(The Root) — One of the unexpected stars of the New York mayor’s race is 15-year-old Dante de Blasio, son of New York City public advocate-turned-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. Dante, who is black, became an overnight sensation after starring in a television ad for his father’s campaign in which he argues that his father, who is white, is the best candidate to continue the battle to end stop and frisk, the policing practice that disproportionately targets innocent young minorities.
Dante’s newfound fame has been helped by his sizable Afro, which has become famous in its own right and helped make Dante even more recognizable as he walks the streets of one of America’s most populous cities. Although most of the attention Dante and his hair have generated has been positive, not all of it has.
In an interview at DNAinfo titled, “Bill de Blasio’s Son Tells All About his Show-Stealing Afro,” Dante mentioned that he washes his hair once a week, something unlikely to generate attention from African-American media. But Hunter Walker, a writer for Talking Points Memo, tweeted this to Dante’s parents on Aug. 16 in response to their son’s charming interview: “@deBlasioNYC and @Chirlane should probably encourage Dante to give his hair more than a weekly washing.”
The comment provoked a swift rebuke from Dante’s African-American mother, Chirlane McCray, who tweeted this: “Walker obviously knows little, if anything, about African American hair care!”
It’s clear that McCray is right. Walker’s tweet demonstrates that he is oblivious to the fact that most black Americans do not wash their hair as often as white Americans do, because our tresses, on average, tend to be less oily and thus require less regular attention. Walker replied to McCray with an equally clueless mea culpa: “I’m assuming he showers more than weekly and doesn’t shampoo but the article wasn’t too precise.”
The coverage of Dante de Blasio’s hair is a reminder that there is still a cultural gulf that can affect minority candidates or candidates with family members who are minorities. Last year I asked political consultant Michael Goldman if President Obama could be re-elected if his wife sported natural hair, to which he replied, “If you’re saying to me, ‘What if Michelle Obama wore her hair like Angela Davis in the 1960s?’ then I would say that would be unacceptable to voters.” Goldman went on to explain that voters are more likely to vote for candidates, regardless of their race, who, along with their families, embody what those voters define as normal and relatable. Goldman further noted that since the electorate is still largely white, an Afro is unlikely to be seen as normal to many voters.
He did say that close-cropped natural hair is unlikely to be viewed as abnormal in the way a larger Afro might be, noting that a number of African-American women have succeeded in politics with short, natural hairstyles.
Natural hair is more popular now than it has been in decades. More black celebrities are embracing the look, among them Academy Award nominee Viola Davis. The actress abandoned her trademark wigs to wear her hair natural on one of the most glamorous nights of her career, the 2012 Academy Awards.
Yet despite the fact that more African Americans are embracing the look, not all employers are. Just last year, a Louisiana news anchor was fired after responding to a viewer’s offensive comments about her natural hairstyle. The viewer was unclear as to why the anchor would not simply grow her hair longer, displaying a confusion similar to Hunter Walker’s about the way our hair works.