Oprah and the ‘Good Hair’ affair

Oprah Winfrey

I watched Oprah Winfrey late last night, something I rarely do. Chris Rock was the guest, back from last week because of the controversy he’d stirred up.

It seems he has a new movie out, “Good Hair,” which I gathered is more or less a documentary about black women and their hair — what they do to it and the time and money they spend to do it or have it done. And it provoked quite a reaction among black women. Why? I wondered. Apparently so did Oprah.

As a very sheltered older white woman, I freely admit I don’t know much about black hair. I have sort of absorbed what I think I know over time: black hair is more brittle than mine, with a natural curliness/kinkiness that can make it very difficult to manage. Black women, like white women, color their hair, straighten it, add weaves, restyle it, etc.

Apparently the movie tells all about this. I’d be interested in seeing it just to learn what I don’t know and correct any erroneous notions I might have about black hair. But Oprah got tons of letters from black women angry that Rock’s movie reveals their “secrets” to the world. Huh?

Last night, Rock explained that, first, since he’s black, his movies tend to include mostly blacks. And second, that some older black women who grew up in the era of segregation and discrimination, tend to feel that whatever they do with their hair is something to be kept secret from whites.

Okay, fine. But times change, attitudes change, and we older women just have to roll with it as best we can.

I was puzzled, though, that a young professional black woman in the audience spoke about how offensive it is when a white woman approaches her and asks if her hair is a weave. My reaction was Duh! Any woman would be offended to be asked that, and any woman who would bluntly ask is too rude for words. The black/white thing has nothing to do with it. Manners are manners.

On the other hand, there was a white woman who called into the show who admitted that yes, she colors her hair because “all white women want to be blonde.” What cave does she live in?

Two black women in the audience wanted to know if Oprah’s long, flowing hair was all hers (something I’ve wondered myself), and they were invited up on stage to find out that it is indeed all Oprah’s.

Frankly, I’ve long thought, or assumed, that most women are hair freaks. It’s a vanity thing, not a race thing. We curl our hair or straighten it; cut it short, grow it long, or even shave it all off; we color it and recolor it. Our hair is too thin, too thick, too dry, too oily, too brittle, too straight, too curly, too frizzy, too dark, too light. We try to please ourselves, impress our friends, wow our men. Our hair is just another part of our make-up, our attitude, the person we present to the world.

On the other hand, maybe I’m way off base about the whole hair/race/attitude thing and don’t even realize it. If I’m being an ignorant old white woman, I invite black women to enlighten me. Please.

4 thoughts on “Oprah and the ‘Good Hair’ affair

  1. The issue- for me personally- is the social significance of hair for black women. Most black women deemed attractive by our society, and by black men, the media, at large have straightened, long hair. Natural black hair, which tends to be shorter and kinkier than most white hair has been mostly regarded as unattractive, unorthodox.

    The term ‘good hair’ in itself says a lot. Natural black kinky hair is “bad”. But it’s natural, which implies that our own hair is bad, while silky, straight hair is deemed “good”. Who naturally possesses this good hair?

    My personal feeling is that there should be no good/bad connotation put on hair or weight or race, lightness or darkness of skin, etc. But that’s just my feeling. i realize though that a lot of these perceptions are somewhat subconscious, embedded in our culture as Americans. i feel like women, as a whole, should do with their hair whatever makes them feel good. i myself am about ease and neatness. My hair is short now, wavy and graying and i’m so okay with that.
    After I posted the above, I went to read a bit about the movie. Until then I didn’t even realize that “good hair” had a particular meaning for black women. The movie came about because Chris Rock’s little girl asked him why she didn’t have “good hair.” How sad that the youngest generation is still concerned about such things. I guess we seniors are not the end of it after all.

    For the record, my hair has always been distressingly straight and fine. My short style has become even shorter since I retired, and for the first time in 20 (30?) years I’m all natural again — no perm, no color. Just very short mousey blonde with lots of gray. But it’s cheap, easy, fast … and me. (ROFL. That last sentence actually came out like that!)

