Black Hair Hurts: A Triggered Trauma Response to H&M
Everyone is having so many feelings about this H&M thing. I am seeing so many people writing out these think pieces about how Black people just don't love themselves or otherwise admonishing H&M for being so insensitive. On the other end of things, I am seeking folk say NO, Black folk have it right or that H&M is ushering a new wave and should be praised for showing Black girls at play. The thing is, I think it's both/and. It’s not an either or.
As a sexuality professional who specializes in talking about texturism, we can never forget the history and its long lasting impact. So let's divide this up.
For My Black Folk.
So many folk, whether they want to admit it or not, had an initial visceral reaction to seeing this baby girl, OR had a whole reaction to other folks’ reaction. This beautiful baby girl with hair that looked to us to be unkempt by Eurocentric standards of beauty, had us up in arms and ready to fight. As far as I can tell, whether or not we were ready to fight the folks at H&M for being seemingly disrespectful or ready to fight other Black folk for seeming to admonish this girl, it all seemed a trauma response to me.
Yeah, I said it. It seemed like a trauma response. It seems some of us either turned into our parents using their words about how we best not embarrass them with our appearance when we leave the house OR we reverted back to that younger self, remembering what it was like to be on the receiving end of harsh criticisms about our appearance. The thing is though, either way you cut it, that’s our shit. That wasn't the model’s shit. That wasn’t her parent/guardians shit, it was ours. The words that we use to describe her hair and how we felt in our shit, words describing her as unkempt, nappy, or that awful phrase: “someone doesn’t love her” for her to look like that in an ad; these were inherited. These words are ones we heard at some point in our lives that someone used to describe us. And of course, we're coming from thoughts of what we were doing the night before Easter Sunday, the day before picture day, or the night before some special occasion. We are thinking about how we sat down betwixt somebody’s knees, while they wielded a hot comb, or a flat iron to straighten our hair, all the while admonishing our hair— how thick it was, and how it was just so much work, damn near unmanageable, and a burden because of its naturally nappy and unkempt nature.
We remember those days. We remember that you are supposed to look presentable, anytime that you are going to leave the house. What we don’t say in the rest of that sentence implies: We have to look presentable whenever we leave the house… for white people so that we are not judged harshly in comparison to or by them. So that when they see us, we don't look like someone doesn't love us—like they already think Black folk are incapable of. So that we look like we could be in their presence— because we tried to make them more comfortable by confirming that we are acceptable or passable— not beautiful, not welcomed, just acceptable and basic.
This is why our trauma response came out STRONG when we saw that picture. We weren't looking at her picture. We weren't seeing her joy. We weren’t even doing the work to figure out what else was going on in the campaign. No, no, no, no, that's not what we were doing. What we were doing, was looking at our younger self. Feeling the shame we had learn to notice acutely. Thinking back to our own shit when people told us that we looked unkempt, that we looked dirty, that we looked unloved. And because many of us haven’t done our work, or assumed we had to be healed because we went natural, we put all of our trauma, all of the hurts and pains we've had about our hair on her. We put all of our internalized racism, all of our internalized texturism, all of our internalized colorism on her unfairly.
SIDE NOTE: When we were putting our trauma on her, when some of us were saying some really hurtful things based on our unhealed selves, did any of us stop to think that baby girl is of reading and researching age? Did it occur to anyone that she is gonna see this shit, and it's gonna be her own people that were talking shit about her at this level?
We forget that in our quest, sometimes, seeking a seat at the table of white supremacy, that the only people we hurt when we bum rush for that one seat, where we will have no voice, is our own. Because now her mom is going to have to pull double duty, trying to make sure that she's having a conversation with her kid, about what it means for people to be like this about her hair, about what messages they have had to receive in their life to have this type of reaction, to be so nasty about her, thinking that they're hurting H&M. We have work to do, y'all.
And I know that I said this shit time and time again. But you know what, this is why I wrote Cocoa Butter and Hair Grease, so that we can stop passing on our own internalized hurts to other people. Now I know I’ve talked about how we don't need to pass it on to our own children, but look, we just freely gave that shit up to someone else's kid. Some of y’all have not even batted an eye because no one is telling you that that's what you did. We gotta do better. I mean, I was literally just at the Diversity in Parenting Conference, I want to give a shout out to the Mercedes Samudio for organizing it, because it was very well done. You know, at this conference, I did a presentation called, Edges Snatched & Laid: Why Black Hair Matters for Mental Health, Sexuality, and Parenting. It was about what kinds of conversations parents can and should have about hair. Yes, that is a whole freakin workshop! And while that was for one hour, mostly for practitioners in the room, this blow up with H&M shows that we need to do the work. So, I will do a webinar for folk. Be on the lookout.
For the Folk Who Just Didn’t Understand the Reaction.
This is about talking about our pain. And I wanted to make sure that I'm acknowledging that the response that we had was a trauma response, because I think that some people are just saying, “Oh, look at yall, you're telling yourself” and the thing is you ARE definitely telling yourself. However, somebody over at H&M made a gross error in judgment. And I'm not saying that children shouldn't look like are having fun and playing, etc.. I'm saying that there was an ignoring of the history that is involved and wrapped up in Black people's tresses. You cannot ignore the history just to run the campaign that you want to run. You don't get to do that and be surprised by the backlash on the other side of it. That's not alright. Because the fact is that little Black girls have been told that their social value is in their ability to emulate whiteness, to be a part of the structures of white supremacist beauty standards, and to make sure that they are always striving for that long blonde straight hair on that white girl with those blue eyes, who was thin at the top. Little Black girls know that the social value of their hair and skin by the time they turn 6.
Now this little Black girl, gorgeous as she is, triggered a lot of people. That picture triggered a lot of people because we've been told all our lives that we only can strive for acceptance, we can never strive for beauty. And none of us have ever been allowed, to walk out the house looking like that. Because people would say that we look unloved, that we looked unkempt, and that makes us unstable and dangerous. These things mean that we could be turned away from classes, turned away from jobs, and turned away from potential partners because we don't “look right.” Because we're not showing the right thing. There is a history of hurt that was completely unacknowledged in doing that type of campaign with a company who has shown themselves to be insensitive and unaware of the Black folk they are trying to sell to. So, I certainly am NOT standing with the people who want to praise H&M for the boldness in using a Black girl to make a sale.
You have to make sure that you are always coming back to the history in general, and in this case, the Black Hair History. Ignorance of the past hurts invoked by white supremacy and white companies on Black and brown bodies is a show of the highest levels of white privilege. As such, go ahead and read Hair Story by Ayana bird and Lori Tharp. Hair Story is a great rendition of what's been going on in Black hair from 15th century Africa to right now.
You Can’t Ignore Black Pain for Black Dollars
The point is that there's a history of hair hurts that go unacknowledged when there are campaigns like this, especially one done by H&M of all people, or of all companies who have a history of problematic ass behavior, especially when it comes to darker skin folk (and Black folk in general.) There must also be a consideration that Black models and actors have spoken about the fact that there are almost never adequately trained or knowledgeable folk on set to do Black hair or make up. Adding that info, to the fact that H&M has been problematic in the past, and it looked like H&M did that shit on accident, like they just bumbled and fumbled the ball. It looked like they didn't know what they were doing. Considering that they, and other companies have been happy to only use the lightest and straightest hair’d Blacks in most of their campaigns, of course folk were up in arms by what looked like an oversight, on someone with skin so dark and lovely. But then come to find out that they did this shit on purpose. Maybe that made some people feel better. Maybe that placated some feelings, but not mine. And it didn't because to me, it still showed a gross lack of understanding of the hair history that you would show that type of picture for your financial gain, not to normalize Blackness, not for our gain.
The point is that hurts are wrapped up in Black hair. So many Black folk have been told that they can't come into certain spaces, they've been told that they don't look cared for, they've been told that if you look like that, you are hurting the community at large because Black people don't get to be individuals, they get to be just be an ever shamed collective. So, yeah. that campaign was a misstep. It was a misstep, especially from a company that hasn't shown that they really are invested in Black folk in any way other than to insult and grab dollars. On the other end Black folk, WE HAVE TO DO BETTER! We have to make sure that our hurts, are not on center stage bleeding on everybody with the traumas that we have on the inside. We have a responsibility for our actions despite the hurts we may have endured in our lives. And if we were addressing those hurts, WE should have been the first to show Black kids in ALL their glory and praised it for being so. We cannot continue to maintain the house that white supremacy has built and then be mad we are still not allowed to sleep in it. We have a very long way to go with making sure that we remove our own internalized texturism. And I definitely invite you all to start with me.
Join the private Facebook group, CBHG Collective on Facebook. We need a space where we learn and connect the dots between hair, mental health, sexual health, and our healing. Maybe this space can start that.