The Black Commentator: An independent weekly internet magazine dedicated to the movement for economic justice, social justice and peace - Providing commentary, analysis and investigations on issues affecting African Americans and the African world.
Jul 1, 2010 - Issue 382

Straight Hair, Flat Culture:
Fear and Loathing of Black Sexuality
By David Masciotra Guest Commentator



“The girls from Rutgers…they got (sic) tattoos and…them some (sic) nappy headed hos, and the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute,” Don Imus, much to his pain more than anyone else’s, said in a now infamous rant that got him suspended from radio and expelled from MSNBC. By now, the Imus “controversy” has been dissected, debated, and deconstructed to the point of nausea. However, there still remains a peculiar absence of any acknowledgement that Imus spoke for millions when he reinforced, albeit crudely and hatefully, the white beauty standards that still largely dominate American culture, and produce a myriad of less obvious, but equally cruel and hateful consequences. Almost all critics and commentators, even Al Sharpton, focused primarily on the word “ho” and its degrading, dehumanizing implications when condemning the radio shock jock.

The persistence and permeation of white beauty standards runs so long and wide that even those most incensed by Imus could not comprehend what he was talking about. The “ho” label, despite being the most loaded and offensive term of the sentence, is a distraction. What he really means when he identifies tattoos and, most importantly, “nappy” hair is rough, ragged; ugly. Many of the female players on Tennessee’s team were also black, yet according to Imus’ racially colored lens, which is shared by many who express it in milder language; they were “cute” because they had straight hair, and lighter, inkless skin. In a word, they were much “whiter.” The fact that this part of the scandal was not discussed on mainstream television demonstrates that the dominant culture largely agrees with the distinction that Imus made between the opposing college basketball teams, so much so that it never occurs to anyone to even question it. Notable exceptions like social critic Michael Eric Dyson, analyzed the white beauty standard aspect with clarity and brilliance, but the crux of his analysis and those that were similar were relegated to small internet publications, moderately popular radio broadcasts, or Dyson’s collection of interviews, Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop.

The clearest signal of white beauty standards was the word “nappy,” which for decades has meant “black” and “unattractive.” Cultural resistance to nappy hair has a long and harmful history. From painful procedures in beauty shops to the $45.6 million (excluding Wal-Mart) yearly sales of home relaxers, the painful pressure of conformity to white cultural norms is visible in the black community. Many black women wage their own personal protest by going natural, and pegging their sisters who straighten as “sell outs.” Ingrid Banks, professor of black studies at University of California Santa Barbara, summarized the hair dilemma succinctly, “For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Lose-lose situations where the costs always equal damnation are common for women who have progressed to a point where their talents, intelligence, and character rightfully earn them slots of leadership in politics, business, academia, etc., but must walk a tightrope where gender roles are confused and misogyny operates as an undertow, rather than a tsunami. Women pursue professional excellence, but must also appease the sensibilities of men who are falling behind in education and achievement. They still must carry themselves with sex appeal, but want to be recognized as more than mere sex objects. Many of these externally enforced, internally fought conflicts are in their elderly years, but they take on new drama and stakes for contemporary women who, for the first time, are surpassing men in many professional and educational fields. The dualistic urges to succeed and conform, which often are complementary in the boardroom and nightclub, manifest in expensive medical bills for irreversible procedures. Black women are paying for nosejobs to make their noses thinner, and Asian women are having their eyes widened. This may seem extreme, but it is increasingly common. It is also a sad indication of how limited progress can be, if not in monetary terms, then at least psychological terms. One of the most repulsive and repeatedly discussed consequences of unrelenting social pressure on women is the skeletal shape that many actresses, pop stars, and twenty-somethings starve themselves to have. Formerly sexy women like Teri Hatcher, Nicole Kidman, and Angelina Jolie have transformed themselves from pinups to cautionary posters against eating disorders.