  2. Building upon what C said, here. I remember reading one particularly moving account of a black woman’s first encounter with lye, when she was a little girl. The writer discussed what the beauty parlor smelled like, how much it scared her, and how much the vapors stung her eyes. She then talked about all the times she’d been burned with hot irons and chemicals, and all the lengths she and her friends would go to “all to get white-girl hair. Why?” She recalled being simultaneously peeved and smug when Bo Derek had cornrows in 10 — peeved because she felt cornrows were something “black” and Bo Derek was white, but smug because now all of the white women who were going to try it would learn how uncomfortable it was to have them done, and the writer herself had them for a long time before 10. The pictures to go with the article chronicled her hair through her life. In the last one, current at the time, it was cropped very close to her skull, and she was thrilled with how easy it was to care for. It was quite a piece, back about 20 years ago. I wish I could remember what magazine published it. Might have been Glamour, but I really can’t remember.
    My loss that I didn’t see that. Maybe if the movie generates enough talk, the article will get recirculated. Or new ones in the same vein. Maybe with a lot of light shed on the topic, some of the perceived stigma of “bad hair” will go away. I don’t think women will ever stop changing their hair, but I’d like to to think all of us are doing it to please ourselves and not others (says she who has been a dutiful “pleaser” all her life).

  3. Very interesting post!

    I did not know about Chris Rock’s new movie nor do I watch Oprah so the controversy had passed me by. But this arguement regarding black/white, good/bad hair leaves me puzzled.

    Why would anyone be offended by Rock’s movie? We ALL know women fuss with their hair, even, as you pointed out, the bald ones who shave their hair. Sinead O’Connor was making a statement!
    I remember as a child having my mother and grandmother give me a home perm. I was only about 10 years-old and the chemical smell was terrible! I cried and begged but they insisted it would make me pretty. They were wrong.

    Oh, by the way, I am blogrolling you. I hope that’s OK??
    It was all new to me too, which is why I stopped to watch.

    I, too, remember those horrible, stinky perms. And how for days after, every time you washed your hair, or even got it wet, it would stink all over again. Glad modern science improved them somewhat.

    My dad once took me to his barber shop for a haircut. I was a tomboy and liked my hair short. Maybe he thought they’d do a better job of it. Certainly they’d be cheaper. But I was mortified!

    Thanks for stopping by; I’ll blogroll you too, k?

  4. i’m sorry, i just wanted to add some little somethings- if i may?

    i was talking to a friend about this post- male and bald which should be the subject of a whole other documentary 🙂 – and expressed to him my gratitude that you shared a desire to understand, and about the comments in which folks tried to connect similar feelings with their hair- which i appreciate- because it’s much more productive to find similar connections rather than to harp on differences. We all know the differences if we know anything at all, right?

    As i was talking, i related my first experience getting my hair relaxed. My hair was natural up until i turned 13. My scalp was chemically burned in spots quite severely. And the next morning, the chain of my necklace had been scabbed to my scalp and i had to peel it to remove my necklace. But the next day at school, everyone kept saying how pretty i was. i had the same pimply face and fat ass so it must have been the hair.

    In high school, girls would pull my hair and ask if it was real or a weave. Like pull it hard. People assumed things about me because my hair was very long, like i thought i was better than everyone else or that i was trying to “be white”. i didn’t do anything but have a lot of hair and directly mixed lineage. That’s it, but those happenings hurt me as well as made think that some people are very ignorant to link hair to character.

    But throughout this nation’s tumultuous history regarding race, that’s exactly what’s been done one both sides. Since White hair tends to be straight and shiny, Blacks with that straight(-ish) shiny hair were regarded as closer to White, and therefore, “better”. Same with skin color, eye color, and other physiological attributes that contribute nothing to the who or what of a person.


    i have relaxed my hair off and on since then. It’s expensive and a pain in the ass and can be an all day process because my hair is very thick. Like i said before, as long as it’s neat and easy to do, i’m over it.
    You’re more than welcome to come back here anytime, stay as long as you like, and say as much as you want, about anything.

    I’ve no real idea how long the relaxing of hair takes, or the obviously nasty nature of the chemical involved. I’ve gotten some pretty bad burns from perms or coloring, but none of it as bad as you describe. I just don’t have much patience for that sort of thing. Hence my short, plain style.

    I just don’t get the pulling on someone else’s hair for any reason. If someone is curious, they can ask tactfully. But keep your paws off my hair! I might invite you to touch it if you are really curious and very polite about it.

    Now, as for the bald men … lol. It could be a great show that enlightened a lot of people. Men talking about their hang-ups — or lack of them — over their loss of hair. I appreciate that some men are really sensitive about it, and that some go to great lengths, including surgery, to keep a decent head of hair. The methods go from the ridiculous to the sublime. I can sympathize in that I certainly wouldn’t want to go bald, but then, its not the norm with women, whereas it does seem to be the norm among a great number of men. And if it’s happening to everyone, is it really that bad? Maybe a male reader would like to enlighten us on this.

... and that's my two cents