Woman in the Mirror: A Reflection on Short Natural Hair

Like hair clogging a drain, the topic of tresses floods the media. I think I’ll put my two snips in anyway.

Speaking of snips, I got my haircut on Christmas eve. No biggie. I’ve been cutting my hair for at least a decade now. Barbers and stylists occasionally click the clippers on with hesitation, perhaps fear. I understand this. How can they know upon first seeing me that I’m NOT one of those women who will tell you to “chop it all off,” only to gasp at the mirror when it’s over, literally cry, and say, “What have you done??? I didn’t mean for you to cut it all off.”

To put my stylists and barbers at ease, I try to use visual representations of what I want. I point to another customer. Flash a magazine photo. Pull out an old image of myself.

This time, despite making a mental note, I forgot to tote an issue of Essence in which women are dawning my dream cut. I had to settle for talking the stylist through the process. I sat in the chair of the already sour looking stylist in a salon that shall remain nameless. I told her, “Cut it all off.” She asked to start off with a #4 (clipper size). I said, “You could probably go down to a 2 or 1. I think the previous stylist used a #1.”

She paused. “A #1 is like a man.”

I nodded.

“Why you wanna do that?”

“That’s how I usually get it.”

Silence. In some reflective surface in the salon I caught a glimpse of the face she gave to a coworker.

At that moment I had to consciously process the situation. Could I really be receiving such poor customer service?

I got my ears lowered. She got an earful. Every woman in the salon commented on how great the cut looked, or bragged about how they used to wear their hair shaved, or how their daughter wears her hair cut even closer than mine.

I know it’s not mainstream for women to wear such short hair, but shame on anyone who calls themselves a stylist and is unaware that many women do, including celebrities famously known for their beauty.

Hair has been as sensitive and controversial an issue as skin color. The sensitivity and controversy have roots embedded deep in patriarchy and colonialism, spreading across continents, races, and generations. Several people have talked about the tension caused by tresses, from Tyra Banks to Chris Rock. Maybe someday I will compose an in-depth piece on attitudes about hair. For now, I just want to share the following.

I had relaxed hair until midway through high school. As a child, I prayed for long, straight, “pretty” hair that cascaded down my back. I had what many black people consider long hair, yet I still wore towels, shirts, or Mardi Gras beads on my head to know the feeling of longer hair. Perms burned me to tears.

When I went all natural at fifteen, I wanted to immerse myself in the natural black hair community (if there is such a thing). I wanted to tell all people to give up trying to conform to the Eurocentric standard of beauty. I had a big, Angela Davis fro. I wore twists, afro puffs, plaits, cornrows, girly hair accessories, and anything that allowed me to play in my wonderful, soft mass of hair.

Now, my hair must be measured in millimeters. It’s my favorite style to date, except for maybe the mohawk. I’m satisfied enough with my hair that I don’t care what styles other women wear. I do hope that more women experience freedom and love when they think about their hair rather than limitations and pain.

I leave this topic, for now, with quotes from Joan Juliet Buck via the Poetical Quotidian on Paul W.H. Kan’s website.

“Hair is time.
Women with short hair always look as if they have somewhere else to go. Women with long hair tend to look as if they belong where they are, especially in California. Short hair takes a short time. Long hair takes a long time. Long hair moves faster than short hair. Long hair tells men that you are all woman, or a real woman, or at the very least a girl. Short hair always makes them wonder…”

“With short hair you suddenly dislike the month of March, when the wind blows down the back of your neck. With short hair you begin to crave pearl necklaces, long earrings, and a variety of sunglasses. And you brush your teeth more often. Short hair removes obvious femininity and replaces it with style…”

“You can’t hide behind short hair. Your nape is exposed…”

“You may look a little androgynous, a little unfinished, a little bare…”

“People who used to look straight at you will love you in profile. Short hair makes others think you have good bones, determination, and an agenda. The shape of your skull is commented on, so are its contents. They can pick you out in a crowd, and you can be recognized from behind, which can be good or bad. But your face is no longer a flat screen surrounded by a curtain: the world sees you in three dimensions.
Chase to the cut.”

I love that.

