Root Causes

Anthea Butler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies, gives the issue of black women’s hair care an academic spin.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

By Abigail Meisel

Anyone believing that hair styles for black women are just a matter of personal preference should Google “Malia Obama’s braids” to see the heated debate initiated by the fact the president’s daughter wore her hair “natural” (meaning not straightened) and neatly braided in rows.

“Whether black women wear their hair in an Afro, straight, weaved, or braided is perceived as a political statement—whether it’s intended to be or not,” says Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies.

To address the issue of black women’s hair from political, cultural, and business standpoints, Butler organized a daylong symposium, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair. Held on March 1 at Claudia Cohen Hall, the event was hosted by Penn's Center for Africana Studies, in conjunction with the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South, based out of the Newcomb College at Tulane University. It drew more than 250 attendees, and an online audience of about 450 watched a live stream of the conference. It included panel discussions by academics, graduate students, and professionals in the business of black women’s hair care, a multi-million-dollar industry in the United States. Melissa V. Harris-Perry, host of a popular MSNBC news show and a professor of political science at Tulane University, moderated the morning panel of academics.

“As much as I assert regularly to my students the critical importance of understanding that race is a social construction, when it comes time to do your hair, it feels like [race is] a biological reality,” says Harris-Perry. “It is the constant reifying, returning moment, perhaps even more important than complexion, which informs black women’s physical identity.”

Butler says that she conceived the conference after appearing as an expert on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last year to talk about the social and political aspects of black women’s hair.

“I realized that it would be valuable to continue this discussion from an academic perspective, so we reached out to professors and graduate students—but we also included bloggers on black women’s hair and other people on the business side of this issue,” Butler explains, adding that that the conference wasn’t merely theoretical but grounded in the perspective of “women in everyday situations and the kind of choices they make.”  To illustrate what a hot button issue black women’s hair can be, Butler cited the recent controversy around Rhonda Lee, a black female weather reporter in Shreveport, Louisiana, who was fired because of her choice to wear natural hair—and her defense of that choice on her Facebook page.

Co-sponsored with Penn’s Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, the symposium included presentations from two Penn graduate students. SaraEllen Strongman, a William Fontaine Fellow in Africana studies, read her paper, “Selling Selves: Narratives of Race, Identity, and Kinship in Natural Hair Care Advertising.” Leslie Jones, a Ph.D. student in sociology, spoke about internet resources, such as blogs, which create “vital communities that espouse alternative representations to beauty” for black women.

“There’s always going to be a conversation about black hair,” Butler says. “At the end of the day, people need to make their own choices, but know what those choices mean.”