Community is important. Black spaces are important, and in the era of self-proclaimed “New Blacks” and the gentrification of both Black popular culture and neighborhoods, they are increasingly rare. So when the sacred sanctity of Black Girl Space was violated via the inclusion of a White woman on a natural hair blog, it should come as no surprise that a number of people were disappointed. And I'll admit, I was one of them.
First, let me acknowledge the beauty, power and significance of seeing Black women embracing the concept of natural hair by the droves. The idea that our hair requires alteration by damaging relaxers and heat styling is but one of tragic White supremacist myths we’ve internalized and the further we get from there, the better. Furthermore, the community that has been fostered by sisters (both on and offline) over this rebirth of Black hair is beautiful, to say the least.
However, I’ve had some conflicted feelings about the natural hair movement for quite some time and this recent feature on Nikki Walton's wildly-popular Curly Nikki site highlighting the hair journey of a White woman brings my biggest complaint about so much of what has come to define this cultural phenomenon to light.
I’ve been surprised and disappointed to see how much of the natural hair movement has centered on “curly” hair, when that isn’t hardly the most common hair type among our people. Until recently, due largely to the efforts of bloggers/vloggers like Jouelzy and the team at 4C Hair Chick, who have taken up the charge of highlighting kinkier hair textures, there has been too much visual representation of sisters who have what has been described as “multicultural hair.” No shade to biracial women or those of us who get asked “What are you mixed with?” because of their hair texture, but the natural hair movement is at its most powerful when it encourages sisters to celebrate all our biologically-determined hair textures, not just the ones seen in rap videos.
To be fair to Walton, her site is not about Black hair or Black power. The "About" page states "CurlyNikki.com was created to serve as an online 'hair therapy session' for those struggling to embrace their naturally curly hair." Her mission is clear: affirming those who wish to embrace a certain hair texture. But I think it's worth considering what sort of precedent could be set here if more bloggers embrace an inclusive approach to natural hair.
This is the era of ‘total market’ America and when culture starts making dollars, it starts losing sense. So it should not come as a surprise that curly hair can be positioned as a rallying point that unifies women of different races underneath the banner of giving hair care companies our money, and giving financial opportunities to content creators who are willing to expand their audience beyond the Black women who made them relevant in the first place. Personally, I don’t expect hair bloggers to be Black Nationalist feminists simply because they rock Afros, but I do hope they all know the consequences that often befall folks who cease to dance with the folks who brought them to the party. Hair is emotional territory for many Black women and while we may be able to share products with White women, we needn’t share a movement that should be centered on overcoming the unique challenges that are thrown our way because of White people.
Throughout our time in this country, we have created culture and space where we are able to affirm and uplift ourselves in face of efforts to quell our creativity, destroy our spirits and control our bodies. Today, though our access to the world around us has expanded tremendously, we are consistently being told that we are unable to have anything to ourselves—and that everything we create is not simply ripe for integration, but rather, appropriation and domination by Whiteness. Our music, our fashions, our foods, everything that is uniquely ours is seized upon until it is no longer uniquely ours. Imagine if America loved Black people as much as it loves the products of Black labor. We wouldn’t have to plead a case for reparations, they’d be directly deposited on the 1st and 15th from the National Bank of W.E.B. DuBois.
But let’s go back to hair, something that is seen as trivial by those who’ve never struggled with it (and even by Black men who’d never let their hair grow more than ½ an inch, but don’t think they have any hair issues.) It’s real cute to have a White girl on a natural hair blog, because diversity! But what happens when all that advertiser revenue and all those cool perks and opportunities that are currently afforded to a handful of Black bloggers start going elsewhere? When someone who doesn’t look like us becomes the biggest Bantu Knot and braid-out expert on YouTube?
Being a White woman with curly hair, or freckles, or who wears a “plus” size may come with the challenge of not seeing oneself reflected consistently and adequately in the mainstream media’s uber-limiting beauty standards. That does not negate the need for Black women (or Asian women, or Latino women…) to have spaces from which we are protected from the White gaze and able to do and be US. The idea that Sarah’s hair journey would provide her entry to what seemed like a safe place for Black women, under the tag “natural hair icon” is almost comical (her journey to accepting her hair texture basically involved her going from wearing a bun to wearing her hair down), and certainly sad. Her response to critics on Twitter makes it even clearer that she really needn’t sit with us:
Those that are claiming I shouldn't have been on the blog because I'm white are being exclusive. The word natural has existed4 a long time.
— Sarah @:-) (@waterlily716) June 29, 2014
Because how dare Black women be exclusive? How dare anything be for us?
Alas, Curly Nikki is obviously not a Black woman’s space and it’s not my job to tell its creator that it has to be one (nor does that mean that it can’t be a source of affirmation for Black women.) However, I think we all need to consider the need for us to have places that we go to that are exclusive, be they physical, via technology or otherwise. We often confuse integration with equality and acceptance, when we are so often the ones who find ourselves left out in the cold. I assure you that a White woman with silky, curly hair will be just fine if we’d rather keep our hair chatter to ourselves.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com's Senior Editor. Views expressed here are her own.