The bag of bones aesthetic precedes Hollywood, and has moved from the runway to the silver screen. Despite the fame and fortune of supermodels Tyra Banks, Naomi Campell, and Iman, fashion has long been dominated by white choreographers and catwalkers. At New York City Fashion week in 2010, only 16 percent of runway models were non-white. Hollywood, which has a history of white beauty dominance, is now taking full instruction from the ultimate bastion of white aesthetic norms, which has a record of diversity that compares only to the academy and the US Senate. The skinniness sensation sweeping schools and studios, therefore, is the culmination of white beauty standard hegemony. Taken to its logical extreme, white cultural expectations and social pressures of conformity are best represented by women whose flat hair rests on top a shapeless, curveless, flat frame. The woman most glamorized and idealized by fashion and Hollywood is an odd mutation—a once vibrant, vital, and vivacious beauty whose sexual powers have been steadily and slowly diluted until she becomes a lifeless-looking creature. Biologists have studied the basis of men’s attraction to hourglass figures and have closely connected it with the reproductive potential of women with said shapes. Females who cultivate figures that resemble the index finger of a giant look woefully unprepared to reproduce, yet manage to symbolize the determinative power of social values by repudiating biology. Despite the fact that many men prefer healthy bodies over emaciated ones, women, and more frequently teenage girls, use pop culture as a dietary and stylistic guide.

The most highly visible resistance to the established social order of white and bulimic beauty standards, which also has a wider influence than any well-intentioned, but irrelevant women’s studies lectures, comes from the strongest expression of black culture in the pop world that is at once celebrated and demonized: hip hop. If the idealized and glamorized extreme of white beauty standards is a sexless and shapeless stick figure, then the queen of the hip hop community is a sexual powerhouse. She is curvaceous and voluptuous—tough and titillating. Thicker thighs, wider hips, and larger breasts are the marks of attractiveness, but none equal the bouncing, bountiful booties, which have been the subject of silly songs (“Baby Got Back”) and the dehumanizing prop for vulgar videos (“Tip Drill”). Hip hop elevates and amplifies, with arguable effectiveness and ambiguous consequences, the young, black, urban voice to a place of a prominence in a culture that seeks to silence that voice at every political, social, and educational turn. It also projects black beauty standards onto a national screen where they can be juxtaposed against the corrosive concepts of beauty on the white side. Comparing two attractive, talented, and intelligent women from their respective quarters makes the juxtaposition difficult to ignore. Gwyneth Paltrow is beautiful, but Beyonce is a sexual stimulus bill—injecting new life into the male libido and imagination.

Ideally, there would be sufficient room to desire and respect Paltrow and Beyonce in both the male mind and pop culture. The friendly coexistence of Paltrow, and those who resemble her, and Beyonce, along with similar stars, demonstrates that the sexual and cultural world is indeed big enough for both of them. However, it becomes difficult to delight in the harmony once one realizes that women, most especially the young, without millions of dollars and millions of fans increasingly feel as if they must choose one model to follow, and the choice is often dictated by anything but their own autonomy and identity. On psychological battlefields in high schools and nightclubs there exists a war between the physical expressions of femininity found in hip hop and fashion magazines. The former is saner, sexier, and healthier, but the ladder seems to be winning. Even so, young women and the adults who care about them should take comfort in hip hop’s capacity to grant acceptance and affirmation to women who, perhaps because of genetics of their own politics of style, look in the mirror and see full thighs, wide hips, and an apple bottom. Self-confidence, self-respect, and self-love are critical for all people, but they are of immeasurable importance to young women who are in the process of discovering their own sexuality—many of whom are black and before hip hop had no pop cultural projection of their beauty. In this respect, even the most degrading and demeaning depictions of women in hip hop unknowingly serve a feminist and egalitarian end. They confront narrow and hurtful white beauty standards and allow women who will not or cannot conform to those standards to see themselves in the lusted after and fought for vixens of rap videos. Enabling women to value themselves as they are has always been one of the noblest goals of feminism, and hip hop, despite all of its obvious and serious sins, fills that function for many women, especially those of color.

