The global (and local) politics of Black beauty | Tereneh Idia | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The global (and local) politics of Black beauty

“All hair is good hair,” so said my bald-for-decades father. Sometimes he would say it with a self-admonishing chuckle, sometimes with such fierce emotion that he was boarding on anger. It depended on the circumstance.

If someone were to compliment my long childhood ponytail by saying that I had “good hair,” he would state his correction gently. However, some of the worst of my parents’ arguments were after shampoo days, when my mother pulled out the hair straightening hot comb, heating the metal contraption on a stove burner. “You are teaching her to hate herself!” my father yelled.

When a video of a young Meghan Markle with a long, kinky ponytail surfaced after her recent Oprah interview along with her husband Prince Harry, someone on Twitter said, “I hope we get to see THAT hair again.” Similar statements were made of Michelle Obama while she was serving as First Lady, but it wasn’t until after she left the White House did we see her natural curls.

The equation of hair and self-love for Black women and femmes especially is personal and political, social and cultural. In a world dominated by white supremacist beauty standards, straight hair, and light skin, loving yourself naturally — including the nappy hair that grows from the roots of our brown heads — is a revolutionary act. I have had a hair journey: straightening comb, relaxers, shaved head, Afro, relaxed hair straight again, then back to natural, where I happily am today. A few years ago, I gave one of my sisters my blow dryer, flat iron, and other hair straightening devices. She said, “Well, I will keep them for you, you may need them again.”

“Nope, I won’t be going back,” I told her. This is my journey, and all hair journeys of Black women and femmes are valid. Straight, wig, braids, locs, bald, natural. Who, why, and what you do with your hair is your business. However, there is no denying the fact that with unspoken and written laws governing the wearing of natural hair for Black women in the workplace, armed forces, media, and other spaces, it is an ongoing issue.

When Joy Reid of MSNBC’s The Reid Out became a prime time news anchor with her natural hair, it felt for me, like, “Oh yes, sis, I see you, and I am loving it. Thank you.” It does something to dispel the outdated myth that Black natural hair is “unprofessional.”

With Black women, femme, and nonbinary beauty so closely linked to hair texture and skin color, the conversation of one is rarely left without the other. As I watched the Oprah interview the day after it aired, I paused and probably yelled something like, “Oh sh*t, no, they didn’t?!” when Meghan Markle revealed that there was a conversation among the British royal family questioning “how dark” Meghan and Harry’s unborn child would be.

But I am not going to pretend I have never heard anything like this before. In fact, as I was getting travel papers together to come to Turkey, I befriended someone who prompted me to show her a photo of my Middle Eastern boyfriend. She immediately exclaimed, “Oh, I approve, your babies will be so cute.” I wanted to say, “I no longer have a uterus,” but I just said an awkward, “Thank you,” knowing that the ongoing fascination, adoration, or, at times, abhorring interest in “mixed raced” or “multiracial” children continues.

However, the question of “how dark” is what is lingering. Surely, whomever it was in the British royal family who said such a rude thing in the presence of Prince Harry (he did not reveal who in his family made this statement) brought forth the age-old “paper bag test” used for decades to determine things like club memberships, school admissions, and some would say now Netflix starring roles. That is, if you’re darker than a standard light brown paper bag, you’re too dark. But in truth, I suspect that this mysterious Windsor royal meant that anything would be too dark. As Meghan said herself, all of the trials and tribulations were happening “just because she was breathing.” As a Black woman born in Pittsburgh, I felt every word of that sentence.

But as Twitter chimed in, I felt another level of, if not anger, fatigue. Some in Black Twitter started weighing in on “skin shade” with statements like, “Now do not pretend your aunties did not tell you to get out of the sun before you get too dark” or “Now you know your grandparents checked your babies’ ears” (a supposed way to see what color the child would become). While I also suspect white, Latinx, Asian, and other people have heard similar things said in their own families, my issue is attempting to equate these ideas with centuries-old anti-Black white supremacist ideologies that brought forth the Transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, genocide, imperialism, to name just a few.

This helps promote and uphold anti-Blackness on a global scale with Black people who have internalized anti-Blackness and exhibited that trauma, pain, and suffering with themselves and others. One is a systematic dehumanization of Black people that has impacted millions, billions of people of the African Diaspora through economic, environment, social, cultural, education, arts, and more. The other is internalized anti-Blackness that all Black people are force-fed daily that we must free ourselves from, and we can, we do.

All to say your Queen at home who may feel this way is not the same as a Future King and Queen of England feeling this way with the global power and resources to support and spread anti-Blackness at their disposal.