Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, opened Friday to mixed, but frequently positive, reviews. I’m going to take the painful stance of suggesting that’s because there aren’t a lot of black women in the film reviewing community. Good Hair is often funny, fascinating, and raises a few key ideas. What it doesn’t do is offer a cogent, relevant analysis of why black women relax their hair or wear hair extensions — which was supposed to have been the point.
Some background: Rock says he did the film because his daughter came to him one day, upset, that she didn’t have “good hair.” This apparently prompted the comedian to begin an odyssey that took him from the hair salons of New York City to a hair show in Atlanta, from Indian hair-shaving ceremonies, to the Beverly Hills salons that buy the Indian hair. But in all that conversation what you never hear are opposing viewpoints. Nearly everyone in Chris Rock’s movie seems to agree on a few critical ideas (that can happen when you limit your sample). Frankly, as a black woman, I sat through Good Hair with one dominant thought: Who are these people? Their opinions rarely represented my own, or those of anyone I know. I am but one voice in this vast, complicated community, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say something. Here, a few of the ways Good Hair gets it entirely wrong.
1. Black women do not want to be white.
Sure, you can find some poor soul who pops up on Oprah with deep-seated issues, but for the most part, black women are perfectly happy being black women. A brief history: The idea of “good hair” is one that, historically, has been fraught with racial stigma. For various reasons, black people who looked whiter, like their slave masters (read: frequently, their fathers) had advantages over those who looked more like their African ancestors. The preference didn’t die after slavery, however, in one sense surviving as the debate over “good hair.” “Good hair” was that which was easy to comb, long, and silky.
Like many cultural idiosyncrasies, the notion of “good hair” never died completely, but there isn’t anyone in the black community today who doesn’t see the term as dated, self-loathing, and patently foolish. There isn’t a black woman I know who sits down in a stylist’s chair to get a relaxer because she, as Rock posits, wants to look white. Not one. I have a relaxer. I have one for the same reason that I don’t wear makeup, don’t have a gym membership, and can usually be found in jeans and a Gap tee—I’m lazy. I like getting out of the house in a reasonable amount of time, and don’t cope well with a lot of hassle over what I consider superficial things. So why bother fighting my naturally nappy hair on a daily basis when every 8-10 weeks I can pay someone else to do it? Which brings me to my second point…
2. $1000 at the salon? Get real.
The actresses and singers in Good Hair freely admit to spending a fortune on their hair, which was expected. Wildly unusual was the handful of working-class women willing to pony up a cool grand to get a weave. Again, who are these women? The cost of relaxer varies widely, from, say, $50-$200, depending on what zip code you’re in, and weaves go up significantly from there. But no one in the working class (in their right mind) spends rent on their hair. Anyone who does has way bigger issues than what’s growing out of her head.
3. We don’t all have weaves or relaxers.
As I mentioned, I have a relaxer, but I have several friends and family members who don’t. And for every 10 black women I know, maybe two have weaves. It’s a common hair-maintenance style, but it certainly doesn’t extend to everyone. So before you assume you know what’s going on with a black woman’s hair, understand that we’re as diverse and varied with our style options as everyone else.
4. All this is none of your business.
Unless you’re really good friends with someone, it’s rude to ask what’s in their hair, whether relaxer or weave. We’re not anthropological subjects, and we don’t like being treated as curiosities.
5. White women do it, too.
Approximately 94 minutes of Good Hair is spent exploring ideas of why black women relax their hair (so damaging!) or wear weaves (so delusional!). There’s exactly one minute spent on the fact that white women do it too. White women frequently chemically treat their hair to make it straighter or curlier, and dye it so regularly they don’t even know their natural color. Does this make them culturally insecure? Hardly. Those “extensions” that lots of white women in Hollywood (and elsewhere) sport? They’re the same as weaves. Some may be clipped on or glued in, but as anyone who’s ever watched the make-over episodes of America’s Next Top Model knows, white women wear hair enhancements too. Which brings me to another point…
6. Women of nearly every culture want long, thick, luxurious hair.
For every black woman who’s ever wanted to look like Beyoncé, there’s a white woman who desperately wanted hair like Farrah. Long, fabulous tresses seems to be an ideal in many, many cultures, and black women shouldn’t be criticized, ostracized, or psychoanalyzed for wanting the same thing.
7. The whole idea of “good hair” is pretty moot these days.
If “good hair” is that which is silky and manageable, what’s the difference if you’re born with it or your hair dresser gets you there? In its natural state, my hair is kinky and difficult to comb. With a relaxer it’s long and holds curls pretty nicely. So do I have “good hair,” or not? Here’s the fabulous, freeing, culturally uncomplicated answer: I don’t care.
Look, I’m not saying that Good Hair has no purpose. The film introduces a conversation that’s so important, it reached the White House. (Check out the viciously racist commentary on Malia Obama’s twists, or the New Yorker cover with Michelle Obama in an afro and tell me black women’s hair isn’t a political issue.) But there’s rampant misinformation and theories that just don’t hold up. And no one ever seems to really address the cultural roots of Rock’s daughter’s question.
Neither the director nor any of the writers on Good Hair are women. It’s no surprise that a group of fellas got together and came up with a film that, while well-intentioned, just doesn’t get it. But tell me what you think, PopWatchers? Will you see the movie? Have some stories of your own you want to share?
UPDATE: I love the debate here, and please keep it coming! I just want to point out (since a lot of people are addressing it) that I have absolutely no problem with natural hairstyles. I don’t think of the word “nappy” as pejorative (as some people apparently do), and I don’t associate any negativity with natural hair or natural hairstyles. (There is, in fact, an actress in the movie whose natural hair I’d love to have.) I simply said that MY natural hair is difficult to manage. I don’t begin to suppose that everyone’s is. My whole point is that people should be free to do whatever they want with their hair, without feeling like it has some grander cultural or political point. Cut it, curl it, dye it blue. As my mother always tells me, “Do you.”
Mothers across all cultures may worry about being judged for their child’s appearance. But for African-American mothers, a child’s hairstyle can be especially anxiety-inducing. If they don’t properly care for it, many fear they are violating community norms. So they fashion it to appear less curled and unruly, sometimes even using chemical straightening products on kids as young as 36 months old.
Failure to do so can lead to intense backlash.
In 2014, a Huffington Post headline announced, “Beyoncé responds to Blue Ivy hair drama with a perm.”
The article described the uproar over the decision of singer Beyoncé Knowles and her husband, Jay-Z, to leave their daughter Blue Ivy’s hair in a natural, curly state. Some called the couple negligent for not grooming their daughter’s hair. Others accused them of “cruelty” for leaving her hair “nappy.” A petition even circulated calling Blue Ivy’s hair “disturbing.”
More recently, African-American Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas faced a barrage of insults about her hair on social media during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Many complaints focused on her hair looking “unkempt.”
Why is hair such a hot-button issue in the African-American community? And what if hair weren’t a source of tension and shame, but instead served as an opportunity for African-American parents to bond with their kids?
For two decades, these questions have formed the basis of my research. They’re complicated ones – deeply ingrained in negative stereotypes – but I’ve been able to show how a simple daily task can help heal wounds caused by centuries of oppression.
Four hundred years of trauma
As a direct descendant of enslaved Africans who grew up in an African-American community, I have fond memories of sitting between my mother’s legs as a young child and getting my hair combed. For me, the daily ritual of hair combing was a special mother-daughter bonding time.
But while parents across all cultures comb their children’s hair, my research during graduate school revealed how, for African-American parents, the task is uniquely layered in emotionally charged, negative stereotypes about hair.
The origins of these attitudes are over 400 years old, deeply rooted in the psychological trauma of slavery. Part of the denigration of people deemed “property” meant vilifying all physical characteristics associated with their status, from dark skin color to thick, tightly curled hair – a stark contrast to the straight, thin hair of their oppressors. These debilitating stereotypes were merely one arrow in a quiver of psychological warfare used to subjugate the millions of enslaved men and women who outnumbered their owners.
Yet the negative intergenerational messages about hair still resonate today. Ironically, although these stereotypes about hair were originally perpetrated by whites, negative reactions to African features are also held by many African-Americans.
They’ve laid the psychological foundation for today’s “hair wars” within African-American communities: straight hair – deemed “good” hair – versus tightly curled, coily hair (“nappy” or “bad”). In many ways, it’s also related to the tendency to value light skin over dark skin.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “internalized oppression,” or identification with the oppressor. A billion-dollar beauty industry that includes straight-haired wigs and skin-bleaching creams speaks to the legacy of this historical trauma.
Mothers who have internalized these historical stereotypes about what constitutes “good” and “bad” hair may express these attitudes in how they interact with their child while combing the child’s hair. For many parent-child relationships, hair remains a flashpoint for conflict and shame.
Flipping a negative into a positive
As a psychologist, I worry about parents who possess these subconscious beliefs about their child’s dark skin color or tightly curled hair – that these beliefs will be expressed in acceptance or rejection of children.
Numerous studies demonstrate that strong, supportive bonds between a parent and child – what’s called secure attachment – are required for infants to grow into healthy adults. This begins with the unconditional acceptance of infants from birth and continues with consistent encouragement and support in the child’s first months and years.
Hair combing interaction can play a key role in establishing secure attachments.
Findings from my research suggest that this simple task, which takes only around 10 minutes per day, facilitates some core parenting behaviors that lead to more secure attachments: positive verbal interaction, loving physical touch and responsive listening. (For example, research has shown just how important healthy physical touch is to both human development and survival.)
By studying videotaped interactions of mothers and daughters from a variety of income groups, I’ve been able to show how a young child can feel secure or insecure during the everyday routine of hair combing. In some instances mothers would laugh, invite the child to participate in the activity and praise the playful antics of the child’s pretend play. In these interactions, emotional skills were reinforced in the child that led to self-confidence and a strong gender identity, while laying the groundwork for healthy adult interpersonal relationships.
On the other hand, some children would be forced to sit stoically as their mother jerked the comb through their hair, their cringing faces reflecting the fear and pain they experienced. Perhaps the parents simply didn’t enjoy the task; or the hair elicited unconscious feelings of shame that begin during their childhood.
When I founded the Center for Natural Connections (CNC) at Tulane University in 2004, I hoped to promote the positive benefits of daily hair combing as an opportunity for parents to connect with their children, culture and community.
The CNC has translated findings from 15 years of research into cost-effective, community-based interventions. All the programs – which include Gentle Grooming for Hospitalized Children, Parent Café & Miranda’s Green Hair Puppet Show, and the Talk, Touch & Listen While Combing Hair parent support group – promote positive attitudes toward hair combing as an opportunity for caregivers to connect to their child.
The programs enhance parental self-efficacy, emotion recognition, conflict resolution and social support among parents. With seminars being held in community centers, it’s a psychologically safe place for parents of color to disrupt a legacy of trauma and create a new, positive narrative for future generations.
By recognizing the toxic stereotypes associated with their hair and skin color and learning from a community of fellow parents, African-American parents can begin to live out the African proverb “It takes village to raise a child.”