busted: Rachel Dolezal, Howard Graduate, Head of the NAACP in Spokane, and outspoken black community activist is white.  Outed by a local reporter and mercilessly–and hilariously–taken down on twitter Rachel has sparked lots of chatter about what is race and who can be which one.  Passing points to the essential function of race–that it structures power, not color.  People who pass are not trying to look different, they are trying to change their status.

Race is not in our DNA, it’s a social construct.  That means, despite what your eyes see, there are not different races of people.  In fact, there is no gene for race in the human genome.  Biologically, humans are all part of one family.

So, if race isn’t real, then we can just say racism is dead, yell, “Black President!” and get on with it right?  Wrong.  I mean, have you read this blog before?  Since the birth of America, race has been used to structure, economic and political relationships.  Prior to the 1600’s race really wasn’t a thing.  People had and still have different cultures, but not different racial categories.  The first time the word race even appears in the English language is 1508, so the Ancient world did not  have the concept of different races.

With the conquest of the Americas and a fresh addiction to sugar, European conquerers needs many hands to make the hard work of sugar, tobacco and cotton farming light.  But, since the America’s were little more than a handful of rough outposts, they couldn’t attract a voluntary workforce with crazy benefits like being allowed to live free and get paid.  Thus begins the transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest events in all of human history.

slave trade map

Race as a social construct was created essentially to protect this labor force.   Many laws–not just one–over hundreds of years were used to keep one class of people–black people–enslaved.  Politicians traded power for allowing the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, even our conflicted founding father Thomas Jefferson.  He wrote all men were created equal, but could not build the country he desired without those free hands to do the work.

What would get good God fearing people to support the systematic violent oppression of their human brothers and sister? A story, a narrative that normalizes terror as truth.  At the center of the narrative was the concept that blacks were not humans, and therefore did not deserve human rights.  While the institution of slavery ended 7 generations ago, America still struggles to shake this narrative.

Racism is supported by personal prejudice.  Individual beliefs about different groups of people perpetuate the kind of thinking that allows police to kill young people unchecked by the electorate.  But even if every person in America woke up tomorrow firmly antiracist in their heart, the laws that structure education, housing, economics, justice and other systems would still have racial bias in them.  Like a zombie–we may be the body, but if the zombie brain of racism lives, terror ensues.

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Over the centuries, hundreds if not thousands of people have tried to game the system by “passing”–taking on the identity of a race other than their own–mostly white.  Whites were able to be free, vote, own land–and slaves–and a host of other privileges that came with whiteness.  These privileges–which still exist in different ways today–helped keep people bought in to systems of oppression.  Black people willing to give up their culture and their ancestry could take on all the benefits of whiteness as long as they stayed hidden.

Anita Florence Hemmings passed as white in oredr to attend Vassar in 1897
Anita Florence Hemmings passed as white in order to attend Vassar in 1897
Given our history of race and racism, and ignoring the self-hate of abdicating your culture, there were some legal and societal benefits people gained by passing as white–not the least of which was freedom.  But what could Rachel Dolezal possibly gain by passing as black?  Everything.

In a country where whiteness is too often invisible to white people, Rachel wouldn’t be the first white girl to long to have a (different) culture.  No boring suburbia for her, Rachel takes cultural appropriation to a whole new level. No matter how many Mileys and Iggys try to beg ignorance, appropriation is real–and real simple to understand.

iceberg of culture

Imagine culture is an iceberg.  Certain parts of it are visible–food, dance, dress, festivals–while the foundation of what makes a culture are buried deep below the surface–beliefs, values rituals, shared lived realities and ways of being.  Millions of people of African decent, shipped abroad during the slave trade or settled here in America carved out a way of surviving , a way of being in the face of unstoppable cruelty, a way of thriving within a system built to destroy them.  The soul food, and the blues and the style and hip hop are the visible parts of the legacy of this ongoing struggle, but the deeper elements are essential to making sense of those expressions. Cultural appropriation is when you break off the top of the iceberg and wear it around like a costume.  You can dress up, dance, and even bite the rhymes of a culture….

