On hair and the politics of distraction

_I began to use the phrase in my work "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality and not to just have one thing be like, you know, gender is the important issue, race is the important issue, but for me the use of that particular jargonistic phrase was a way, a sort of short cut way of saying all of these things actually are functioning simultaneously at all times in our lives and that if I really want to understand what's happening to me, right now at this moment in my life, as a black female of a certain age group, I won't be able to understand it if I'm only looking through the lens of race. I won't be able to understand it if I'm only looking through the lens of gender. I won't be able to understand it if I'm only looking at how white people see me - _bell hooks

The politics of distraction often shield the obscene underside of many conversations that we have about things that would appear innocuous or simple. Such distraction functions to hide the fact that what might appear to be a conversation about one thing has multiple, interlocking facets. We are often guilty of speaking about things as if they are singular, as if they exist in and for themselves, and are not tangled in deeper and more complex issues and structures.

When we do this, we fail to situate conversations in their historical and political context. We have surface conversations that fail to get to the core of the structures that uphold the subjects of our conversation.

Discussions around the politics of black women's hair often fall into this trap, reduced to a simplistic antagonistic relationship between weaves and natural hair. It hides the way the politics of black women's hair demands a recognition of how race, class, gender and the privilege attached to this influences what might appear to be an aesthetic choice.

As American author and social activist bell hooks writes, understanding what it means to be a black woman requires an awareness of "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" and how it affects every aspect of being. The beast has many faces, and will come at you from all sides, which is why you need to stay awake to the obscene underside of things, at all times. This requires a vigilance that is often exhausting. However, once you are aware of the structures that underpin the order of things, you will never see any event, conversation or thing as a mere incident.

The personal is political and issues of power are fundamentally embedded in who we are. As I previously argued in a piece on Ferguson, black people live inescapably and acutely political lives. The politics of hair is embedded in every aspect of who we are as black women, and often hits right to the core of black female identity.

In the South African context, the apartheid government's pencil test meant that hair could determine the scope of your life, governing whether you would remain with your family, who you could love and marry, and your racial identification. Hair held the key to what was possible.

Last Friday, as part of social media week, a panel discussion was held to debate whether black hair has been democratised in the internet age. What some would have thought would have descended into a trite, tired discussion on "weaves vs naturals", became a nuanced, heated, frank discussion on the politics of black women's hair that implicated race, class, gender, history and privilege. It was unapologetically intersectional.

The conversation continued on Twitter on Sunday night, spearheaded by poet Lebo Mashile. In both discussions, the narratives that emerged about the struggles of black women in corporate South Africa and the racist politics that governs children's hairstyles in schools, revealed the respectability politics and the coded language that often surrounds and defines black women's hair choices.

As Brittney Cooper argues: "When black women choose for cultural, stylistic and/or health reasons not to conform to normative Euro-American beauty standards, our social structure - while sensitive to very little - is calibrated to detect and discipline away even the most diminutive forms of defiance." Many emerged that showed the real consequences of hair choices in boardrooms and in schools, as well as in social and romantic interactions. Consequently, taking seriously the issue of hair will implicate exoticism, othering, health, capital, femininity, authenticity, patriarchy, privilege, class, identity and other issues in our discussions.

Black women's hair is not simply an aesthetic choice. Such choice hinges on many factors that render it extremely politicised. Choices do not happen in a vacuum, and therefore cannot be divorced from the world that they operate in, and the structures that support and endorse various options, as there is politics embedded in our stylistic choices. One simply has to peruse the aisles of various stores to understand that capital has made decisions that severely limit the products that are available to black women. Picking up magazines reveals both the prevalence of beauty standards and the frustrating lack of helpful articles on black hair care.

Moreover, recent research suggests a link between the use of relaxers and cystic fibroids in African American women. Our choices are influenced by beauty standards, the politics of attractiveness, how much money we are able to spend, decisions about our health, multiple forms of oppression, how much time we have, the role our mothers played in our early hairstyling, the products that are available and respectability politics, to name a few factors. While some women might not choose their hairstyle based on an overt political decision, the choices available to us are themselves inescapably political.

Additionally, there is internal politics within the beauty standards of the natural hair care movement as well. There is privilege attached to a certain kind of spirally, Tracee-Ellis Ross curl that is praised, coveted and endorsed. Acknowledging this is not to get caught up in a zero sum privilege game, to recognise that our experiences are steeped in difference, and that the politics of exclusion is more complex than the mainstream would have us think.

What was remarkable about the discussion at social media week was the plurality of voices that existed and the narratives on multiple kinds of hair textures that emerged, and challenged all of our views. As Janine Jellars commented, the fight is for "the normalisation of our voices. The fight to not be an 'other'". When we have conversations about the politics of black women's hair, it is important for us to recognise that our discussions are not simply about hair, but about an entire system.

The bigger picture is overwhelming in the sheer magnitude of its scope and influence in our lives. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy would like us to be distracted, and keep on circling around the same boring version of the "weaves versus naturals debate" that persists, which is why it is important that we keep the structure and obscene underside in mind when debating these issues.

The fight is to dismantle the entire system. Until then, it is important that a plurality of black voices on the subject exist, that those voices have spaces that allow them to exist and thrive, and that we take seriously other people's lived experiences and hair stories. Because it's not just hair. It's not just race. It's not just capitalism. It's not just patriarchy. More often than not, it's all of it. At the same time. Relentlessly.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler