It appears some folks still haven’t received the memo that it’s offensive to co-opt black culture as a means to conduct a social experiment.
The latest victim in this charade is a white woman who has decided to experiment with blackness in an unusual way. In her blog before and afro, Michelle Joni started rocking an afro to parties, networking events, etc. She attended a Fried Chicken extravaganza (no shit!) rocking her ‘fro and apparently reveled in the admiration of those who viewed her experiment as a novelty.
Of course, Joni did face some backlash. Hundreds of people let this white woman know her experiment was seeped in white privilege and appropriation. As expected, Joni defend her decision in a blog post entitled “My Faults.”
But now, after reading many comments and articles, the black experience intrigues me more than ever. On top of that, I can assure you that I have many intelligent friends, successful colleagues and thoughtful followers who also had no idea that any of this would be taken offensively, so I am happy bring it to light here.
I’ve spoken to a number of people of color about this in the past few days. I actually have a video of a handful of afro-rocking people who were really adamant that anyone should be able to wear an afro, wig or not, and I shouldn’t listen to people who tell me otherwise. (And dude, that’s pretty cool.) But I won’t post that here at this time, because being proven “right” is not the most important issue for me. People will always see and say what they will.
I’ve taken a friend’s recommendation and last night bought Assata Shakur’s biography, which I look forward to reading. I thank Kelly for her constructive suggestionsfor reading/viewing material – check it out. (If Good Hair would just come back to Netflix I’d have watched it weeks ago!) I commend 15-year-old Lola, wise beyond her years, for sharing her thoughts. My reader Limbo Scruffdork (make my day and tell me this is your real name) suggested, let’s open up the floor. What are some REAL Before and Afro journeys? Were you treated differently before and after relaxing your hair, getting a weave, or deciding to go natural? I think anyone would enjoy and benefit from hearing stories like this, and it’s a great idea. If you feel comfortable (as some of you mentioned you would be), please email me or share your stories below – would love to hear from you and spread a bit of the real deal.
Putting on an afro was never meant to lead to all this, but I think it’s quite important that it did. Like I said, every fault or weakness in any person is balanced out by some brilliant, positive trait. This may be a strange and contorted and slandering one, but I still believe it fits the theory.
All this being said, there is a very important issue here that still remains, and I’d like you to think outside the context of my blog:
Can the afro belong to any one group? As so many of you have pointed out, afros and kinky hair are part of nearly every culture. The fro was all the rage in the 70s. For perpetually straight-haired people who love the look of a beautiful bulbous coiffure framing their face, should they be ridiculed or denied because they’ve not experienced the struggles associated with the culture to which it is most strongly tied? And if someone wants to change their look with a wig on a whim – fro or bob, blonde, brunette or rainbow – should there be freedom to do so? And just because society says one way is better, is there no seeing outside of it?
In other words: Can’t we have Equal Hair Opportunity??
In two words: hell no.
First, this woman was completely out of line thinking she could wear an afro and somehow come to learn and understand what it’s like to live in a world that reminds you that your kinky hair is unkempt, hideous, dirty and not beautiful. White women will never be able to empathize with the plight of women of color as the white standard of beauty inherently validates their traits and livelihood.
Second, Joni’s appropriation of the afro is akin to a weekend trip to the exotic. While she believes she gaining valuable insight into the black experience, she is doing nothing more than making blackness something that she can try on for fun and toss aside when she’s had it with navigating the hassles of being a minority. Blackness is not something white people can just put on, parade around in and throw away when the novelty wears off. Blackness is an everyday facet of life for millions of people who don’t have the luxury to wrap themselves up in whiteness once life gets too goddamn hard.
Joni’s appropriation of the afro reduces the political and social power of the afro as being a symbol of rejection of repressive white beauty standards shoved down the throats of black women on a daily, relentless basis. The afro and wearing hair in its natural state is the only physical tool black women can own outright in an effort to reject harmful white beauty standards and this woman’s co-opt of that tool is a slap in the face to what we go through when we fight back against whiteness.
This woman’s experiment with the afro all but makes natural hair and blackness a commodity–something white folks can wear and show off when they are feeling adventurous.
Third, I’m glad random black folks told Joni she is well within her right to appropriate the afro in her efforts to understand blackness. However, it still doesn’t negate the fact that her blatant racist behavior is repulsive and sickening.
Fourth, me sharing my experiences with natural hair won’t help you empathize with what it’s like to be a black woman who has to navigate the oppressive nature of whiteness and white beauty standards. While I understand Joni wants to learn about the struggles black women have gone through in the face of whiteness, her automatic white privilege that makes it nearly impossible to understand the impact of the oppressive nature whiteness has on people of color.
The only way Joni will be able to begin to grasps what it means to be a person of color in a society that values and worships whiteness will be for her to reject, denounce and stand up to her white privilege; that means she has to understand that she can’t wear afros on a whim when she wants to use blackness as a social experiment.
Fifth, we can’t have equal hair opportunity. Kinky, nappy, natural hair has been devalued, decried, shaved, chemically relaxed and demonized in societies that puts whiteness and white beauty standards first. White women can not and will not understand what it’s like to sit under hot combs or spend hours in a beauty shop just to walk out into the sunshine with straight hair and smelling like chemicals. White women will never understand what it means to be rejected for a job because a black woman did not press her hair the night before an interview.
White women will never understand the hurt and pain black women feel when they see black men consciously reject them because of their nappy hair. White women will never understand what it feels like to have random people walk up and put their hands in your hair. White women will never understand how black women feel at the indignation and privilege people respond with when you tell them to keep their hands out of your hair. White women will never understand the stares, looks and insults black women receive from friends, family members and co-workers when we embrace and show off our kinky roots.
No matter how many times you wear your afro, Joni, you will never understand what it’s like to be natural. There will never be equal hair opportunity if whiteness and white beauty standards that uplift and validate your traits continue to prevail in society.
Now that I got all that out of my system, let me say this. I’m tired. I’m tired of white women cowering in corners of their minds, feigning shock and outrage once people of color point out their racial fallacies. I’m sick of white women, claiming to be down with us female darkies, running to the protection of their in-house black protectors they conveniently keep in their back pocket to validate they did nothing wrong. I’m tired of white women trying to mask their racism as pure intellectual curiosity.
While I’m sure that there are some folks out there who could give two shits about Joni’s publicity stunt, I do. While I’m sure Joni’s heart is in the right place, I can’t shake off the fact that her actions clearly indicate she is too seeped in her privilege to even think about how her appropriation of a sensitive topic could somehow reduce it to just a fad. I know there are some folks out there who want to tell me to just get over it and the afro is just another hair style. “It’s just hair!” I’m sure these apathetic souls would exclaim via Twitter, Facebook, etc.
If it’s just hair, why did Joni feel like she was conducting a social experiment? If it was just hair, why did Joni feel like she needed to blog about her journey? Did she think her whiteness would somehow give her a legitimate stake in the debate surrounding blackness? Joni’s blog is yet another reflection of how whiteness gives white people the authority to appropriate people of color, our cultures and traditions in an effort to explain our exotic ways to the masses and act as an ex-officio member of blackness.