What Do You Know About Black Girl's Hair?
The Stories I Have to Tell
It felt like a record scratch when Sarah abruptly asked me if she could touch my hair. She gawked at me as though I were an exotic zoo animal, and the tone in her voice stung with an antagonizing fascination.
I granted her permission to touch my hair.
From the perspective of a black girl in the 7th grade, raised in a white community, this moment was an echo of my insecurities and exceeded the expectations of embarrassment. For me, this confrontation of racial differences became a moment of reinforced inferiority, acting as a souvenir of my reduced place in our community. A community with nearly nonexistent racial diversity, contained in a binary realm of black and white.
This adolescent encounter fed on the internalized white supremacy that has infected black people across generations . An infection that convinced me to feel lesser than her because my skin was darker, and my hair did not look like hers. It reminded me that, even though this was the place I was born and raised, because I was black, I was considered a tourist – a foreign language from a distant land that seemed irrelevant and unnecessary to learn. While, because Sarah was white, she was considered a local and people like her were the local language everyone seemed to know and accept.
I stood there resembling a dog on a leash, dignity diminished, while she petted the top of my head. Two others braved to touch my hair with the tip of their fingers, not unlike a child poking at an insect, which only accentuated my oddities and enhanced the indignity. Once the petting concluded, Sarah declared that my hair was softer than she thought it would be. I was not sure what that meant nor was I sure how I felt about it, so I said nothing. They jested about my hair for a few more moments. Eventually, some other subject fell victim to their attention, and I was no longer the object of fascination.
Although the moment passed quickly, it was a lasting addition to the inferiority complexes that followed me into adulthood. Over ten years later, in the wake of our 45th president taking office, I found myself in a discussion about the varying racial attitudes in America, and how many people believe black oppression no longer exists. I told the story of Sarah touching my hair to make a point; outside of large cities and biased media coverage, racial inequality is thriving. As my coworker and I talked about what that embarrassing moment meant to me, the conversation directed us to an illuminating question: If the situation were reversed, and Sarah was in a circle with all black children, would the black children find her hair just as foreign and exotic?
What did I know about white girl’s hair?
It quickly manifested that I knew a lot.
It appeared that media and consumerism provided me with all the information I could need. From shampoo and hair product commercials I knew how white women wash and dry their hair. From Barbies and other dolls, I knew the texture and feeling of white hair. I knew what happens to their hair when it gets wet and how to resolve tangles. I knew what kind of brushes they use as well as what products will have what effect. I knew that their hair is cut while it is wet. From movies, like Legally Blonde, I even knew what happens when a white girl’s hair is permed. I may not have been an expert, but even in 7th grade, white hair was certainly not a foreign concept to me.
In opposition, there was nothing to inform white girls on black girl’s hair. There were no commercials showing how black women actually treat their hair. There were no Barbie dolls that simulated real black hair like mine. There were no movies or TV shows to reveal the intricacies, strains and timidities that accompany black hair care. There was no Rosetta Stone program or app to learn the distinct language that is a black girl’s hair.
I resolved the answer to my coworker’s question was no. With an abundance of knowledge about white hair provided by media and other channels, I do not believe the black children in Jacksonville would find anything foreign, exotic or abnormal about white hair. I also concluded that Sarah most likely did not have any knowledge about or cultural respect for black hair, inevitably leading her to see black hair as a foreign concept.
A deficiency of black presence in the media discourages interracial acceptance, while, in Jacksonville, denying white children experience with, or the opportunity to learn about, black people and black culture at an early age. Causing white children to, even subconsciously, visualize white as normal and comfortable, while internalizing black as foreign and unapproachable. Contributing to a “prejudice based on skin tone, usually with a marked preference for lighter-skinned people” defined by Kaitlyn Greenridge as colorism. This deficiency then feeds the infection of internalized white supremacy within black children. Resulting in black and white children developing an endogenous sense of “us” and “them.”
In my hometown of Jacksonville, many systems of segregation are embedded within institutions ranging from schools and sports teams to churches and places of employment. Exemplifying racial boundaries for white children while fostering negative self-perception amid black children. The combination of segregation, internalized inferiority and unequal media representation, provide an impeccable petri dish in which racial complexes can mature. In their article, “The Influence of Internalized Racism on the Relationship Between Discrimination and Anxiety”, authors Sosoo, Bernard and Neblett suggest:
While black students are exploring and making sense of their identity, they are also navigating unique stressors that may lead to the internalization of negative race-related messages and detract from positive psychological development …This is especially important to consider for Black emerging adults attending predominantly White institutions who must contend with race-related stressors (e.g., negative stereotypes) within settings in which they are underrepresented.
Local segregation instills power, while biased media affords privilege, providing the two “necessary components of oppression” (David, Schroeder, Fernandez 1058). An environment such as Jacksonville, coalescing the aforementioned factors, allows internalized racial oppression to fester among black children, permitting white power structures to remain intact over generations.
This embarrassing moment became one of the many chisels that molded my self-esteem and deformed my self-perception. Growing up in Jacksonville, I experienced daily racial oppression and local segregation, acquiring severely underdeveloped self-confidence. It was only when I removed myself from that stagnant binary realm, that I began to believe I was not completely powerless. The governing power structures in Jacksonville are contingent on the isolation available in rural Illinois. After emerging from that isolation, I felt, for the first time, that I was authorized to grow as a black woman and became driven by a sense of racial freedom I had never known before.
When I was in 7th grade, I could not understand the deleterious systems of white power existing, both in and out, of Jacksonville, crafting the perfect conditions for the racially charged encounter I experienced. Once my own story was dissected, I comprehended more clearly the crippling role media representation plays in supporting the secluded white power structures and systems that reign over Jacksonville. In this instance, media has fueled the racial boundaries in Jacksonville by fostering unequal racial knowledge between white and black people, while normalizing the white and light skin superiority that is established within the community. Just one example of how media influence can standardize racial preference and nurture negative self-evaluation.
My experiences living in Jacksonville are not unique. Ripple effects from unequal representation reverberate through and reconstruct the lives of black people in many rural communities like mine. I was afforded liberation from societal isolation releasing me to emend manipulated mental complexes. However, this cessation is unique. It is imperative to acknowledge the social injustices happening in autonomous communities like Jacksonville. Racism can assume many forms and, not unlike a virus, can adapt to changing environments. In Jacksonville, racism has adapted to rural isolation and taken nourishment from generational oppression. Mutating into a society that is immune to social change and exempt from the consequences of injustice. Racism still exists and racism still thrives.