The appreciation of black bodies, in a culture that often insults or ignores them, expressed by hip hop may be vulgar, but it is also unique—unique enough for many black women to overlook the chauvinistic objectification of women that too often accompanies that appreciation. This is not to imply that many black women, from public figures to private citizens, do not radically protest the consistency of degrading, demeaning and dehumanizing presentation of women in rap videos and lyrics. Maya Angelou said “vulgarity is vulgarity” when Russell Simmons came to hip hop’s defense during the Imus controversy, and went on to put the disrespect of black women on BET and MTV in a sociological context: “Black women, because we are last on the totem pole, everyone has a chance to take us on.”

Angelou’s indignation is well-founded and with merit. However, the flaw in her critique is a failure to acknowledge that hip hop is a diverse form of artistic and musical expression that is not always best represented on popular radio and in music videos. Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kwali, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, and Public Enemy are just a handful of the rap artists who place sophisticated social commentary at the center of their rhymes, and in doing so, refuse to suffocate women under the cruel cover of “hos” and “bitches.” Hip hop manages to both celebrate black beauty and objectify black women because it plays with the ancient Jezebel stereotype, which posits that black women are savagely salacious. English colonists were the first to depict black women—in their case Africans who participated in tribal dances and wore native, revealing clothing—as psychotically sexual. English rockers, The Rolling Stones, served their racially foolish ancestors well when they sang on “Some Girls,” “Black women just want to get fucked all night.” To be fair to Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, the 1978 bluesy rock tune presents every racial and ethnic group in crudely stereotypical fashion, which is the joke of the song: “English girls they’re so prissy, Chinese girls are so gentle,” etc.

When it comes to artistic expressions of the black-women-as-Jezebel stereotype there is perhaps none more revealing, complicated, or complex than that found in Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel, Heart of Darkness. The novel’s protagonist, Charles Marlow, travels to Africa on an assignment from a Belgian trading company and is stunned when her first lays eyes on the gloriously beautiful African woman:

From right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman. She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earthy proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it has been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

Marlow turns the woman into a symbol of the undeveloped jungle—something that is exciting and inviting for wild exploration, yet is untamed and desperately needs the supervisory control of educated and elite white men. The woman never speaks in Heart of Darkness. She is silenced and the only portrayal readers are given is that which comes from Marlow. It is crucial to the colonist operation to silence the land, along with its defenders, so that it may be exploited, just as it is crucial to the chauvinist agenda to silence the woman so she may too be exploited. Autonomous and independent female voices are difficult to find in hip hop, and the same can be said for all of the media and pop culture. Therefore, nearly the only portrayal of black women in pop culture comes from modern Marlows in hip hop, who paint the female as simultaneously “savage and superb.” Echoes of Conrad can be heard in rap songs, and shades of Marlow’s “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman” can be seen on beachfronts, dance floors, and boat decks for hours at a time on MTV, BET, and YouTube. The uplifting presentation, found in both Conrad and hip hop, of black women as “magnificent” is undermined by the hurtful relegation of that magnificence to what Michael Eric Dyson calls the “crotch politics” or male rappers. It is an old story—unlettered, untamed, and undeveloped the black woman is only good for one thing and the story has been viciously told for centuries. Although it may appear that the story has not changed from 1902, the year that Heart of Darkness was published, to the present, there is one meaningful and critical social and cultural difference. The hair.

