Westwood College Makes the Case for Assimilation: Class, Race, Gender & Appearance

It took me a few screenings of this commercial, before I actually paid enough attention, not to simply change the channel when it was airing. Then last week, I took a moment and actually paid attention to the entire Westwood College commercial.  Lo and behold, I noticed a bit of subliminal messaging in the commercial. Watch carefully at the womyn’s hair in the commercial as it progresses. Notice how as she progresses in her career, her hair becomes more “tame,” so that by the end of the commercial her hair is pulled back completely. 

I can’t help looking at this and thinking of Chris Rock’s highly anticipated film, Good Hair, which is due out this October 23rd (nation-wide).

Westwood’s commercial and the now spoken, fascination with “Black” hair (as if other groups do not have thick nappy, “kinky” hair too – have we been to a Dominican salon lately? Hair type has variance within and across ethnic groups. And there are far more ethnic groups with hair like Black folks, than care to admit it, but I digress), has seen an altogether new light. It is being spoken of out loud. From Erin Aubry Kaplan’s recent piece in Salon to Jenee Desmond-Harris‘s piece in Time (having 3 names is finally in, yes!) the conversation about Black womyn’s hair has gone mainstream. In her article Kaplan says that, “Thanks mostly to the intense physical scrutiny of Michelle Obama, black hair is now a subject suitable for public consumption. Well, almost. For the last year, big media’s been creeping rather awkwardly up to that point and now seems ready to take words like “pressed” and “processed” out of the black vernacular and move them into a more permanently accessible cultural space; both Time and the New York Times Sunday Styles section recently ran sober pieces on the social history and multiple meanings of black hairstyles. Meanwhile, black people have been almost forced into a new mode of self-reflection about workaday rituals they assumed were of interest to no one but themselves.”

I’d argue that Black womyn’s hair taking center stage, isn’t just because of First Lady Michelle Obama. It also has a great deal to do with the fact that many Black female writers seem very comfortable writing about hair – opening the salon door, closet, window or whatever, into the reasons why hair matters in and out of the Black community, now that the First Lady is a Black womyn, we ourselves are grappling with, and at times, contributing to the fascination. In opening our hearts and war chests about experiences with hair (we all have the story of trauma around hearing our hair was “bad,” by others, it’s a rite of passage, especially if you were an “only one.” Mine involves a white friend saying she’d kill herself if she had hair like mine. But let’s all get over the personal narrative drama) there is also a feeding of the fascination with the Black body, that seems distance from a conversation about what Kaplan eruditely calls “the tyranny of beauty standards.” So many of these articles, in my opinion, manage to feature the trauma of Black womyn having to choose, conform, or be judged without a real feminist/womanist critique. Furthermore, that critique hasn’t really deconstructed the very tyranny that Kaplan mentions. Perhaps, though, that was left on the editor’s floor.

Truthfully, Kaplan’s entire article could have been about the skewed image we as people have of beauty because of colonialization and racism.  Jenne Desmond Harris gets closer when she cites that hair type (color, texture, length) is closely associated with perceived sexual availability (as in Don Imus referring to “nappy-headed hos”).  But neither marshall all the tools they could – calling on both feminist critiques and critical race theory to deconstruct myths of beauty, black hair, and racialized and gendered racism and sexism. Where is the intersectionality?

Just because there is a demand to know about black hair,  does it mean we have to so publicly engage in the conversation, dissection and explication of black hair? Yes, there are questions about our hair, but do we have to answer all of them, and in such detail? Does the culture have to be so widely cracked open, that anyone can now ask me if I’m addicted to the “creamy crack?” We should understand by now, shouldn’t we, that fascination is shortly followed by brief dalliances with imitation and mockery, before it becomes full out co-optation, and is sharpened into a new and inventive tool for psychological trauma and oppressive behaviors. This kind of fascination is not useful, if it only serves to answer the curious, entitled, and sexualized questions of white Americans, who feel they need and now want in fact to know, the secret of black hair. Decades of diversity training, had given folks some hesitancy before asking, but now the fascination with the black body is being further normalized by the discussions of the “woe begone Black womyn, just trying to make her hair fit in.” There is something about this gaze and discussion that is pornographic in its delight in “seeing it spoken” as Foucault might say.   

And what about the tougher questions to society: can womyn of color be accepted if we represent a different standard of beauty? Can a womyn of color, with thick, kinky or natural hair achieve success in the corporate business world or the ever more closely related beauty industry? Can a darker-skinned womyn of color with natural hair be considered beautiful? Can womyn of color, period, attain the access and success in the field they choose?

Certainly the Westwood commercial equates career success with tamed hair, not only for identifiable womyn of color, but ultimately for all womyn of color.

For both of the womyn of color, Westwood sends the message that in the professional arena, as in life, appearance, and what meaning society places on how you look, impacts your level of success. It’s interesting to note that the lighter skinned womyn’s coding as a person of color is not revealed until the end of the commercial when her slightly browner family is shown with her on graduation day. Westwood has spent money on their commercials, it is clear from the advertising that they have a laser tight focus on their target audience, and are branding higher education, for this perceived audience.  Both of the commercials featuring womyn of color, are very different from the commercial featuring an identifiable white womyn, whose hair is not shown to be disheveled at any point in the commercial. While the womyn of color are making the move from working class or no jobs, in the commercial featuring the white womyn, it’s an issue of achieving higher status, not about getting in on the entry level; it’s about getting above the entry level to a high status and “important” role. In this subtle way skin privilege is telepathed – the protagonist in this video was already granted entry into the workforce at a level that her counterparts of color were not.

