Last night on the Oscars edition of Fashion Police, Giuliana made a comment on Zendaya’s hair saying that she looks like she smells of Patchouli oil and weed. While she received a lot of backlash, a lot of people insisted that we were just overreacting to an innocuous comment. To truly understand the weight of Giuliana’s remark, we need to see it within the context of the politics of black hair. For us black people, our hair has never been just hair. The various textures of our hair have almost always meant the difference between ugly and beautiful, getting a job or being rejected, being considered professionally presentable or too unkempt, being respectable or too radical. I’m just going to present you with one example, one that I have never been able to forget.
In July 2008 right when Obama was first campaigning to become president, the New Yorker latest issue featured a drawing of Michelle and Barack Obama on the cover, in which Obama was dressed as a Muslim—terrorist, given the picture of Bin Laden hanging over the fire place—while Michelle has a gun hanging over her shoulder, and she is sporting a big Afro on her head.
The New Yorker received a great deal of backlash for this cover, which they insisted was “clearly a joke, a parody of these crazy fears and rumours and scare tactics about Obama’s past and ideology”. While I can certainly understand the satire behind the drawing, we must understand the context of this drawing and why it matters that lady Michelle is wearing an afro. The first lady is well-known for sporting slick tresses bouncing on top of her shoulders and it is in fact her trademark hairstyle. However, it looks like the New Yorker believed this type of hairstyle wasn’t going to do well in representing a black woman plotting with her terrorist husband. So to make her like an authentic radical woman looking for a great spot to place a bomb, they had to change her hair and give her an afro because that’s what dangerous black women wear. Our hair is never just hair. Our hair is a political statement of radical ideologies that threaten the security of this country.
That cover of the New Yorker is one that remains carved in my mind because it is a reminder that as black people we have to be hyper-aware of the way we walk through the world, always checking in to make sure our presence doesn’t feel too threatening, too rebellious. It’s almost like we exist as apologies while working overtime to placate possible concerns that we might not be the good kind of black. See, my hair is straight don’t worry I won’t steal anything in your store. See, I got a weave on please let me have this job I promise I’m professional. See, my dreads are well kept I swear I don’t smoke weed. Respectability politics are exhausting and exasperating.
If our afros aren’t making political statements, our children are being sent home because of their dreadlocks, Universities are banning our hair styles because they are supposedly not professional, and we are walking down red carpets so pop culture journalists can point out that we probably smell like weed simply based on a hairstyle. Our hair is never just hair.
The Zendaya incident is a reminder for us black women that nearly everything we do is political even when we don’t want to. Giuliana’s comment added to the long list of people who have a negative story attached to our hairstyles and frankly, it gets exhausting. But I encourage all of us to be unapologetic about the way we wear our hair and to love our hair abundantly. That self-love, that bold statement made with our kinks and dreads, is a quiet revolution but an important one. Our hair is never just hair. I leave you with Zendaya’s class act of a response below.
Isabelle Masado writes about body compassion on her blog "The Dear Body Project". She knows all too well that the personal is the political, is the community. As such, there is no discussing body compassion without talking about the assault on black bodies, trans women, and people with disabilities. Her mantra is, "How can I live in a way that makes room for you too"? She writes to examine, to heal, to redeem.