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But when you do, you leave behind the larger, more important part of culture: the deeply help beliefs, shared experiences, values, ancestry and destiny-the truth of what it means to be part of that group.  This part of the iceberg can’t be pulled out of the water and worn to the VMA’s.  They can’t be weaved onto your ends like Hawaiian silky.  They can’t belong to you, Rachel, or you either, Iggy.

All of these women cover themselves in a carcass they call blackness made out of stereotypes, stolen hairstyles and narratives that they’ve nicked to make themselves feel cool, beautiful, feel like they are a part of something. At the same time their white privilege gives them entrance into public spheres often denied actual black women, taking their voice and supplanting it with a white fantasy version.

And Rachel was a teacher, someone paid to tell other people how to think about and construct black femininity.  This is not how you love a culture–this is how you erase it.  Far from helping the community as some–including the NAACP–have suggested, her actions show the worst kind of white privilege–the privilege to define blackness with a white voice.

(Be sure to read upcoming part 2 about the difference between transgender and transracial)

When Your Choices Are Someone Else’s

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a helicopter ride over Boston. Apart from being super fun, the trip, riding high above my usual haunts, gave me a different perspective on the world I live in every day. In my normal existence, I do things you might do: I go to work, I get the items I need to eat and live, and I make an effort to get off the beaten path and enjoy nature.

What I saw from the air was that every livable space was designed, pre-planned. Every place where I could take a step had been planned and designed for the movement of humans and human activity. There was no “free” space, no place that I could go that someone else–a thousand some one else’s–hadn’t already gone. I experienced my day to day world as a place where I decided where I would go, but in fact, my space, like my activities are programmed and structured by any number of systems and institutions around me. What I experience as freedom is really just a very large maze designed to engage me in pro-social choices, like going to work, buying consumer goods, and contributing to the tax base.

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It was with this fresh in my mind that I read an article about black women’s bodies by the fab Gail Dines. The article is a solid review of the “issue” of the black booty, placing hypersexual images of black women’s backsides in a historical context.  But Gail reports that the push back to her article comes from third wave feminists– women who care deeply about women’s rights and who believe it is a woman’s choice to use her body freely in any way she chooses, including using it in hypersexual displays, pornography, commodification, etc. Women do have the right to express themselves as they see fit. But critical thinking requires that we examine the result of that expression–especially when done in public for money.

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Can’t you just break out it of the chains of narrative and do what you like? Of course you can. You can do anything that you want. But while you are yelling, “Yolo!” and waving your shirt over your head–why not? you have the right to!–consider that if you do it in public–say, on camera–and you do it for money you have gone from just expressing your self to being a part of the massive chain of production that is media. And you don’t get to decide alone how people who see your tape will make sense of it. Mass media uses all kinds of visual and verbal codes to tell stories, frequently shuffling out old ideas from history dressed in new duds. Just like those paths I saw from the sky, we should understand that media messages travel along lines planned out before we were even here, referencing–and reinforcing– history, symbolic codes and dominant ideology.

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When it comes to Nicki Minaj, or any other recording artist for that matter, we have to remember that “she” is not simply the human born as Onkia Maraj , she is the commodified, processed version of herself, created by a multi-pronged corporate team and packaged for mass consumption in order to make a profit. Sure Onika is some part of that construction, but she and hundreds of other pop stars are part of a very large system, one designed for the primary purpose to make cash.

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The surest way for the pop industry to make money is to stick to the low-hanging fruit–sex, scandal, salaciousness. We are cheeky monkeys after all. When we see Nicki posing butt out, its not because her label said, “We want you to explore the deeper aspects of your sexuality in a way that gives voice to your womanhood.” They said, “Sex sells.”