English colonists saw African afros and Conrad describes the glorious and wild woman’s hair as “done in the shape of a helmet.” European helmets circa in the early twentieth century stood much higher than modern helmets, which makes the description even more applicable to the straight versus natural dilemma facing modern black women. Conrad’s African woman, as described by Marlow, could not be more natural. She is at one with nature—its symbol, representation, and product. Her hair is an important signifier of her relationship with and connection to the “fecund and mysterious life” of the jungle. The sexuality tangled in her hair, therefore, becomes a vital part to the mystery and sensuality of the woman’s appeal. Unfortunately, it is also central to ethnocentric savage quality that Marlow describes her as possessing, or as he more likely meant it, being possessed by. The possessed and possessive sexual dichotomy is represented perfectly by the wild afro. Its undirected fury possesses the woman because it signifies an utter lack of control, yet the hair, obviously, belongs to the woman that it punctuates. She chooses to wear it that way, and can thereby be said to possess it. Wildness becomes dictated, and the chaos is controlled. What appears to be a lack of authority over her hair is actually a voluntary submission, which ends up giving her greater power because it enables her to rebel rather than conform and markedly break with social convention. African women at the turn of the nineteenth century were not aware of the sociological statement of style, and, due to their isolation and absence of televisual media, had no conception of the symbolic weight sitting on top of their heads. Modern black women are aware of the sociological statement and do comprehend the symbolism, which is exactly why it is nearly impossible to find a nappy, natural fro in hip hop videos.

While the sexualized subjects of hip hop may have dark skin and fuller frames that divide them from white beauty standards, they also almost always have straight hair. Video vixens adopt that one crucial white norm and reveal that even in hip hop aesthetic pressures of conformity have their reach. Male rappers borrow their fashion sense—sagging pants, shoes without laces, etc.—directly from prison, where regulation is the ultimate trendsetter, and defy social expectation and convention in the most visible way possible—by adopting and making outlaw chic.

Women, on the other hand, are only allowed to break with convention when it surrenders to a lustful male agenda. The elevation of black beauty standards to a place of sexual prominence is not carried out to celebrate black women, but to arouse the men who prefer those standards over those enforced by the dominant culture. Throughout commercial hip hop, as is the case with most pop culture, there is the expectation and requirement that women behave sexually. However, feminine sexuality, while put on up front display, must be subservient to the male libido and easily controlled by masculine forces. The near universality of straight hair on video models is emblematic of male control over female bodies and the abusive relationship that exists between commerce and sexuality. Video models who submit to social pressure, from male rappers and their record company executives, to straighten their hair surrender something important, but unlike the woman who encourages her hair to expand, the surrender is involuntary. It is externally enforced by greedy and chauvinistic parties who seek to commodify the female body. Essential to the process of commodification is the silencing of women within the community. They must become mere props and visual aids of male expression. Just as the “jungle woman” is prohibited from speaking in Heart of Darkness, the straight-haired Jezebel wears tape over her mouth in rap. It is illustrative and illuminating that many of the females in hip hop who have artistic autonomy and authority—Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Angie Stone, and sometimes Beyonce—wear their hair in a naturally big and bold style.

Certainly, not all black women—in recording studios, boardrooms, or nightclubs—who straighten are cooperating with social and cultural pressures to abide by white beauty standards. Many of them may simply like the look better, and contrary to what more militant advocates of natural hair claim, this preference does not make them “sell outs.” However, when fashion, hip hop, and Hollywood seem to require black women to wear straight hair like they would a standard issued uniform, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find aesthetic independence, one cannot help but become suspicious.

The suspicion should be aimed at American mainline culture and its general treatment of black sexuality. There is much to be said for a cultural representation of black women that is either invisible or ignoble that hip hop, even with all of its misogyny and mistreatment of women, emerges as an unlikely and weird bastion of black beauty.

