Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hair + Gender = Hair-a-Genda?

This past week I had two strange hair moments. If just one of these had happened I wouldn't have felt the need to write about it. OK, actually I wasn't going to write about it. But then I was looking for that old shampoo commercial where the tiled images of white girls with long shiny hair keeps multiplying as they chirpily intone "and you tell two friends, and so on, and so on..." I thought it was for Breck shampoo, but it turns out to have been a Faberge Organics shampoo (was it really "organic"? Uh, it had wheat germ and honey, but I don't think that really counts!) My commercial search had nothing to do with these two prior events, but yet on Youtube I found the below video made by some young girls who parents were perhaps their same age, or younger, when the Breck commercial spots were most ubiquitous in the early-mid-1970s. Commercials of these sorts elevated white girls with long silky blonde hair to some kind of goddess stature. Not a speaking, independent-thinking type goddess, but the kind that makes for a superficial ego-boosting acquistion among certain men, and envy-enducing arm candy among similarly-minded males across ethnic and racial lines.

Anyway, I was walking down the street a little after the local grammar schools let out, and a group of boys were behind me challenging each other: "I'm going to race!" "I'm not racing!" etc. One started to race but his less-interested friends were in the majority and they ended up a substantial distance behind me. Then I started to hear shouts behind me, "Nice 'fro!" "Hey dude, nice 'fro!" In rather sarcastic tones, I shook my head realizing they were likely addressing me, and kept walking. This was followed by the inexplicable, "Hey, you should eat some tater tots!" My mind absurdly lept to a vaguely remembered descriptive passage by E. Lynn Harris, and I turned around shocked to find four boys maybe the oldest was ten years old, and two of them--the shocking part for me--were of African descent, with 'fros of their own, but much shorter than mine. I stood there for a moment, speechless, as the boys slowly inched their way behind a narrow tree, as though it could hide them from view. This would have been hilarious if the whole thing weren't so sad. I didn't want to shame those two boys in front of their white friends; clearly they were dealing with some internalized issues already, and I didn't want to add to that. Instead I called out "Is that how your parents taught you to speak to strangers?" and then turned on my heel and walked away, feeling mighty sad for those little boys and their parents, and a little for me too.

Two days later I'm walking down the street a few streets up, but in the same direction and I see two grown white women having a conversation. Where I live people do actually say hello to each other. White and black. (But some younger black folks haven't quite gotten the hang of the black people saying hello to each other thing yet.) The women were coming in the opposite direction, I smile, no response. Not a big deal. I see two little girls maybe 5 and 6 years old far behind them, like about 25 yards behind them, but I get the sense they're all together. That sort of thing makes me nervous; anything could happen when your kids are that far behind you--it's like a movie-of-the-week in the making--but it's also none of my business. Anyway, as I get closer to the little girls I'm smiling as I normally do with kids, and the older one moves herself and the younger one off the sidewalk--quite gracefully--into the grass in order to get away from me. I look back at them incredulously, and then look ahead again as I shake my head ruefully and my eyes lock with those of a young Asian woman who I can tell has seen the whole thing. She smiles back at me. And I telegraph my thanks to her--y'know: "thanks bearing witness to that mess, and for seeing my humanity." I don't know if you should have to thank people for seeing your humanity, but you surely can be thankful that they do.

You gotta wonder what people are telling their children about big afros and black men--lately with my bigger hair I've been getting mistaken for one.

If I had short-Obama length hair would I be OK?

But, gee, then maybe no one would mistake me for a guy? Cause when I think back to an episode last month, I seem to be getting this treatment predominantly from little white kids, and then secondly from white women. Last month's last little white kid however was just enthusiastically announcing her notice of my big hair, to her mother's slight embarrassment, and her older sister's amusement--she was laughing at her younger sister's mistaking me for a guy, despite some obvious (on that day) evidence to the contrary.

Here is the Breck commercial remake, just a little reminder of how disparagingly some people are taught to view nappy hair. BTW, the little girl who is initially wearing a wig is identified as "_____ (in the afro)" (I'm not going to name the child here).

• Oh, and what about the Faberge Organics Hair Shampoo ads? You can find them on YouTube, (one even stars Heather Locklear) along with a host of comments that read: "Happy Fat N****r Day!"
• Draw whatever conclusions you will. In the meantime, I'll be writing a note to Youtube.

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At 6:04 AM, Blogger Tayari Jones said...

Lord. That video. I just don't know what to say.

Are you sure they mistook you for a black man? I mean, when the NYer wanted to portray Michelle Obama as extra-scary, they made her clearly female, but with a head full of nappy hair!

At 6:34 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Tayari, in two out of three cases, yes, I definitely was mistaken for a black male. In the situation where the kids silently moved out of the way, I can't know for sure. But let's just say under some layers of clothing gender can be harder to identify for some people. I had the big hair but not the rest of the NYer image (the New Yorker illustrator gave Michelle Obama big nappy hair and an automatic rifle with a full magazine of ammunition--props which clarified they weren't just meaning to represent her as a buffoon with racially-doomed follicles--witness the numerous Cynthia McKinney caricatures to witness the latter efforts). Yeah, that video. Mmph, sad, sad.

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