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Her displays are calculated business maneuvers designed not by Minaj alone but by a team, one which she herself has said is mostly male. In fact, when the initial cover for her latest single Anaconda was released many were shocked, and Minaj tweeted out that the cover art would be changed. Hmmm, just like when Kanye West leaked his Monster video–where Minaj guest-spit–only to add a disclaimer to it after everyone was shocked by the content. Artistic freedom? Nope, just a clever marketing strategy to drive eyeballs pre-release.

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No doubt Nicki is an interesting artist and we can’t dismiss all of what she makes as sheer profiteering–but that Roman phase, tho, dismiss dismiss!  She is not always bubble gum barbie, and love her or hate her she is engaging to watch and super creative.  Beyond the mass marketed hits we occasionally glimpse other dimensions to the character Nicki Minaj, some unexpected, like this sweet video off her upcoming album The Pink Print with The Game.

Most of what we see from Minaj, though is hip-pop designed to reach a massive audience for maximum profit complete with wild outfits and an over the top persona.  What makes her popular is her mashed up expression of contemporary cultural tropes–sex, barbie and bubble gum raps

Think of this horrible idea for comedy: Russell Simmons produced this sketch where Harriet Tubman agrees to sleep with master in trade for cash. Hey, it was just an humorous expression playing with the narrative of slavery and redefining it, right? Nah. The skit was roundly condemned, and even Hustle had to apologize.

Propagating idea that slaves had agency in their own oppression via mass media is tricky to say the least:  even if you have the artistic right to play on old tropes, to do so for mass entertainment in a era still so rife with racism, keeping the old narrative alive in new clothes, is calculated profiteering at best and racist at worst.

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Leaving slavery days behind, we can look at our own post racial still racist world. Black women are free, have the vote, and are the fastest growing demo in college. Sounds pretty free right? The legacy of racial oppression in this country persists, despite the good news.  Nickki Minaj is popular in part because she represents typical media representation of black women–hyper sexual, wild and unpredictable.

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Few casual fans will even dig deep enough to find a more complex expressions of Nicki Minaj, leaving us simply with her most visible incarnation-a new era Jezebel.  Even as she talks about her new natural look, she reveals the calculated way that she thinks about her image, and that her previous incarnations are not a reflection of her playing with power, but masking insecurities.

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We black women are treading paths that have been set up in this country for centuries. Even as we choose new destinations, and walk with more power in our stride, we still live in a country rife with racial inequity. While many of us as individuals may have freed ourselves from slave mind, we live in a country where the image of blacks has been deeply carved in a fresco of oppression from slavery, through Jim Crow to our own modern, sublimated Jim Crow 2.0. We’re individuals and we live in a culture and are a part of democratic and capitalist systems at the same time. We can’t ignore the ways those levels constantly interact.  While the power of the individual has primacy in our culture, taking the macro view to better understand the paths that we’re treading will allow us to move off the paths of the past and blaze a truly new future.

You Can’t Handle the Twist

The Army wants you–as long as you don’t have a natural.  Even though the calendar reads 2014, and natural hair for black women is more popular than ever, here are the army’s updated hair rules.

This undated image provided by the US Army shows new Army grooming regulations for females. New Army regulations meant to help standardized and professionalize soldiers’ appearance is now coming under criticism by some black military women, who say changes in the requirement for their hair are racially biased. The Army earlier this week issued new appearance standards, which included bans on most twists, dreadlocks and large cornrows, all styles used predominantly by African-American women with natural hairstyles. More than 11,000 people have signed a White House petition asking President Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief, to have the military review the regulations to allow for “neat and maintained natural hairstyles.” (AP Photo/US Army)
This undated image provided by the US Army shows new Army grooming regulations for females. New Army regulations meant to help standardized and professionalize soldiers’ appearance is now coming under criticism by some black military women, who say changes in the requirement for their hair are racially biased. The Army earlier this week issued new appearance standards, which included bans on most twists, dreadlocks and large cornrows, all styles used predominantly by African-American women with natural hairstyles. More than 11,000 people have signed a White House petition asking President Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief, to have the military review the regulations to allow for “neat and maintained natural hairstyles.” (AP Photo/US Army)