Generations of Black American women recall weekend afternoons spent watching an iron comb glow like molten lava on the stove burner. We waited for our mothers to wield the hot comb like a weapon, ready to press our thicket of coils into submission to make us more culturally palatable. Even at a young age, I wondered who I was supposed to be impressing.
When I was deemed old enough, I “leveled up” to chemical straighteners that would frequently blister my scalp — all for a flouncy bob I detested. “Beauty is pain,” my hairdresser would chirp as she kneaded the chemical cream into my roots and I winced. In my mid-20s, I decided beauty wasn’t worth that pain, so I chopped off most of my hair and have since maintained a very short, natural style.
“When Black women’s hair features as the butt of jokes, the very real and myriad forms of multiple marginalization against Black women is erased and even justified,” Joseph noted. “It hurts.”
Even though the jokes at the expense of us and our hair predate Rock, we don’t need him to lead the way in turning up the savagery of the practice, let alone on Hollywood’s biggest evening.
Like the director Jane Campion’s misstep a couple weeks ago at another awards show (which, sadly, also involved the Williams sisters, one of the focuses of the Will Smith film “King Richard”), this takedown of a Black woman stings even more for having been unleashed by someone who should know better — in Rock’s case, as a Black father of daughters; in Campion’s, as a woman who’s also probably dealt with sexist professional slights. But the result each time was the same: Black women were expected to smile and take the stab.
In one sense, the entire Oscars to-do, and its flurry of embarrassment and apologies, could have been avoided by choosing not to drag a Black woman down by her hair. Yet for too many and for too long, it has felt irresistible not to mess with it, mess with us.
So to anyone who ever feels the urge to mock, I’ll reframe Will Smith’s warning at the show: Keep the mention of Black women’s hair out of your mouth.