This is a beautiful song from Indie Arie where she sing about finding her identity, self esteem and heritage through her hair. She went through many stages, and hairstyles, that helped give voice to her self expression. Her ultimate challenge came when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost all of her hair. Within those testing times, she sings about finding her strength, self-esteem, identity and resolve within herself. In other words, she found her soul within and realized all this stuff that we do to ourselves externally really doesn’t mean anything because beauty comes from within and radiates outward. How many of us can identify with her experience, I mean finding strength and self-esteem in external looks – but you won’t find it there.
Since we started our blog series talking about hair, let us then continue to talk about hair. How many myths do we encounter about hair that is based on prejudice [or perhaps down right racism] that have lead people to discriminate against one another. For example, some say dreadlocks are dirty because the myth is to enable it to knot and grow you can’t wash your hair or the nappy afro myth, your hair is unkept because you don’t comb it. Said in a derogatory manner it could easily lead one to believe that anyone who wears these styles are lacking in basic self-care.
Yet if one were to scratch the surface you would find indigenous cultures around the world from Native Americans to Blacks to Sikhs all who have special meaning and belief that their hair holds, and as exotic or plain as it might be, it holds some special significance. Cultural beliefs about our hair and its affects can be traced as far back to the days of Samson and Delilah, perhaps even further. While each culture and belief is distinct, many are strangely similar. Even more familiar are the adversities these same cultures have had to face due to racism, negative stereotyping, domestic violence and assimilation.
As a mature black Canadian millennial of Trinidadian roots, I write from a perspective of also having experienced forms of prejudices, racism, stereotyping and discrimination. I’ve had dreadlocks, gone bald, afro and straightened my hair. It took me a very long time to admit what I was experiencing – I was naive and didn’t realize I was being discriminated against, that is until I took a Women’s studies and philosophy course at university as a mature student.
The Second Sex, The Black Intellectual Women, and Beyond Respectability
There are a variety of studies that examined class distinctions, gender relations and colonialism. In this historical process, ideas emerged that one group was superior/inferior to others and systems were put in place to justify and sustain these unequal social relations, for example, by limiting access to education on the basis of ideas that some groups are by nature less capable or apt.
In Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction to her book The Second Sex, a book that is often studied in academic circles, I was surprised to read how she made the comparison of the plight of women with that of Blacks, Jews and factory workers. In it she says, “There are deep analogies between the situations of women and blacks: both are liberated today from the same paternalism, and the former master caste who wants to keep them ‘in their place’, that is, the place chosen for them.” She continues to state, “The white American relegates blacks to the rank of shoe-shine boy,” meaning “blacks are only good for shining shoes.” A concept that forced me to see the world in which I live in from a very different perspective; one of gender, race and class.
Another insightful book, in which Genevieve Valentine of NPR Books recently reviewed, author Brittany C. Cooper’s Beyond Respectability. In it, Valentine notes the several profiles of black feminist intellectuals who not only fought against the idea of “respectability”, as a prerequisite for being heard, but against the tendency of white feminist, black [and white] men to erase their contributions. Black [feminist] intellectual women struggled black intellectual [feminist] women and had to endure against both racism and misogyny, for these women, attaining that legitimacy [intellectual, political and cultural] was critical.
The very idea of the black woman as a public citizen was difficult at best to accept because their works often pushed against the dominant narrative. It is a complicated history of the black woman as an intellectual force, by the turn of the 20th century. Valentine notes in “The Club Movement Among Colored Women of America,” Cooper wrote of the “organized anxiety of women who have become intelligent enough to recognize their own low social condition and strong enough to initiate the forces of reform,” urging black women to organize and agitate for power – and credit – within the wider body politic.
The idea of “respectability” itself is one of the book’s major concern of the idea that being seen as respectable and enhanced the black woman’s political message is but all to often that “respectability” which merely equaled a demure and ineffective silence. It’s been over a century since black women have been aspiring for “undisputed dignity” as a prerequisite for social and racial equality for black women, yet to some extent that ideal still remains distant.
Natives and Blacks
Racism, especially in Canada is somewhat covert and hidden very well, a stark contrast to our neighbors in the south where it’s upfront and ‘in-your-face’. With plastic smiles, exchanging pleasantries; whites might befriend (or date) a person of color because it is exotic and exciting or to show their solidarity, they might even travel to foreign lands and visit blacks [and other indigenous cultures] in their natural habitats as if they’re on some African Lion Safari. One only has scratch lightly beneath the surface and – you begin to understand their real thoughts and feelings towards “otherness” as it shines right through and for some it is not very good.
Even if disproportionately few members of generally disadvantaged groups (eg. Women in general, First Nations and Black Canadian men and women, disabled person) may be relatively advantaged in terms of wealth, income or offices but relatively disadvantaged in social status as targets of racism or sexism or ableism (or some combination thereof). I bring this up for the patterns of discrimination and negative stereotyping bares a striking resemblance between Native and Black people. For men depicting them as hyper-masculine physically intimidating, emotionally tough, sexually virile – ‘once you go black you never go back’ – which invokes images of the “savage” to be tamed, or the rogue slave to be subdued, with unbridled sexual prowess to be disciplined. This virility posed a threat to both white women’s purity and white men’s sexual integrity. Today, these characteristics are (re)presented in all types of images such as the “gangsta” rapper in urban black youth.
It is sad that these “negative stereotypes” are predominate even in today’s society, a sentiment that is echoed a Huffington Post article where the black author wrote about his disappointment in having to have “the race talk” with his son and explain to him that:
“…there are going to be some white people who will not like you simply because you are black…. I will have to teach him about what to do when he gets stopped by the police. How even if he didn’t do anything wrong, it is imperative that he keeps his cool, knows his rights, and remains calm….That whenever you go to a store, you always have to remember to ask for a receipt so that nobody can accuse you of stealing …
That there will be some white people who look at you with eyes of fear as you get older. That you will not always be the cute little kid with long dreadlocks who looks like your daddy… You might see white women clench their purse when you walk by, you’ll see them scared to come on the elevator with you; you’ll have taxi cabs that don’t want to stop for you; you will have professors who don’t think you are smart enough to be in their classroom; you will be followed around stores because they want to make sure you are not stealing; you will have white people who will literally will be terrified of you…”
Then there’s stereotypes for black women, similar to the indigenous woman, as the hyper-sexualized exotic temptress, an object of sexual desire and conquest by colonizers and slave owners; as if they are ‘taming the shrew’. This stereotype positions the image of the black woman as promiscuous, erotic, and sexually available which still permeates popular culture and current stereotypes. There is also the “angry black woman” or how about the “bad” black mothers, as featured on Jerry Springer and Maury Povich that reinforces “negative stereotypes” of black women who have several children with multiple men, having no concern for the paternity or the economic needs of her children and, therefore, is a drain on the state.
“I am a white male and I am prejudice. What can I do to change? To be a better American?” – video clip above
Prejudicial views are very difficult to change. The power of prejudice usually resists the test of reality as exemplified by countless conspiracy theories. We often assume and believe that the stories we hear are true, especially if they seem credible and come from people we trust or people who are entrusted with political, social, economic or cultural forms of power. Many people seem to know someone who knows someone who met someone else who [fill in the blank] and there you have it – a “story” turns into a belief, and left unchecked that belief turns into prejudice and that prejudice will lead one to discriminate and that discrimination will lead to hate and hate could lead to crime. It’s that easy and it happens frequently and on so many levels, every day.
“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can, and do, embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression they profess to wish to see eradicated.” ~ Bell Hooks
“White supremacy refers to the belief that white people are superior to all others resulting in the systemic privileging of white people.” Basically, white supremacy is all about power – power over anyone and anything that is not white. So we must not embody this conversation to be just about the “white [wo]man’s” attitude towards blacks but it is also in Natives, Muslims, Jews, Chinese, Mexicans and so forth; they all have had their run-ins and power struggles with the white [wo]man.
In this context, racialized refers to power dynamics that exist in white supremacist societies, wherein only non-white people are presumed to have a race. These terms cast a shadow of “otherness” across people who challenge the insights and legitimacy of the knowledge offered by racialized people. “Otherness” is a term used to refer to those who are systematically excluded from the dominant group, based on sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexuality, or ability. “Otherness” is rooted in the power relationships embedded in binary terms such as woman/man, gay/straight, and black/white.
These terms are continually contested by feminist theories because they reinforce existing relationships of power and privilege. “Realizing one’s privilege is useful in understanding how some social norms are taken for granted, and how unequal access to opportunities and resources can sustain marginalization of some groups, and in itself be a threat to principles of equality and human dignity.”
In many ways complacency has the power to be much more powerful than outright racism. White people largely live in a disillusioned facade of tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. Insisting that racism is “solved” now that there aren’t separate water fountains. What does it say about white supremacy that women of color only hold 3% of faculty positions in North American universities? Ignorance and apathy are a security blanket – privileged groups often make a conscious choice to not have their power challenged – the promotion of white supremacy disguised as “equality” only supports this. This begs us to wonder, “how do we live equally in an unequal world?”
Fear is an excellent motivator influencing others ‘generating a desire for affiliation as well as the need to protect “me” and what is “mine.” Fear of loss of what is ‘mine’ through stealing evokes protectionism creating gang or tribal mentality. Engaging in open dialogue about racism, should always be welcomed in a non-threatening and intimidating manner, about negative stereotyping and prejudices or hate speech, which really when you boil it down, is about fear. Researchers have pointed out that human behavior is guided by needs of security, identity and freedom. When humans perceive a threat and think their needs may not be met, they react. They do so by forming groups to ensure the protection and realization of those needs. Ideas of “us” v. “them”to reinforce groups’ identity and legitimacy.
How should (or could) we identify the “least advantaged” once we appreciate how racism and sexism have produced situations in which people of colour in general and women of colour in particular are over-represented among the poor?  Those who are in a dominant position, with access to symbolic and institutional power, are able to define social norms and sanction those who deviate from them. There is an underlying idea: there is one group, “us”, with perceived privileges and rights that are of superior interest, and there is another group, “them”, perceived as a threat to existing privileges and security.
How can we as the “Others” help change the narrative from fear to one of cooperation and mutual respect? That fears about “otherness” are unjustified. For us, the “Others”, acting as agents of change requires openness, patience, understanding, empathy and compassion. How do we empower, build empathy, find common ground and stretch bridges among groups and among each other? I cannot stress how empathy in these types of conversations is a key ingredient when listening to and promoting openness to the ideas of others. Because really folks, there’s got to be a change and a better way in which we relate to each other. In closing, and after some self-reflection, ‘I do agree with the lyrics in the opening song; ‘I am not my hair, I am not my skin, I am the soul that dwells within.’ A delightful perspective, because I personally, do not see the color of skin or the color of your culture nor the color of your religion; but I do see the color of a person’s aura (spirit) for it is within the color of a person’s aura you will find their true nature.
, , Broadbent Institute blog post, Race, Oppression and social democracy, Bruce Baum and Minelle Mahtani, June 21, 2017