There seems to come a point in many a white feminist writer’s career when she turns her attention to “black hair.” And then, as you have surely seen, she corners some black woman (usually younger) and interrogates her about her hair, under the guise of “understanding.” You can read such an article here (h/t to Kevin), though I should be honest with you, I did not read the whole thing. After I got to “It sounds as though black girls’ hair issues are like white girls’ weight issues.” I stopped reading.
There are quite a few things that bother me about this whole approach, but today I’d like to focus on the “Isn’t how dumb I am cute?” white woman thing. Don’t get me wrong, as a white woman, I have long been taught that as long as I appear incredibly wide-eyed-edly stupid (and cute!), I will be able to maneuver through the world of men with less pain. So, I get that “I can do what I want as long as I appear appropriately ignorant” is deeply ingrained in white womanhood. But Jesus Christ, isn’t it time we admit that we’re trained to do that and that such a defense mechanism ill serves us when dealing with other women (or trying to deal respectfully with men)?
Here’s the thing. This approach is all wrong for many reasons. But the main reason it’s wrong is that it makes black women into an object lesson in ways that white people closely guard the borders of whiteness against other white people.
Yes, white women, when you write about “black hair,” you are almost always writing about what it means to be a white person. Because, almost always, your approach is one of “oh, as a poor little, cute, ignorant white woman, who is not out to harm you in any way, I’m just curious about your hair, which I don’t understand AT ALL, because it is so different from white hair” which is, obviously, demonstrably, and on its face just a bald-faced lie.
Unless, of course, you mean that hair like mine is “not-white.”
So, here we are. The two choices we have are that you’re either being incredibly disrespectful to black women by insinuating that not only is their hair not something you have experience with, but that, because you don’t
Eh, I started this post intending to rant on about how setting up this dichotomy between “white” hair and “black” hair is a way to reinforce beauty standards among white women and has very little to do with black women, except for to continue to treat them as some strange thing so different from us that they must be held out as the far end of a spectrum along which various white women fall as they move farther away from acceptably white. So, straight blonde hair? Normal for a white person, beautiful even. Everything that deviates from that? Not normal for a white person, not beautiful. Bring yourselves back into line, white women.
Need proof? The fact that there can be white women who don’t know about curly hair, when many white women have curly hair, shows you both that the experience of having curly hair is not foreign to white women and that straight-haired white women have some intrinsic sense that you don’t ask other women randomly about their hair, but they think that performing the “I’m so cute and harmless and gee I just don’t know anything, please tell me” act on black women because black women are so different is somehow okay.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but I think that’s the truth in a nugget.
But I’m more interested now, as I think about it, in the ditz-move.
Because the ditz-move is designed to keep us safe from insecure men. We pretend to be stupider than we are, in the hopes that wide-eyed question asking will signal to men that we know we’re not as smart as them, but won’t it be fun to teach us all you know? And then you can take care of me and maybe we’ll even fuck!
In a better world, more men would see this for the insult it is–that a woman is lying to you about who she is in order to manipulate you into feeling like you deserve to have power over her in order for her to exploit you, instead of just dealing honestly and squarely with you.
And let’s be honest, once you figure out that you can use the ditz-move to get out of shit? Well, it’s really only human nature to do it. How many women do you know who never bothered to learn how to change a tire or check her oil or balance her checkbook because their job is to be cute and constantly in need of rescue?
Here’s the thing, though–the point I would make to white women–when actors get off the stage and go to a party, the actor who stays in character among her fellow actors is a giant douche.
So, when you use the ditz-move on other women, it doesn’t signal to other women “I am a helpless fragile butterfly, rescue me (even from myself!).” It signals “Yeah, I’m the douche who doesn’t drop the role. And I expect you to indulge me and my whims.” It is disingenuous and obnoxious.
And if we can, as feminists, see that the ways that men and women interact with each other are fucked up and damaging to both of us, we should not turn around and pull that same shit on other women.