I first heard of the connection between Black people “behaving badly” and white acceptance from Janicia or J from the podcast Tea with Queen and J. The idea is that we should discourage Black people from “behaving badly” in front of white people in order to get their acceptance and improve our race. We see this today with talk of Black excellence, laid edges, and proper English.
This past weekend, social media erupted over this image of a young Black model who had “undone” hair and the injustice that H&M caused her.
Many believed that she was ignored — that this was another case of Hollywood neglecting Black hair because of their own ignorance to properly care for it. Upon further investigation, every child model had messy hair. Why did this particular girl cause more disruption than the other?
“Black edges matter more than Black excellence.”
On The Grapevine, businesswoman Ayesha K. Faines shared the observation, “Black edges matter more than Black excellence.” Although Faines was addressing the Gabby Douglas controversy, the same can be applied here. Here, we have a young dark-skinned Black girl with 4c hair in a national campaign, and instead of being celebrated for her modeling talent, she’s scorned for her hair being all over her head. Because Black people can’t have their hair all over their head. Because that’s behaving badly in front of white people. The irony is that there’s outrage over her being treated the same as her white counterparts.
Growing up, I was told that I had “rough hair.” Every week was a war between me and my mama as I sat between her legs, and she popped me every which a way to stay still so she could beat my hair into submission. It was me, not her, who advocated for me to get a perm at 7 — believing that it would make wash days easier. It was also me who decided 9 years later that maybe there was a better way of taking care of my hair: going natural.
Hair was supposed to be fried, dyed, and laid to the side. In order for my hair to get anywhere close to that, I suffered through bald spots, scalp burns, hair breakage, and so many rashes. Going natural to me meant a way out. Going natural to those around me meant behaving badly around white folks. The number #1 comment I got, not just from Black people but white people too was: “The least you can do is straighten it.”
If I wore it natural, I had to have smooth hair, sleek edges, and no frizz. My hair couldn’t just be. Since I refused to do all of that work, my hair was designated as nappy, and I was considered foolish for going outside looking any kind of way.
But what if there’s a way for us to be pro-Black without worrying about white gaze? What if we let go of this idea that everything we have to do has to be perfect in order to obtain white acceptance? How can we let go of this plantation pathology that white acceptance is the way to freedom and instead forge a new path? Audre Lorde once wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We have to dismantle white supremacy using our own tools.
Maybe acknowledging the ways in which we’ve internalized white supremacy is the first step. A lot of pro-Blackness that I’ve seen carries white supremacist patriarchal capitalist traits. For example, I’ve encountered rampant homophobia and transphobia on my timeline from people who claim to be pro-Black when, before colonialism, those ideas were not heavily present in African cultures. Homophobia and transphobia are not indigenous to African people but are products of white supremacist patriarchy.
Also, having a sexual orientation or gender identity that is not the “norm” (cishetero) is an example of Black people behaving badly. The closer we stray from being “normal” — which is seen as the Black version of an average white person — the further we stray from being accepted by white people and being successful.
We see these ideas in other ways. For instance, the utter distaste for all things poor are deemed as ghetto, ratchet, and embarrassing. Meanwhile, Jay Z can side with a white supremacist organization, and he’s making money moves because his wealth and cishetero maleness make him proximal to whiteness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the vessel through which these ideals were transmitted to those of African-descent is Christianity. While I don’t want to take away from those who find solace in the Christian God, we must remember that much of the Bible has been used and is still being used to justify and support white supremacist patriarchal violence. Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta recounted:
When the missionaries arrived, we had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land, and we had the Bible.
Knowing this, I hope we’re kinder with each other and with our children. Black Americans have survived in a country that has wanted us to either submit or die. We are continuously harassed, terrorized, and gaslit by the citizens of this country. Why would we want to join white supremacy when it’s caused us this much pain? Why would we place our liberation in the hands of those who enslaved us?
Pro-Black doesn’t mean anti-white, but it should mean anti-white supremacy and all of the systems associated with it. That starts with the end of demeaning and devaluing African traits that still reside in us. We should be proud that our tongues and hair naturally resist colonialism. Proud of the shape of our noses and size of our lips. Proud of our ancestors who resisted and survived the worst of white supremacy so we can be here. We should be proud of being Black and aim to celebrate all Black people. Who cares what white people think?