Before and Afro: I Am Not My Hair, You Are Not My Hair

Ms. Lapidos:

It has come to my attention that you have started a blog, Before and Afro, in which you chronicle your endeavor of self-discovery through wearing an Afro-wig you bought for a costume party all around New York City. You describe this as:

“What is an Afro? In the context of this blog, it is the magical goodness that follows “before.” It’s the delicious discovery of something new about the world, or better yet, about yourself.  An “afro”–be it a new lipstick or a new career–changes your perspective. It makes you think, walk, see and experience life differently”.

Rightfully, the majority of the comments on your blog are people angered and dismayed by you how offensive and problematic your endeavors are, as well as your description of it. Yet their attempts in pointing this out appear to have fallen on deaf ears. You have yet to comprehend how offensive you are, and why, so I’m going to break it down for you:

An Afro is not a costume. Afros, especially at the height of their popularity, make a statement. American black women have been straightening and altering their hair, using various methods, for centuries. It tends to be difficult to deal with, fragile, and resistant to alteration. In many ways, the changes in American culture were reflected in our hair. The civil rights movement led to the black power movement, and somewhere along the way the Afro emerged as a symbol of pride, African beauty, and independence. In some ways, it is a symbol of the rejection of oppression, of the self-hatred towards our hair that has been trickled down from past generations. Of going to the hair salon every few weeks to have someone put toxic chemicals into our hair to make it straight, and therefore socially acceptable. Of being told by the media, and society, and each other that black hair is not beautiful. It’s a defiance against how we’ve been told all our lives what “good hair” means. This still persists today.  For many, this was the first time that it was acknowledged that black is beautiful, that the concept of “good hair” was challenged. Many black celebrities wore Afros, including Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix, Pam Grier, and no one is arguably more famous for the Afro than Angela Davis. Their hair became almost as iconic as their personalities. It was refreshing to see others embrace this. It was revolutionary. For the longest time blacks were told that our hair is ugly, and wrong, and undesirable. We still hear it. To see someone appropriate this as some type of ploy to get attention is hurtful and offensive.

I myself have been relaxing my hair for the last decade. It’s not something that I’m happy about, but it’s my alternative to spending hours every week taking care of my fragile, naturally extremely curly hair. Even with that, there’s still time spent pressing it, or ironing it, or blow drying it to conform it to what I want it to be. A woman of color has a complicated relationship with her hair. If you relax your hair, you’re seen as self-hating and lazy. If you wear an Afro or a naturally curly style, you’re regarded as a strong, badass independent woman. You just might not get a job, or a deserved promotion because your image isn’t acceptable in a corporate environment. If you wear wigs or a weave, you are thought to hate your hair so much that wont even show it, and you want to look white. Either way, you’re going to get criticism. A black woman has to go to a special section in the pharmacy to even find products that can be used on her hair. She might have to hear from a salon that they “don’t do that kind of hair”. It’s a constant struggle between your own perceived identity and the perceptions of beauty that permeates every aspect of what we’re expected to be in society.

It is not possible to slip on a wig and understand these feelings, regardless of how much you think that it is. Being black is not something that you can slip on and off at a moment’s will. It is an identity, a life, a legacy.

You post pictures of yourself in your natural straight blonde hair, in which you appear to be acting somewhat normal. Your behavior when you put on the “Afro,” (and I put this in quotes because that is not something that I can call an Afro, which brings me to my next point…) is something that I can only describe as an appalling modern version of a minstrel show. The ridiculous dancing, making faces, throwing up the dreaded gang signs, in short, present the worst possible combination of the stereotypes of a black person that have been around for years, centuries even. Speaking of the wig, it looks nothing like a real Afro. It’s a lumpy, misshapen, mockery of an Afro. It’s bad enough to mimic a culture at all, but it’s a slap in the face to do such a sloppy job of it. Black women are constantly portrayed as “strong,” “angry” or “willful.”  The truth is that we have as many facets to our personalities as anyone else does. When you slip on the “Afro” and proceed to act foolishly, you’re telling black women that we are foolish. We don’t need any more stereotyping than we are already facing each and every day. Even as I type this, I am aware of the fear of sounding like an “angry black woman.” It’s a constant struggle, as a minority, to defy stereotypes in many situations that others do not even have to consider.

Speaking of stereotypes: The fried chicken. You’ve been posting pictures of yourself eating fried chicken, attending a fried chicken festival. You explained that “this was obviously an occasion to wear the fro.” Why was it obvious? Because of the enduring stereotyping from colonial days that black people love fried chicken. It’s a relic from the minstrel shows of the reconstruction era and beyond, often including blackface.  It’s a nod to the perception that black people are unhealthy, constantly filling our stomachs with fat-laden, artery-clogging food. I know that I’m not the only black person to hesitate before putting a piece of fried chicken or watermelon on my plate at a buffet. An unsuspecting foreigner, unaware of the stereotype, was lambasted for naming his fried chicken restaurant in New York after Obama, because the association is that offensive. As long as this prejudicial stereotype persists, there are many who will always be uncomfortable at even being associated with it. Your associating us with this is not helping.

You once asked for “equal opportunity hair”. You want equal opportunity? Have you ever hesitated about eating a food because you’d be reinforcing a stereotype? Have you ever been wrongly accused of shoplifting, or followed around a store because of the color of your skin? Have you ever had to worry about driving while black? You have the privilege of eating what you want, wearing your hair in any style that you want without fear of being criticized, doing whatever you want and going wherever you want without fear of being harassed or ostracized because you are a minority. This is your privilege. I don’t blame you for having it, I blame you for your unwillingness to acknowledge and face it. You mentioned recently that you’re sick of dealing with the idea of “white guilt,” as you are being confronted with it as a result of your behavior, as resistant as you are to understanding the outrage that you’ve caused over this. You might say that you think of everyone as equal, but your story says otherwise.It’s a lovely concept with no semblance in reality. If you truly believed that, you would not be keeping up this farce. You choose to remain ignorant of your privilege and refuse to acknowledge the truth in the criticism surrounding you. I don’t need your patronizing acknowledgment of us being equals while you hop around in an Afro wig. Nor do I want your white guilt. I just want my hair back.

14 replies on “Before and Afro: I Am Not My Hair, You Are Not My Hair”

Here’s what I don’t understand about people like this: are they so completely limited in their exposure to other people and other cultures that they honestly don’t realize that this shit is SO SO SO offensive? Like, how can you progress to that point in your adulthood and not have the slightest inkling that maybe, just maybe, this is not OK?

I don’t get that either. I know that I was a twit when I was young and my world view was limited to my neighborhood which was very white. But as my social sphere increased as I got older I, you know, actually met some black people, and wouldn’t you know, the “hair is way more complicated for black women” thing was one of the first things I learned to be mindful of. Are there places left that are really that insular that people can live to be grown ass adults and not realize even a little that this is offensive?

But then she also doesn’t seem to be able to listen to those around her, so what degree this is insular habitat and what degree this is willful ignorance and indulgence in privilege is debatable.

Excellent post! Now I have to confess something: I have been guilty of cultural appropriation. In college, I modeled our floor’s theme on the Maori people of New Zealand because I wanted to inspire the community of a tribe for my residents. I meant it as honoring, but I was very ignorant at the time about cultural appropriation, so whenever I think of that year, I cringe in shame. So on the one hand, I can understand where Michelle Joni got her original idea and how she could have seen her actions as honoring.


She has been told repeatedly by many WOC/POC that her actions are offensive and ignorant and she continually chooses to ignore that commentary–even though it is the bulk of the commentary she receives on her blog–instead only absorbing the few positive comments that encourage her bad behavior. I hope that she opens her eyes and ears soon and realizes that one can commit racist acts without being racist.

Wow, I didn’t even know this existed. This is seriously problematic. If it were about a black woman deciding to wear her hair naturally (i.e. in an Afro), and basically going about her day normally and seeing what reactions she got, then yes, that would be fine. This, though, is all kinds of wrong. If she really wants to open her eyes, she should do something meaningful, not this offensive crap.

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