Untangling “Good Hair”

“Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

Chris Rock’s daughter asked him this heartbreaking question. She’s only three years old.

In an effort to find the answer, and to understand why anything on his precious daughters wouldn’t be considered “good’” he filmed the eye opening and hilarious documentary “Good Hair.” As a black man, he has undoubtedly heard the phrase kicked around by the women in his life. But what do you say when you realize that the heavy insecurity has already fallen on the tiny shoulders of a toddler?

Chris Rock headed straight to the mecca and torture chamber that is the hair salon. I’ve spent a good amount of time there, and it’s one of my favorite places to observe people. I’ve seen little girls light up when they catch a glimpse of themselves all grown up in the salon chair, only to look down as they see another girl’s flowing locks. I heard a little girl say, “Mommy, I want a weave,” as she tumbled along in her Osh Kosh jeans. The insecurity starts by the time we get our first Barbie.

The most striking scene of the documentary involved a young black girl and an Indian baby. The little girl gets a relaxer while the baby screams as her hair is shaved. Most of the hair sold in the multibillion dollar haircare industry comes from India, where legions of people flock to the temple to have their hair shaved in a ritual called Tonsure. They offer up their hair as a selfless sacrifice to God. But the hair they sacrifice has become a huge Indian export, and American women are the faithful customers.

After seeing the high demand for Indian hair, Chris Rock went on a mission to sell a bag of African American hair. He was told by the vendors that nobody wanted that type of hair. Just as startling is the three year old who told Rock that she gets a relaxer because it’s what you’re supposed to do. Rap songs don’t help, as the “long wavy light skinned” girl became some sort of status symbol for guys, like shiny rims on a Mercedes.

I have naturally curly hair that I like to wear straight. My curly hair reminds me of my younger days when my mom dressed me up as Minnie Mouse for Halloween, because the ringlets made for good mouse ears. I didn’t grow up with the “good or bad hair” concept in my household, but it didn’t take long for me to catch on to what it meant. Growing up I was constantly asked, “Is that your real hair?” The bold would breathe a sigh and relief and reply, “Oh, I knew you had to be mixed with something,” as if a black woman couldn’t grow long hair. I used to nod politely and say thank you. I felt like I was wrongly taking credit that belonged to my parents and genetics. My hair became part of my identity, a security blanket to shield me from my own insecurities.

As I got older I started to have fun with my answers, “No. It’s #59 at the beauty supply store.” It’s my way of normalizing the situation, and my way of saying, “I’m just like you.”

Chris Rock’s documentary did not mean to criticize black women, and he kept a controversial topic lighthearted. It was an honest and often hilarious effort. There is probably nothing more entertaining than the Atlanta hair show. But he reminded us of something all people can relate to: We are more than hair or skin color, greater than the number on a scale, or the balance of a bank account.

But what’s important to remember is that hair is all about preference, and there’s simply nothing good or bad about it.

India. Arie said it best…

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