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An Open Letter: On Colorism, Representation, and Curly Privilege in the Natural Hair Community

11:51 AM

An Open Letter: On Colorism, Representation, and Curly Privilege in the Natural Hair Community
Me and my Grandpa. Inseparable. (Grandma working those glasses tho!)
It's taken me a few days to muster up the courage to put my thoughts to keystroke. And in some ways, I still don't have all the words.

And I damn sure don't have all the answers.

But I felt the need to speak. To say something. To be a conduit to a very necessary conversation that's been happening in various silos across social media. 

Allow me to backtrack for a moment, and share where it all started.

Last week, I was sitting in my bedroom, scrolling on Facebook on my phone. I see an article from Black Girl Long Hair titled, "Black Women on Instagram are Sharing Their Heat Damage Transformations". I thought, "Let me go check this out!" - because heat damage and transitioning are two topics I'm very well versed in and have discussed at length here on the blog.

And wouldn't you know it? They nabbed my picture and featured me. This one, to be exact:

A photo posted by Christina Patrice (@maneobjective) on

I was proud of that picture. Sure, I look like an atrocity in more ways than one in the top photo, but for me it represents a few different journeys. The journey to natural hair. The journey to embracing whatever the hell was about to grow out of my scalp. The journey to self care (I was just getting my feet wet with the gym then). And plus, Samuel and I had only been dating for like one or two months at the time, so that journey was underway, too. We're engaged, for those that missed it :)

In that small moment, I was happy. Yes, I used to write for BGLH, but I was still happy that they thought enough of me to share a glimpse of my story.

That is, until I entered the comment section on Facebook.

I've never in my life been so upset, disturbed, saddened, shocked, alarmed, and offended about the contents of a comment section on social media - at least not one for Black women, by Black women. Normally, I don't even entertain comments on social media like that, because I know keyboard thuggery is real and everyone feels bold behind a screen, but won't look you in the eyes for 3 seconds in public.

But these comments stung. And not because they were slick-tongued or witty,  but because behind the cutting words, I could feel the pain and pathology. 

BGLH has done one helluva cleanup job on the comment section (and even wrote a response piece), so I don't have screencaps of the more inflammatory comments, but some of the memorable highlights include:

  • Accusing BGLH of colorism
  • Accusing BGLH of only catering to mixed-race women with loose curls
  • Asserting that the light skinned women in the post are mixed or exotic and therefore not Black
  • Accusing light skinned women of "taking over" the natural hair community and pushing women with darker skin and kinky hair out
And that's putting it mildly.

A number of comments remain, as they weren't inherently disrespectful, and to an extent encouraged dialogue.

My first instinct was to get defensive. As in, "Don't-come-for-me-I-ain't-no-random-exotical-I-been-doing-this-blog-thing-since-2012-I'm-Black-AF-my-momma-black-my-daddy-black-I-cook-a-mean-mac-and-cheese-I-make-cornbread-from-scratch-I-grew-up-in-South-Central-LA-I-got-a-degree-in-African-American-Studies-my-fiance-is-Black-AND-my-electric-slide-game-is-on-POINT!" defensive.
An Open Letter: On Colorism, Representation, and Curly Privilege in the Natural Hair Community
Grandma. Grandpa. Mom. Sister.  #family
But that's counterproductive in quite a few ways. One, it's divisive and otherizes women of color who may identify themselves as Black or Afro-hyphenated. Two, it puts me in a space of pleading my Blackness on account of stereotypes and assumptions that Blackness, and therefore Black identity, exists as a monolith. That last one was actually problematic in two separate ways, but I don't want this blog post to turn into a dissertation.

So I sat back. I let my thoughts, feelings, and questions marinate. I'm not 100% this will come out the right way, so let me tell you what this piece is not. It's not tone deaf, blind, ignorant, or #alllivesmatter. I'm not shying away from the very real presence of anti-blackness, racism, colorism, and white privilege, and how they all to an extent benefit me as a woman with lighter skin.

Nor do I intend for this to be the diatribe of a tragic mulatto, filled with the anguish of being too Black for one world, and not Black enough for another. I'm not gonna tell you the story about how I had to work twice as hard to prove my Blackness to my peers - because that argument in no way compares to the story of a darker woman working twice as hard to prove her humanity and value in a system that inherently devalues Black skin. Both issues are a byproduct of the same legacy (slavery), but the specific gravity of each is incomparable.

I've never once been told I was ugly, undesirable, less than, or unlovable on account of the color of my skin. I'm never automatically dismissed as the archetypal "Angry Black Woman" or classified as "ghetto" on site. I can't pretend to even fathom the pain and psychological damage associated with that. But what I can understand is representation. Only a blind fool would ignore the blatant color and texture hierarchy that exists in mainstream television, film, music, advertising, and in the natural hair community. For every Uzo Aduba, there's a million Jurnee Smolletts. For every Klassy Kinks, there's fifty-leven FroGirlGinnys. I say this not to pit groups of women against each other, but simply to acknowledge that colorism and texture privilege are very, very real. 

An Open Letter: On Colorism, Representation, and Curly Privilege in the Natural Hair Community
My sister and cousin slaying a blow out and twist out, respectively.
It makes more than enough sense to me that in a space cultivated by Black women for Black women - representing the full spectrum of Blackness would be of the utmost importance. And making sure that women who are historically underrepresented and devalued in mainstream society are at the forefront can and should be a primary objective. That's why I have the utmost respect for spaces like 4cHairChick that are committed to unashamedly promoting underrepresented beauty.