A great deal can of this cruel and contemptible status quo can be traced to common cultural and sociopolitical force in American life: fear. Fear of black people has driven residential preferences of average Americans, entire campaigns in American politics, and nearly everything in between. Since black people are the objects of such terror, it should be little surprise that the narrative regarding black sexuality is rooted in racial stereotype and driven by ugly paranoia. Political leaders, law enforcement officials, and media heavyweights have all built a history of depicting the black male as a ravenous sexual predator who must be stopped, with violence if necessary, from brutalizing innocent and unsuspecting white women. Many black males, some of whom were children, were murdered at the hands of angry mobs or unprosecuted criminals for committing the offense of flirting, smiling, or in some cases just looking at a white woman. The still shocking murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till is the most infamous case of killing done in the name of protecting white women from black monsters. Till had the temerity to allegedly whistle at a white woman. In 1915, the film Birth of a Nation lionized the Ku Klax Klan as American heroes for preventing psychotic black males on a rampage from raping white women. President Wilson hosted a screening of the film in the White House. Not too long after that marijuana was criminalized for a variety of absurd reasons, one of which was stated by Harry Anslinger, the acting drug czar, as “it causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” These are three particularly illustrative examples in a long and well-known history of the demonization campaign of black sexuality. The black male is routinely portrayed as a loathsome lothario or mindless predator that preys on the epitome of innocence—the white woman.

If the white woman represents uncorrupted beauty and moral purity, the black woman is certainly emblematic of something else. She must match the black man in her commitment to subscribing to senseless sexual impulses. However, she cannot be seen as predatory, because that would give her too much power. The Jezebel stereotype functions perfectly in this respect, which is why it is so persistent. It turns the black woman into a cartoon. She is highly sexual, and just as thoughtless as the black male, but she is also powerless, easily manipulated and appropriated as personal property. She can be molded and modeled into a mannequin for male pleasure. The straight hair that results from social pressure most clearly captures this molding and modeling process. It shows, literally, how the dominant culture can force its own values and standards on marginalized human beings. The black women who are allowed to escape marginalization typically showcase the values and standards of white culture without trying. Halle Berry, Thandie Newton, and Rihanna all have on thing in common. They look white. They have light skin, white features and, of course, straight hair.

The beauty and sensuality of the black woman—light skinned, dark skinned, straight haired, froed—should be obvious to everyone in a digitalized, televisual age, much more to those who have had the privilege of befriending or dating them. The black woman, despite her beauty, brains, and bravery, has been forcibly exiled to the lowest sociological position in America. But, rather than resign to helpless victimhood, she often carries herself with earned elegance that results from maintaining strength in moments of struggle. She mothers in the neighborhood where altruistic love is devalued and undermined by selfish fathers and self-absorbed political institutions. She prays in the pews of churches where a fraternal order of pastors are willing to take their money, but not ordain them. She studies in schools where she is not expected to succeed and labors in jobs where she is not wanted. She does it all with politics of style and substance—cultivating pride and beauty, while actively resisting harassment, disrespect, and subjugation.

Black women execute this everyday heroism with a variety of hair styles. But, the one that wears the wild fro gives a powerful visual aid to demonstrate her rejection of what is asked, expected, and often demanded of them by a culture that forces them to subsist on low wage jobs in the inner cities, makes them work twice as hard as everyone else in the middle class, and routinely demeans and degrades them with the schizophrenic message that they can never be as beautiful as white woman, but should try to be by conforming to white norms, and in the process recognize that their sexuality is the only thing about them that counts. It is little wonder why “nappy headed” women cannot be tolerated in Hollywood, fashion, or hip hop. They are walking contradictions to the dogmatic decrees of the powerful. The protest of black women without straight hair may be only symbolic. But if symbolic protests are celebrated, it won’t be long until substantive protests are coordinated. If black women see natural hair elevated to its rightful place of sexiness and style, alongside straight hair, more of them may demand that the single mothers wrestling with poverty, professionals facing condescension and low expectations, and students with every obstacle in front of them find room on the same elevator, which rises through and over glass ceilings and class barriers.

For the social and political structure that thrives on racial division and economic inequality, the overdue elevation of the black female is a problem that cannot be solved with a $10 hair relaxer. Guest Commentator David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen . His Website is His blog is Subtle Subversion. Click here to contact Mr. Masciotra.