Curly Hair, White Privilege

 /  May 27, 2016, 2:32 p.m.

Internet Week Day 1

On May 12, the New York Times Magazine published an article called “In Praise of Naturally Curly Hair.” In this piece, the author discusses her struggles with curly hair being underrepresented in the media and, therefore, seen as ugly and unprofessional. She then goes on to romanticize curly hair as “a feminist statement” which, when styled properly, turns women into sirens. Sirens. She cites Ilana Glazer as an example of the unabashed, sireny feminism curly hair can represent. As a Jewish woman with Jewish curly hair, my first instinct was to applaud her for challenging stereotypes that have long (since the late ‘90s) oppressed our kind.

However, defining “our kind” in this case is tricky business. All curly hair is not treated equally. Being Jewish and experiencing white privilege means that my curly hair is but a small, frizzy deviation from standard beauty norms. Not only that, it is also “fixable” with a simple hair straightener (for example, Anne Hathaway's Princess Diaries makeover).

To state the obvious: that’s not true for a woman of color. An African American woman can straighten her hair and she will still be radically underrepresented in our cultural sphere. The New York Times Magazine completely ignored this crucial difference, even using a picture of a woman of color to illustrate the story, as if an African American woman’s experience and that of Ilana Glazer are the same. As if a white author can generalize about the experiences of all women.

From Don Imus calling African American women “nappy-headed hos” to criticism for the natural hair of Olympic gold medalists and babies alike, African Americans face extreme and unique challenges when it comes to their curly hair. These instances are symptomatic of and further inflame larger racial issues in a society that undervalues and underrepresents its minorities (see Oscars So White and presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump).

Leaving ethnic groups out of dominant culture and acting like they don’t belong isn’t just wrong; it’s actively dangerous. That’s not a hypothetical notion; on May 14, an African American man had a gun pointed at him by a barber who claimed he wouldn’t cut “black hair.” This is only one example of how our “post-racial” nation is still very much racist, and how even physical attributes like curly hair can bring ridicule, hate, and danger upon those who possess it.

That’s why, as a white woman, it feels absurd to me that someone would write an article romanticizing my, or Ilana Glazer’s, brand of curls, without acknowledging the privilege we experience. It is even more ridiculous to see a woman of color featured in the picture for an article that is dripping with white privilege. Sure, we should love our hair; but to act as if all curly is treated equally is disingenuous and wrong.

Curly hair may turn some of us into sirens. It can also turn others into targets. To ignore this fact is to ignore the complex realities of our time. Ironically, in this New York Times Magazine piece about under-representation, the groups who have been most discriminated against and shut out of beauty norms were severely underrepresented.

Ilene Glazer is the woman on the right in the image featured in this article, which is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Jenny Keroack


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