 As Paul Mooney says in the Good Hair trailer, “when your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed; when your hair is nappy, white folks are unhappy.” This cultural critique, delivered in a clever axiom, that ends up calling those with white privilege, to pause and reflect on how they view beauty and what that might mean about access, though delivered as a joke, has a delightful and biting truth to it. It goes beyond what might be misconstrued as a lament by Black womyn of not being considered beautiful and flips the tyranny on the culture – calling out the racism, possibility for internalized oppression, and racialized gender dynamics at work. Good Hair interests me, because I think it both shows the incidences of internalized oppression, while also showing womyn having frank conversations about their calculated choices, to dress and be how they feel comfortable,  in a way that helps us “laugh to keep from crying,” while also highlighting and challenging the  “$9 billion” black beauty industry. 

I have mixed emotions about these articles. On the one hand, the challenges and conflicts they reference, are quite revealing. On the other hand they don’t often provide the canonical under girding that helps contextualize what exactly internalized oppression is, and where internalized oppression and choice break from one another.  What is the cultural context of hair? And what if a womyn of color gets her hair relaxed, does the larger society now have a right to judge her, or question her politics? What does beauty mean? What is beauty – and why is it so desperately important for a womyn to possess it? Pretty privilege, y’all; know about it. The social construction and perception of beauty has very real impact, not only for womyn, womyn of color specifically, but also people with ability challenges, people of color, and a broad spectrum of people who do not fit into society’s boxes.

The bottom line is that in these conversations and articles, the authors, for the most part, are not teaching readers how to look, how to change or confront the tyrannical gaze, so that it gets expanded, become more inclusive, and can support pro-beauty of color aesthetic. What about explaining what  the diversity of beauty among folks of color? What about showing or explaining how muscles,  strength, a full body and curves, are often coveted in a way that white culture does not appreciate. What about talking about intraracial challenges around beauty – so we’re talking about hair and not colorism (check!) I could really wild out here and say something about whether Khloe Kardashian would be as appreciated by white men as she is by Lamar Odom, but you know that would just be wild….My point is that womyn of color, who now have the mic, to talk about the interest in black hair, might also take a moment to challenge normative beauty in language and with examples that also, from a  womanist tradition, open the coversation and door for all folks excluded by the “tyranny of beauty.”  Perhaps this might encourage all womyn to talk about how the race to be aesthetically appeasing, while a right for each individual, is sometimes also killing us (eating disorders, plastic surgery, botox, botox!) And how such a gendered dynamic brands our society’s desire into a commodified package that deconstructs sexual agency, rather than building sexual agency, identity, and true individual aesthetic appreciation. In other words, everyone things Paris Hilton is hot (side-eye) but can’t see what a beautiful womyn Nia Long is – our desire, when placed in the marketplace has been co-opted, so even the desire has been branded to be what the market wants – not what we individually might find attractive. Wait….my mind is popping out of place….

What are the very real consequences of not assimilating? What is different about the way womyn of color look at and conceptualize beauty – and what might the larger culture learn? What are the very real consequences of looking or seeming different? Will someone, as in the case of Caster Semenya, attempt to take your gold medal, when you don’t quite fit in?

While many Black female writers have written about black hair, I’ve seen far fewer pieces on the treatment of Caster Semenya and ideas about Black sexuality, athleticism, and appearance – and ultimately the comfort with our finappropriate gaze upon and desire to control and manipulate the Black body. Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, is sitting at someone’s computer about to write a kick-ass sequel based on all this mess. The treatment of Semenya echoes so loudly of Saartje Baartman (known as Venus Hottentot) that I have an ear ache. The investigation of her gender, the piercingly personal nature of the examination Semenya underwent to determine her gender/sex – two separate parts of identity, which the media and the international sports community have collapsed, resulting in the declaration that Semenya is intersexed, by a (suspect) medical body which violated the 18-year old’s most sacred right to privacy, by announcing to the world, something she herself probably did not know,  is all astoundingly indicative of what can happen when the Black body, particularly the Black female body comes under the culturally panopticonic eye of mainstream culture. We can see how gender and race combine – when a Black womyn is successful, or even just existing she is often pressured, forced, coerced or pressured to conform to a standard of beauty that revolves around a certain kind of appearance. 

We can see that in Caster’s presentation on the cover of You magazine, where her gender performance was heightened in order to quell the rumblings of her sex/gender (again conflated) identity. How does any womyn develop a healthy self-perception in this milieu? And of all the things we could be talking about in terms of Black identity or beauty, why are we stopping at hair? Why not push even further? Why aren’t Black female writers, writing more about what happened to Semenya? Why not, now that the mic is really on, push to not only highlight ways that the Black diasporic community can grow, but also the ways in which our cultural viewpoints can contribute to a healthier self-concept for many.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: