There are lots of things that black people in the US should be protesting right now. High unemployment. The extreme loss of wealth. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Gun violence. The entire state of Florida. Yet one of the main things to dominate the news lately is the hairstyle of a particularly famous 2-year old. It’s one of the few things I don’t think we need to worry about.
About 5,000 plus people disagree with me.
Here’s how it started: A woman was so frustrated with the hairstyling of Blue Ivy Carter, the child of superstars Sean Carter (Jay Z) and Beyoncé Knowles, that she created a petition on Change.org to urge her parents to “properly care” for their child’s hair—or more explicitly—comb her hair. She subsequently said it’s a joke but the debate goes on.
That’s because with the multibillion-dollar-black hair care industry, the issue is far bigger than little Blue Ivy. It’s about the politics of respectability and the pain of oppression, a fear of deviating from “the norm” that remains particularly prominent among the black elite and the black middle class.
There aren’t many high profile examples of beautiful, powerful, and rich black families in America, outside the president and his wife. Jay Z and Beyoncé are among them, though. They made it. They, and their alleged traditional ideas of marriage, have become the ideal, the aspiration for many, who constantly hear about pathologies that exist in the black family. Their marriage and, by extension, their offspring, have become more than just about the glamorous lifestyle of hip-hop royalty, but some sort of symbolic “dream.” They’re the Cliff and Clair Huxtable of our time.
Even better: They’re real.
Therefore, the Carters are making quite a bold statement when they, hardly known for being black radicals, repeatedly decide to not conform to public ideals about what their child’s hair should look like.
Hair has always been a tricky subject in the black community, especially for black women. My grandmother owned a hair salon, Evelyn’s, in Harlem in the 1940s. She would have agreed with the woman who wrote the petition. She believed, like many others, that by having “neat” and “tame” hair at all ages, black women were fighting against all the stereotypes that whites and other groups thought about us—that we were dirty, diseased, and unruly.
In the past, I would have looked at her protestations as solely having to do with self-hatred, but now I see her fear would have been also political as well. Our hair and bodies aren’t seen as traditional, classic, or the norm, and often is only “acceptable” when the mainstream exoticizes them or declares something a trend. It didn’t matter if you were famous or piss poor, to her, being presentable, even if you owned one dress and one wig, by looking as conservative as possible (which often meant assimilating to look like the dominant culture), was your part, your duty in actually fighting against racial stigmas in an oppressive system.
The public perception of our hair and bodies—by whites and blacks—impacts whether or not we get jobs, qualify for loans, hold public positions, even be acceptable on a witness stand. So it’s understandable why many people are reacting so strongly to Blue Ivy’s hair. In an age where Don Imus can call the black girls on the Rutgers basketball team “nappy-headed,” a senator can remark on the “cleanliness” of a presidential candidate, and folks on Twitter can critique a 16-year-old’s hair when she’s trying to win an Olympic gold, the past days when pickaninnies and mammies were part of popular culture don’t feel so far.
Still, it’s unacceptable.
When it comes to Blue Ivy, some people seem to be completely baffled as to why this successful, rich, black family would chose to let their child exhibit such an “unruly” style, particularly as they sport perfectly polished ‘do’s (and in Beyonce’s case, often Eurocentric notions of straight, long haired blonde beauty). To me, it’s just an extension of their upwardly mobile multimillion dollar brands that constantly claim to push limits and empower women.
In a world where a black child is born into poverty every two and a half minutes, and where the choices of all too many black families are limited, Jay and Bey are pushing the norms. Instead of fearing what whites or other blacks would say, they chose to let Blue Ivy’s hair just be at certain times. Call it entitled, call it empowering, but it’s a privilege that many black kids don’t have—the ability to just be.
All too often, America has denied blacks the simple practice of just being. We’ve been told our language is slang; our skin is too dark, our booties too high, and our lips too thick. To become true Americans, we must conform and adapt. Any attempt, particularly by such high-profile figures, to change that narrative, is a step in the right direction.
Real progress and freedom is the ability to choose. Too few black children have it. Blue Ivy looks healthy, well cared for, and happy. Let baby Blue’s hair just be. That’s nothing to protest. That’s real black power there.
This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.
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