(The Root) —
"I am a young white woman, though one who regularly reads The Root and associates quite often with young black women. Because I am almost always the 'girliest' friend, I inevitably get onto the topic of beauty and, on a related note, hair. After all this time, I have learned quite a lot about the many differences between my hair and my friends' hair.
"One friend in particular often posts things from a natural-hair Facebook page. After I saw one of said posts, it occurred to me, do white people claim 'Team Natural'? My first thought was that it would be totally ridiculous and racist, even if it could be 'technically' true in that most white people don't regularly perm their hair. My question is, what would your reaction be if some random white person were to start posting things about 'loving my natural' and such? To prevent any misinterpretation of my query, I myself do not and would not ever dream of doing this." —Curl-curious
I can tell by your "I do not and would not ever dream of doing this" disclaimer that you're pretty certain that a white woman (But not you. OK. If you say so, we'll go with that!) publicly proclaiming herself a member of "Team Natural" would fall in loosely with stories like actress Julianne Hough's Orange Is the New Black blackface getup or Miley Cyrus' twerking-with-black-women-as-props train wreck.
It does seem as though there's a new quarterly, if not weekly, addition to this list of incidents in which perpetrators disregard sensitivity, cultural context and/or critical thought while passionately defending their right to have some fun. (No one ever said they didn't have the right, just that they should have to deal with the backlash. But that's another article altogether.)
I was actually with you at first. Your question brought to mind the sentiments underlying the work of Endia Beal, who's behind the controversial "You Can Touch My Hair" public art exhibition and these photos of white women with flat twists and finger waves. Whether you love or hate such projects, they make one thing clear: Black hair is a black thing, and it's somewhere between unusual, uncomfortable and absurd when people who don't have it want to put their hands in it, let alone claim its techniques for themselves.
So when I contacted Better Than Good Hair author Nikki Walton (aka "Curly Nikki"), I was really just looking for a quote on what's behind the whole Team Natural thing — not just the hashtag, the Facebook page or the thousands of Instagram photos, but the books, the bloggers, the debates, the conventions that make up what was dubbed several years ago the "natural-hair movement."
I thought Walton would deliver a quick briefing on the heavy history behind the large numbers of black women and girls straightening and chemically altering their hair, not always just for variety or personal expression but often because of a racism-fueled belief that it's wholly unacceptable in its unaltered state. I thought she'd talk about how, for many, shaking off that expectation requires not just new techniques but also a giant leap of faith, a reprogramming of the beauty ideal and a concerted effort to maintain self-esteem in a world that hasn't quite caught on to thinking any of that is a great idea.
My assumption was that we'd all agree that "Team Natural" couldn't — and shouldn't — translate to the heads of white women, no matter how chemical- or color-free, because there's simply very little of the same stuff at stake.
But that's not what she said, and after speaking to her, I began to look at this a little differently. And assuming that the reference in your question to "some random white person" means a white person who uses traditionally black products and techniques and is excited about it — versus someone who's doing a "How adorably ironic that I'm claiming a black thing" routine — I might change yours, too.
"I have no problem at all with a white woman claiming Team Natural," Walton told me, explaining that this would neither surprise nor offend her because "there is a very large presence of white women with curly hair who have embraced their curls. Sixty percent of the world is curly — although you wouldn't know it. So there are a lot of white women who used treatments, who used to flatiron their hair every single day."
While she fully admitted that for black women, "hair involves a lot more history and negative stereotypes, which are less so for looser curls, whether biracial hair or white hair," and that there's "a whole lot more social stigma wrapped up in us going natural," she also said that the natural-hair community has nonetheless become a very inclusive and sought-after space for women of all colors who are trying to find versatility.
"For white women, on an individual level, [wearing their hair in its natural state] is still a hurdle. If their hair is curly and they've been straightening for two decades, that takes some transitioning," Walton said.
And you know what? If a white woman is learning to deal with a hair texture that society says is unkempt, uncute or otherwise less than ideal, I'd frankly much rather stumble upon "I just did a twist-out! #TeamNatural" on Facebook than "OMG my hair is a total ‘fro! It's sooo nappy! I have black girl's hair" (Yes, these are things I've heard), as if that were the worst-possible thing that could happen to someone.
Walton argues that black and white women can actually have a lot in common here. "Socially, politically, there's a big difference," she said, "but when you get down to aesthetics and care, there's a lot of overlap."
As a result, there's probably overlap emotionally, too.
Anyone who has struggled to accept hair that much of our culture says is less than ideal knows how hard it is. Is there a spectrum of difficulty? Sure. But does it make sense to keep information, techniques, inspiring images and membership in a supportive community away from people from different places on that spectrum who might crave those things just as urgently? I'm starting to think not.
Plus, when you start trying to make rules (Do you have to have two black parents to say you're "natural"? Do you have to have once had a perm? Are we going to cut things off at hair type 3a? 3b?), the analysis gets headache-inducing.
It's worth considering that white women who are getting used to their heat- or chemical-free hair might be even hungrier for support and advice because they don't generally grow up in a culture in which hair care, styling and maintenance are things on which everyone's spending a lot of time and energy.
I have a white friend who I'm certain has experienced much more angst over her long, super-thick, curly red hair than I ever have over mine, probably because none of her friends have anything similar going on. You would have thought I saved her life when I sent her a quick Facebook message with some recommendations direct from the "ethnic" hair aisle. Why would I withhold that information? Why wouldn't I want her to share how well the deep-conditioning treatment and gel worked?
One last thing to think about: This might be an area in which black women are the pioneers of something that everyone else catches on to later. If so, it wouldn't be the first time. I like to think that Team Natural and its accompanying worldview could fall into that category, right along with balancing work outside the home with family or being OK with the curves that come with the way many healthy bodies are naturally shaped.
So I'm going to give the hypothetical-or-not woman in your question a pass, and think of this as the latest addition to an ever-growing list of areas in which the "team" expands all the time, but black women are the original members, captains and star players.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to email@example.com.
Previously in Race Manners: "Are Geisha Costumes Always Racist?"