Afros and high tops tend to tower over the less-voluminous masses. Dreadlocks inspire stares. In general, “kinky” or curly locks garner attention, usually of the negative or ignorant sort. In America, the public display of black person’s natural hair has always caused uneasiness. For many non-black people (particularly whites), natural black hair is a frightening, politically-charged declaration of “otherness.” But does it have to be that way?
The recent election of Bill de Blasio may prove that progress has been made. De Blasio, now mayor of New York City, is a white man married to a black woman. In August, the liberal candidate began running a commercial featuring (among other things) his son, Dante, and his afro. Some pointed to the particular success of the commercial, as well as the high visibility of his natural-haired biracial family, as cornerstones of de Blasio’s campaign. And obviously, his campaign was an overall success. So it may seem that his victory indirectly adds up to a victory for black hair, too. The declaration of Dante’s “otherness” translated to a largely positive reaction, which demonstrates progress in racialized attitudes toward appearance…right?
Unfortunately, this linear take on the matter fails to acknowledge the special conditions surrounding the television debut of Dante’s fro. Most importantly, this question must be posed: could a black candidate allow his son to wear an afro (for a commercial or in general) and receive the same level of support? My gut-response is: probably not. Comparing President Obama to Bill De Blasio may bring us closer to a similar conclusion.
Both are college educated men with liberal ideologies. Both are men, who, in their college days, wore afros. Both are men, who, upon deciding to seriously pursue political careers, cut their hair. The conservative crop could just be a prerequisite for political office, regardless of race. But what if the Obamas weren’t so perfectly coifed, groomed down to the last fly-away, picture perfect at all times? What if they wore more natural hair, a bit more… like the deBlasios? I don’t think the trajectory of Obama’s path would be quite the same if Michelle had dreads or wore her natural hair. (Remember this illustration in The New Yorker?) The Obamas knew their appearance was a key component on the road to the white house. Or might it just be a coincidence that the Obama girls’ natural braids and twists were relaxed away?
Their strategy is part of a phenomenon known as “respectability politics,” which encompasses all of the strategies black people employ to legitimize themselves as equals to white people. It ranges from black people (such as journalist Don Lemon) urging other black people to take responsibility for their communities to the strategy in question – black people altering their hair to appeal to white notions of beauty. Indeed, African Americans have been playing the respectability politics game for a while.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King and his colleagues in SCLC sported what were called “number ones” – a close crop cut that kept the hair-textured evidence of their “otherness” as limited as possible. They were playing the game – wear a suit, shave, keep the kinkiness a secret and maybe white people will be more inclined to accept you enough to hear your side of things (before they’re given the option to dismiss it anyway.) But as the black power movement emerged behind the Civil Rights movement, afros and natural hair catapulted into national consciousness as symbols of rebellion. Leaders in the Black Panther Party, sporting round crowns of kinky hair, had given up on the respectability game. Their edgy look came to be associated with their violent, radical representation in popular media – and so black hair became further stigmatized, now with a negative political stamp.
That historical stamp prevents a black candidate from taking the place of de Blasio and observing the same reaction. To make the comparison clear, let’s say we leave Dante’s fro in the picture, but de Blasio is a black man. What happens to his message? Could a black candidate, with the same liberal ideology, wear his hair in an afro or let his children wear afros or dreads, and receive the same kind of positive reception? Or would they be deemed radical, conjuring up images of the Black Panthers? The appearance of deBlasio’s family may be a personal choice, but given that he is a proper, respectable looking white man, his family is free to make that choice. I don’t believe a black family, based on the reference point of the Obamas, would be able to make the same choice and enjoy the same degree of success.
Beyond these hypothetical deliberations, the positive reception of the deBlasio’s appearance is complicated by two more concrete factors: first, that de Blasio may have exploited his son’s hair to appeal to black voters and second, that their appearance is even a viable point for discussion.
Aside from the commercial, Dante’s hair was the inspiration for the campaign’s twitter hashtag “#gowiththefro.” Many NYC residents were not particularly fond of the hashtag and its connotations, calling it “fetishistic” and “exploitative.” De Blasio defended himself by insisting that Dante and his family were participating in the campaign by choice, but the charges still seem valid. After all, if a white man says “go with the fro” he is both co-opting the black power sentiments of the afro and wielding his white privilege to legitimize them.
Then, there’s the fact that the de Blasio family appearance is even able to be politicized. If Dante’s hair was short, there would be no discussion. The same goes for the rest of the family – if their hair wasn’t natural, the evidence of their “otherness” would be minimized and tamed into an Obama-like image of respectability. The media obsession with the de Blasio family’s hair is not accidental; it’s political. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not de Blasio uses his kid’s hair as a hashtag – his kid’s hair is political whether he wants it to be or not.
Today, black hair is considered no less inferior or rebellious than it was 30 or 40 years ago. It will take a long time for those ingrained societal perceptions to change. But here’s the progress I’m happy about: Dante has a fro and he’s the son of New York City’s mayor. If we strip away all the complex political implications of the afro itself and of Dante’s particular background, his fro means more people are being exposed to natural black hair. Maybe one day, with a few more Dantes (and a few less Bill de Blasios to legitimize them), we’ll get to a point in this country where black hair is just that. It will simply…be. That is the future I’m looking toward.