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“When your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed.”: “Good Hair” and the black community

By February 9, 2010 8 Comments

A few months ago, comedian Chris Rock released a documentary that investigates the fanatical preoccupation with “good hair” in the black community. It’s a film that takes the viewers from neighborhood salons in Atlanta to rural villages of India, investigating the multibillion-dollar haircare industry. I’m a big fan of any documentary that examines the media and its influence on young women, and “Good Hair” was insightful, provocative and entertaining.

Just as Darryl Roberts’ documentary “America the Beautiful” comically tackled America’s obsession with bodily perfection, Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” comically tackles the black community’s obsession with impeccable locks. Rock talks to a wide variety of people, from celebrities like Raven Symone and Maya Angelou to everyday men, women, and high schoolers—none of whom think twice about getting a thousand-dollar weave or using relaxer in their hair. According to the documentary, worrying incessantly to make your ‘do “less black” is not just common in contemporary African-American culture—it’s expected.

The film focuses its attention on relaxer, the chemical used to make curly hair flawlessly straight. Celebs, like rap duo Salt ‘n Pepa and even the Reverend Al Sharpton, openly admit to using it. Relaxer has so much sodium hydroxide in it that it could potentially burn through one’s scalp, yet people continue to use it to achieve stick-straight hair. The documentary also explores the industry of weaves—wigs made of real hair that cost upwards of several thousands of dollars. These hair pieces, as the film points out, overwhelmingly come from Indian women who sacrifice their hair for religious purposes. The women who admit to wearing weaves show no shame around spending a month’s paycheck (or more) on a vanity item.

What causes this concern for perfect hair, the subjects say, is the desire to “look white.” Comedian Paul Mooney declares in an interview, “When your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” While seemingly outrageous, this claim is, sadly, probably true.

While I thought “Good Hair” was a fascinating and hilarious look at one aspect of black culture, I wish Rock had more carefully examined this insecurity of looking white. Is it bad? Dangerous? What causes it and how can we stop it? Even toddlers, yearning to have straight hair, get swept up in this physically and emotionally damaging cycle—one girl in the film, just four years old, was getting her hair relaxed. The movie ended up being a comedy that simply rolled its eyes at the issue. The message seemed to be “this is just how it is; you can’t change it.”

When I voiced this concern to an African-American former professor of mine (who rocks the natural ‘do), she told me matter-of-factly that “hair is to black women what weight is to white women.” That analogy is dead on, I thought. Obviously you can’t draw a line strictly down the middle, but just as black celebrities spend thousands on weaves and extensions, white celebrities grace the covers of tabloids after spending thousands on personal trainers and state-of-the-art diets. Both ideas of unachievable perfection trickle down to average women, women who believe this perfection must be the norm.

Have you seen “Good Hair?” What did you think? Are you a black woman, and do you feel an unstoppable necessity to make your hair look like something it’s not? Do you think the comparison between black women and hair and white woman and weight is a legitimate one? Why do black women seemingly desire to have “white” hair? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Kate