Peace and Love from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

Colorism: Don’t Fear Your Flame

WARNING! This post may ignite a fire that can’t be extinguished (unless your mind’s already a fireball, in which case this post is completely benign).

But don’t fear the fire! Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and time has shown that fire is proof of purity (for metals at least, but think metal as metaphor).

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The quickest road to flame starts with two, three-letter words: Why and How. These words have been known to incinerate things founded on fear instead of love, deception instead of truth.

Despite these benefits, many people avoid the fire because they can’t stand the heat or they’re afraid to get burned. You see, the fire doesn’t just consume fear and deception around us, it also consumes fear and deception within us.

As a teacher, I often ask Why and How, trying to get my students to think deeply and critically about what’s presented to them and about their prior assumptions. One assumption that several students have vocalized is that dark skin is a problem or an unfortunate condition that one should avoid when possible. Here’s some of what male and female African-American students of varying shades have actually said to me:

“I wish I was light-skinned like my mama.”

“This picture is ugly. I look black on here.”

“I’m not proud of myself. I got dark over the summer.”

“I’m black. I used to be lighter than this. I used to be as light as… well not you, but…”

“Dee is lighter than Maggie… That means Dee can smash her.”

The fact that they make such comments as though everyone else thinks the way they do, lets me know how ubiquitous colorism is among blacks. Colorism seems as common as blinking and equally unconscious. Which is the problem. Too many are content living unconsciously, living unexamined lives.

So I’ve been thinking. Maybe one remedy to colorism is for individuals to start asking Why and How. I urge all to ask these questions for any situation. (Why am I in an abusive relationship? How do I get out? Why am I unhappy at work? How can I change the trajectory of my life?) Gloria Steinem, the famous feminist, suggests:

“The only practical, permanent solution to poor body image seems to be turning inward to ask: Where did it come from? What subtle or blatant events gave birth to it? What peer pressure nurtured it? What popular images make our real selves seem different or wrong?”

Regarding skin color, we should examine our attitudes regardless of what color we are, regardless of which direction our bias is projected, and regardless of whether or not we feel complicit.

I’ve suggested some questions below. As you read these, remember that IDK (I don’t know) is not an answer for someone genuinely seeking truth. Shrugging your shoulders and reverting back to tasks that are easy for you does not promote life. Instead, keep thinking, searching, or investigating until you find at least a possible answer. I encourage the same persistence in my students.

  1. Why do I have a positive/negative attitude about dark skin?
  2. Why do I have a positive/negative attitude about light skin?
  3. How did my attitude about skin tone develop throughout my life, particularly my childhood?
  4. How has my attitude about skin tone manifested in my words and actions (or the absence of my words and actions)?
  5. Why does my reflection on this issue matter?/ How will understanding my attitude about skin color change things personally or communally?

Of course you’ll have to do the work of making your inquiry personal and specific to your experiences. I hope these questions are in fact only the beginning for you. I hope you take this investigation to a level that matters for your personal growth. I hope you share these questions and your responses with others whom you care about. I care about you, so this is my way of sharing.

Don’t fear your flame. Use it to light another.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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Colorism: A Mother-Daughter Interview

For this edition of Colorism, I interviewed my mother. This was eye opening for me because in our face-to-face conversation I learned about details of my childhood that I have no memory of. I hope you enjoy a new voice in this conversation.

Do you consider your self dark-skinned, light-skinned, or neither?

Honestly, I still don’t consider myself a light-skinned African American. I may be a light brown but certainly not light-skinned. I attribute that to where I grew up. There you had a large population of really light-skinned African Americans that sometimes looked more white than black. We called them mulattoes.

What moments in your youth made you most aware of colorism?

I heard on a daily basis comments like, “Girl I don’t like that old black boy” or “That’s why yo momma so black.” It was everywhere. You were aware but just didn’t make a big deal about it. You kept it in, but you thought about it. Lighter skinned girls and guys were always considered cuter and many times smarter. The key is I knew many of them weren’t smarter than I was, so I asked myself how come they get to be selected for this or that.

What do you think were some of the reasons you didn’t make a big deal about it or kept it in even when you were thinking about it?

