Generations of black American women remember weekend afternoons spent watching an iron comb glow like molten lava on the burner. We waited for our mothers to wield the hot comb like a weapon, ready to force our thickets into submission to make us more culturally palatable. From a young age, I wondered who to impress.
When I was deemed old enough, I went “level” to chemical straighteners that would often blister my scalp—all for a ruffled bob that I loathed. “Beauty is pain,” my hairdresser squeaked as she kneaded the chemical cream into my roots and I flinched. In my mid-twenties I decided beauty wasn’t worth it Which pain, so I cut most of my hair and kept a very short, natural style ever since.
“When black women’s hair is the butt of jokes, the very real and myriad forms of multiple marginalization of black women are obliterated and even justified,” Joseph noted. “It hurts.”
While the jokes at our expense and our hair predate Rock, we don’t need him to lead the way in ramping up the brutality of the practice, let alone Hollywood’s biggest night.
Much like director Jane Campion’s misstep a few weeks ago at another awards ceremony (which unfortunately also involved the Williams sisters, one of the focal points of the Will Smith movie “King Richard”), this removal of a black wife even more for being let loose by someone who should know better – in the case of Rock, as a black father of daughters; at Campion’s, as a woman who has also likely faced sexist professional insults. But the result was the same every time: Black women were expected to smile and take the plunge.
In a way, the whole Oscars to-do, and the flurry of embarrassment and apology, could have been avoided by choosing not to drag a black woman by her hair. But too much and for too long it felt irresistible not to mess with it, to mess with it U.S†
So for anyone who ever feels the urge to mock, I’ll rephrase Will Smith’s warning on the show: keep the mention of black women’s hair out of your mouth.