But here's where things get a little unhinged.

What often goes missed or unchecked is how that conversation around representation unfolds. Demands for representation don't have to come at the expense of my Blackness. We humans are intelligently designed multifaceted beings with the amazing capability to process and manage multiple thoughts, feelings, and expressions. I can care about the upcoming election and have critical conversations about Standing Rock - and watch Black Ink Crew Chicago or How to Get Away with Murder in the same day. I'm not limited to "this or that". I have the emotional and intellectual capacity to care about the school to prison pipeline AND why JuJu on that Beat is abomination before the legacy of Knuck if You Buck.

In that same vein, I wholly believe it to be possible for women across the African Diaspora to have fruitful dialogue about representation and advocating for those of us most disenfranchised by white privilege and the legacy of Eurocentric beauty - without negating the identity or policing the Blackness of those who emerge seemingly unscathed.

I don't know how to wrap this in a neat lil' bow, because I don't have all the answers. We're reeling in the aftermath of a legacy of systemic disenfranchisement (to put it ever so lightly), in a country that refuses to atone for its sins against Black skin. But what I will say is this:

My light skin doesn't make me any less Black.

My texture didn't make the decision to go natural any less difficult.

Your representation matters to me.

And lastly - a particular subset of Black women can't "overtake" the natural hair community and shut you out of something you created...without your permission.

That last part will probably land me in some hot water, but it's a hard truth. The natural hair community (and several brands that emerged as a result) was built on the backs of Black women seeking out a space for self love, education, and sharing information about caring for afro-textured hair. There's no doubt about that. And let me be 137% clear - I still wholeheartedly believe in the exclusivity of the natural hair community as a place for women of the African Diaspora.

What it boils down to is this - the representation of the diversity of Blackness in the natural hair community across textures and skin tones is not wrong.

The overrepresentation of Black women who fit a particular aesthetic as the face of the natural hair community is dead wrong.

So my question is, what are we gonna do about it? I'm tired of reading thinkpieces and expository essays on colorism and a lack of representation in mass media. The infighting in the comment section on social media is played out.

Are we boycotting these companies that refuse to include you in their social media and in-store marketing campaigns?

Are we calling to the carpet companies that refuse to cater to the needs of kinky hair? Are we spotlighting those that do?

I need to know - so I can support you in whatever this call to action is.

Just don't dog me out in the process.

Peace, Love, and Deep Conditioner by the Tub(full),
-Christina Patrice

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9 comments

  1. This was amazingly written! I have dark skin and wear my hair natural (3B...3C? Whatevs lol) under my extensions and find the issue of the OVERrepresentation of lighter skin and looser coils. Point of the matter is that we should all be represented but we shouldn't tear down our sister because it's not happening. I'm not sure what we can do, but thank you for voicing your opinion and in a way that many can't put into words.

    http://adorndinarmor.com

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  2. Yes. Exactly. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I didn't have the words to say anything nice about what went on under that article but the truth of the matter is its been going on for years and it's no less heartbreaking.

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  3. Thank you for this letter. I am tired of the divisiveness of texture and skin colour in the natural community. Let us focus on correcting the idea that in the business world and the schools everyone has to follow European standards of beauty. I love that there are products and website (like yours) and a gazillion YouTube posts that have helped me learn how to transition to natural and look after my hair. Quit judging what comes out of our sister's scalp and if she's black enough for its texture to count?

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  4. Oh, you lovely thing you. I applaud you for both your bravery and your honesty because it's not easy to talk about this without loosing a (virtual) limb.
    This blew up a couple of months ago on this side of the pond. Someone claimed that there weren't any deeper toned bloggers getting mad representation in the UK and that it was over run by looser haired curlies. I think the main stream brands with words like 'curls' in them DO aim for this demographic because, from a business model, it makes sense (especially in our tiny country) - Women with curly hair who don't identify as women of colour may find it easier to empathise with or feel embraced by someone with curly hair and
    I mean, I guess I count as a deeper toned blogger? I'm semi-anon so I feel I am donating less than nothing to the representation in the UK but...I...don't like having my face out in public, let alone online *crinkles nose at the thought* I do my best to support and shout out and spread the news about those who are not so camera-allergic and have principles I can support. Just off the top of my head - Anita Grant, Shea Butter Cottage, NeffyFrofro, Almocado, Shea Decadence, Natural Belle - are all amazing, hard working, and dedicated mid to deeper toned women who create quality product/content. In some cases, it took them a while to get to the shiny level I require (wonky, dodgy-looking websites? Nein, danke) but in the end the lovely quality and extreme sincerity pulls me back for repeats. But I'm not going to ignore something that is (excuse my language) hella good and just as honest and sincere and fun because they're fairer toned than I am. That goes against my principles too. Treat others etc etc. How does one change mindset? Indivdiually, the best we can, leading by example.
    Um. Well. Apologies for the essay on your essay. But clearly I have feelings about your feelings!

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  5. I couldn't agree more with this! Beautifully written!
    Edwige | http://www.hypnozglam.com

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  6. Unfortunately, your article is all too true. I've had to train my friends and family that I don't have "good" hair. My hair is no "better" than yours. I still have to manage my hair with the same amount of products that everyone else does. In reality, we all wish our hair was different than what we were born with, but I've learned to be grateful with what God has given me.

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