Because black women’s hair can never just be

Women with natural hairstyles, enjoying each other's company.

So I just finished reading this post about black hair and the Olympics at Racialicious, via the blog’s Tumblr. I was going to leave a comment, but it turned into a mini-essay, so I’m posting it here. Let me just say from the beginning: I have little patience for people’s prescriptive notions of how black folks should present themselves, even when they’re well-intended, as in the post at Racialicious. Contrary to popular belief, not every black woman has a neurosis about hair, but sometimes I feel we like to project that onto black women by default.

Before I launch into my essay, let me excerpt a relevant portion of the Racialicious essay:

Beyond my skepticism about the practicality of a skull saddled with multiple packages of Indian Remy in elite competition (and a testament to our excellence is that we still slay), I am concerned about the witness it offers of our esteem, the invidiousness of European beauty standards, and the message our adaptations to them send young black girls interested in sport. I am saddened that so many of us equate looking our best with extension-assisted styles. Must we weave, wig, braid in extensions before we hit the pitch, track, mat, slough? I don’t buy that the ubiquity of yaki is about convenience. Show me the receipts. Only thing that accounts for our epidemic edge-sacrifice is history. We been making our way up the rough side of the mountain since the Middle Passage. Let’s have an honest conversation about what we do not because the world is watching but because we are, would-be Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryces and Sanya Richards Rosses. I’m not proposing a ban on sew-ins but having a conversation about our wholescale investment in them even in the most illogical of circumstances.

Certainly, I understand these concerns: “the witness it offers of our esteem, the invidiousness of European beauty standards, and the message our adaptations to them send young black girls interested in sport.” However, at the end of the day, I think elite athletes are going to, and should, wear their hair however it feels most comfortable to them. Appeasing image-conscious black folks should be the furthest thing from their mind when they’re on the track, the field, or the court.

To dive in a little deeper: I think we, as black folks, should stop expecting public figures to craft their physical image to uphold our standards of black pride. Ultimately, while this piece has a much nobler purpose than the (very few) petty comments on Gabby Douglas’s hair, it’s just another variety of the same syndrome. Vanity is a complex thing. There are all sorts of reasons why someone might favor wearing a weave, and it can’t all be boiled down to “She thinks white is right.” There’s an ugly history behind many of the hairstyles black women favor, but there’s also a tradition of creativity, community, and industriousness, which are on full display in barbershops, salons, and hair shows. It’s not fair to throw out the latter to emphasize the former. Using someone’s hairstyle as a proxy for their level of racial self-esteem is simply wrongheaded. Though the author is not doing that explicitly, she is doing so implicitly: why else would you fear that Sanya Richards-Ross is sending black girls a bad message, except for the assumption that Richards-Ross wears a weave because she hates her natural hair?

I think that we should, by all means, challenge Eurocentric standards of beauty and question our own motivations behind our beauty regimens. But there’s a difference between questioning those motivations and assuming what other people’s motivations are. When you posit that weaves or otherwise “unnatural” (whatever your definition of that may be) hairstyles inherently send would-be athletes a bad message, then you’re only further politicizing what should be an arbitrary style choice. Isn’t it ironic that that’s the exact same thing that so many black women with natural hairstyles decry?