Because those instances were in my youth, and it was such a part of living that I didn’t think about trying to do something about it back then. Who would you speak out to?

Was there ever a moment in your life that you participated in or agreed with or supported this type of bias? Why or why not?

No, because I knew it wasn’t right. I had dark-skinned people in my family, and I didn’t feel it was a reason to criticize somebody. I never heard my mother speak in those terms with anyone or about anyone. None of my family really spoke that way. I never wished I had lighter skin or that I was white. Part of my youth I did rebel against people thinking that black is ugly because of the generation I grew up in, being a teenager in the 70’s with “black is beautiful” and afros. Perhaps I grew more comfortable as I matured into my teens. Perhaps I wasn’t as empowered as a younger person.

Have you ever dealt with colorism in the process of raising your children? If so, what kinds of situations arose and how did you handle them?

Yes. You see, I have two dark-skinned children and one lighter skinned child. Fortunately for me, they loved each other so much that I never had to deal with this issue in the relationship between them, but definitely from outside. I was asked several times if these were my kids. I would pridefully say, “Yes, indeed these are my babies,” and I would pull them close to me. I knew what people were thinking.

Each of my dark-skinned children had incidents at school where they were called black or charcoaled. My daughter was being called black and charcoaled every day by an African American male child. I thought it was important to let his parents know what he was doing and perhaps make them aware of the need to correct his thinking about his own race. I took my little girl to his house and spoke to the parents. Surprisingly, the mother was very receptive and handled it well. I think that day was an experience all of us will never forget. I know my daughter won’t.

I would constantly let my children know how beautiful they were, and that I wasn’t just saying that to make them feel better. It was true no matter what anyone says, and it was. Especially in the case of my daughter, I recognized and acknowledged her pain. We talked about it; we called it out when we saw it; we didn’t act like it wasn’t happening.

In what ways did your children respond to those situations? How did you observe them grappling with the issue? Did their responses change over time?

It didn’t come up with my male child as much. I don’t think he was as conscious or as affected. I don’t think it crippled them socially or hindered their will to succeed. They definitely didn’t live miserable lives because of it. Sometimes facial expressions when people would make comments let me know that they knew. I also just knew that it exists. They also weren’t afraid to talk about it. My daughter verbalized it.

My daughter was five and had already figured out that people said her sister would be able to attract boys easily because she was lighter skinned. At age five she identified her sister’s lighter skin as the reason they were saying that. I didn’t say to her, “Oh, get over it.” I carried that comment in my mind and did what I could so that she could conquer the world.

Why do you think your daughter was aware of this at such a young age?

Some children have a keener sense. Part of it is that I was a culturally aware mom. I didn’t hide that there are prejudices in the world, so that might have brought it to the forefront. Some people are more conscious and think a lot anyway. She was the kind of girl that always had to know why, and she felt free to ask why and that she had the right to let it be known. I can imagine kids whose parents ignore the problem, and the kids who don’t feel that freedom to express themselves.

To the best of your memory, was that incident when your daughter was five the first time you witnessed colorism in her life, or was it just the first time you witnessed her awareness of it?

It goes back for me when they had to stand up in kindergarten for head counts, and two African American girls stood up to be counted as white. I felt sad about that, that no one told those girls that they were black. Even the teacher, who was white, was embarrassed and not sure how to tell them to sit down. That showed a colorism to me, and it stuck with me. Also when they were younger, again, people often asked if they were mine.

Do you recall times when your light-skinned daughter also showed an awareness of skin color or colorism? If so, how early did you observe her awareness?

She wanted to tan at a young age, maybe since middle school. She was aware because, as with me, people always questioned and made a big deal about her siblings being dark. I will say that I don’t think she ever used her skin color to gain privileges or extra attention.

Did you ever deal with colorism in terms of raising your light-skinned daughter, interventions, conversations, etc.?

No. She was always there in our conversations as a family, so she knew how I felt about culture and equality. We talked about how crazy and bothersome it is to always have to explain that these are her siblings.

family of four

Where do you think colorism comes from, particularly for African Americans?

