Dispatches from Nappyville: WTF, NPR? Way to totally mischaracterize discussions about black women, hair and Michelle Obama

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

That Farai Chideya is no longer holding it down at NPR’s “News & Notes” is abundantly clear. Yesterday’s “News & Notes” segment–” The Obama Effect on Black Women’s Hair Issues–was some serious insipid nonsense. Since the dawning of the Obama era, I’ve sensed a disturbing trend in coverage of black women’s issues by mainstream media. Having a black First Lady seems to have inspired the media to take some notice of the unique lives of African American women. Good. Problem is, the gently increased coverage is shallow and inconsequential, and often has the feel of detached voyeurism–academically peering at the exotic world and strange habits of black women (oddly, this is so, even when the work is presided over by black women). A product of these travel guides to Blackchicksylvania is the “Lawd, us black wimmin’s hair sho is complicated” story, which usually includes the meme that Michelle Obama’s hair is a hot topic among black women. And so goes the “News & Notes” piece by Allison Samuels, featuring celebrity stylist Marcia Hamilton.

Listen.

Says Samuels, “We now have an African American president, with an African American wife and two African American daughters. So now we talk a lot about hair–things we probably didn’t talk about when we had First Ladies who were not African American. So, the conversation has gone from one end to the other. Should Michelle wear more natural hair? Should she cut her hair? Should she have a perm? Should she press and curl? Why do we have such an obsession, even now, in 2009, with black women and hair?”

First, I would love to know where these purported conversations about Michelle Obama’s hair are taking place. Where is this obsession with her tresses flowering? So far, I’ve seen several articles about the phenomenon (I believe Salon has peddled it, too.), but have yet to experience it among any, y’know, actual black women. As far as I can tell, in real life, no one is riding Michelle to bust out the cornrows at the next State dinner. (According to Samuels, black female bloggers are calling for Michelle and her daughters to be champions of black hair. Why’s everybody got to blame the bloggers these days? I’m plugged into the top black blogs and haven’t seen any such discussion percolating. Hmmmm.)

Now, there has been some discussion about how the politics of black hair might effect the politics of the nation. It is no coincidence that when Michelle Obama was portrayed as a radical on the cover of The New Yorker, the cartoonist drew her with a big ass afro. And many nappies have noted that Barack Obama may not have been elected president if the woman at his side had been rocking twists or locs. Natural, black hair is demonized in our society. People often attach meaning to it where none exists. I assume that Michelle Obama likes her hair just fine. But anyone with a lick of sense should understand why the styles she chooses tend to be straight and conservative. If I were Michelle Obama and my spouse were a black man seeking the highest office in the land in a country still struggling with racial bias, I’m pretty sure that I’d wear a flattering, conservative, straight style, too. Not to mention the look she had to maintain while climbing the corporate ladder herself.

Recognizing the politics involved in Michelle Obama’s appearance is not the same as calling for her to be the poster child for nappydom. Although you all know I advocate natural hair, I recognize that the decision to wear it is not one to be taken lightly. As much as I might like to see more black women decide that nappy is beautiful and professional and elegant, I’m not about forcing my choices on other women when I won’t be the one living with the consequences.

Many black women have fraught relationships with their hair because we are the only race of women who are expected to change the natural properties of our natural hair to be deemed acceptable–professionally and personally. Rather than discuss this in a meaningful way, Samuels and Hamilton normalize the pathology surrounding black women’s hair.

Some choice quotes from the report:

“Our hair needs certain enhancements…”

“Black female hair can’t handle the stress of ‘getting done’ every day…”

“Don’t all little black girls get their hair straightened on special occaisions?”

“In our community, straight hair represents a more polished look.”

There is a lot of discussion about the damage created by heat and manipulation to achieve straight styles a la Beyonce…the need for weaves and extentions…and some offhand acknowlegement that the deifying of straight hair is a learned societal value, but the conversation never comes back around to the ridiculousness of black women having to go to such great lengths to be accepted. No one ever brings up this simple fact:

Black hair can be styled every day and maintained with ease if it is worn as it is naturally meant to be.

White women’s hair would be deemed “difficult” too if society suddenly decided that ponytails and straight bobs are “radical” and “too ethnic,” and only tightly-kinked hair is acceptable. If white women had to use chemicals and extreme lengths to maintain afros or kinky twists, then people might roll their eyes and snicker “you know white women and their hair,” too.

But Samuels and Hamilton position straightening and weaving as simply what we have to do to look good. Even as they decry the idea of “good” hair, they also dish about special suppliers that provide the best Indian hair for high-quality weaves, stashing your weave in the glove compartment of your car in case you need it (Huh?) and Hamilton actually suggests that men wanting a black woman with real hair “go to Africa.” She then acknowleges that even women in Africa are wearing weaves. (Yippee! Sarcasm.)

I am offically over the Michelle Obama/hair discussion. If we can’t have a real talk about black hair, then let’s not have one at all, particularly in the mainstream media. And let’s leave Michelle Obama out of it. With her fierce intelligence and accomplishments, there is so much more that she can be to our country and the black community than our “Great Black [Hair] Hope.”