For African Americans colorism definitely came from a combination of things. The separation of dark-skinned and light-skinned slaves, the overall portrayal of dark-skinned people as negative in the early movies. We learned way back that the closer to white you were the better chance you had to succeed. [Perhaps we should add that chances for success were better because of racism, not because of inherent or biological superiority.] We learned that the closer to white you were the prettier you were considered to be. It was everywhere.

What sort of remedies can you suggest for this issue of colorism either collectively of individually?

Talk about it. Don’t act like it doesn’t exist and has existed for a long, long time. Support magazines and television shows that make an effort to show that there is beauty in all skin tones and are not afraid to showcase dark-skinned women and showcase them in a positive way. Be sensitive to how it impacts our girls at early ages. Every chance I get I purpose to tell a dark-skinned little girl how beautiful she is. I do it because it is true.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

Colorism: Who’s Affected? Who’s Responsible? 2

The Trouble With Insider/Outsider Positioning In Colorism

I’ll use illustrations to demonstrate my thoughts on this.

If we can only know our very own experiences, then we can know very little.

Any thing that happened before June 6, 1985, I had no experience with. If I have to directly experience something to know it, then I know nothing about almost everything: the Vietnam War, Marcus Garvey, Apartheid, the Holocaust, President Roosevelt, the American Civil War, American slavery, the French Revolution, Egyptian pharos, or Chinese emperors, etc.

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Crimes would never be punished. Judges would have to be robbed, murdered, raped, have their property vandalized or set on fire in order for them to believe any victims or witnesses of such crimes.

Saying, “I don’t think colorism or racism exist because I personally have never experienced it, so it can’t possibly exist,” is like saying, “I’ve never been to New Zealand, so I don’t think it exists,” or, “I’ve never been healed from a medical procedure, so I don’t think hospitals are necessary, since they’ve never worked for me personally.”

You can see that experiential knowledge is only a part of our total knowledge.

Avoiding knowledge of a situation is a way to avoid responsibility.

Imagine if white Freedom Riders had said, “Oh, no. We can’t get involved with that because we don’t know anything about being black, and therefore we know nothing about racism.”

Imagine if someone asked me to donate to prostate cancer research and I said, “Oh, no. I can’t get involved or learn more about this because I’ve never had prostate cancer. It’s just not relevant to me.”

Imagine if Brad Pitt had said, “I don’t live in New Orleans and I wasn’t there during Katrina, so why should I get involved with building more homes?”

Imagine if Oprah had said, “I don’t have any sons, I’m not a man, and I’ve never gone to Morehouse, so why should I give over 400 black, male students scholarships to attend?”

Many youth have committed suicide as a result of bullying. Are the bullies outside of the situation, or do they have a critical role in shaping the situation? Do we only address the targets of bullying, or do we also need to address the bullies themselves?

If an employer refuses to hire me because of my sexual orientation, are his actions separate and outside of my experience?

If I step on your foot, are you wrong to say, “Excuse me Sarah, even though you don’t feel my pain, you play an integral role in stopping the pain. It would help a lot if you remove your foot.”?

Bottom Line

Different doesn’t have to equate with inside/outside, part of/not part of, better than/worse than, more than/less than. It’s that very thinking that breeds racism in the first place. You might experience the situation differently from me, but you’re still part of the situation.

A good example of someone who I think understands this is Time Wise. He’s a white man who speaks, from his perspective, on racism. Though his vantage point is different, his efforts can help alleviate the consequences of racism for everyone.

I hope we can look at the situation of colorism and determine our vantage point, rather than being cynical and insensitive.

Blacks have their share of blemishes, but colorism resulted from the actions of colonial powers, white slave owners, and slave traders, then it was propagated and perpetuated through white owned media.

I hope black people can see that even though we need to heal our own community, we also need to hold non-blacks accountable for creating/maintaining situations where blacks internalize racism as a method of survival (i.e. passing for white to get a job). We can’t improve or eliminate these situations without bringing multiple vantage points to the discussion.

I hope blacks can understand that though we experience colorism differently, we all experience it, and we’re all affected by it at some level.

With Love, From Sarah L. Webb

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