Dear White Women: You Don't Get to Say That

by Altheria Gaston

When I awakened Tuesday morning and watched that morning’s news show, my mouth dropped when I heard the story. I asked my fiancé, “Why does she think she can say that? She doesn’t get to say that!”

Of course, this was in response to the comments Guiliana Rancic made about the beautiful Zendaya Coleman wearing locs at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. At first, I felt like a mother hen who immediately wanted to protect her young daughter from Rancic’s verbal attack. Like many of the celebrities who have supported Zendaya, I wanted to affirm her decision to wear her hair as she chooses. I wanted to celebrate her decision to wear faux locs to the Oscars. I wanted to honor her enlightened response to Guiliana.

I wanted to say to Guiliana, “You don’t get to make judgments about Black women’s hair,” because for Black women, it’s never just about our hair. Historically, Black women’s physical features have not been deemed beautiful. And many of us have had to work really hard to accept our dark skin, our broad noses, and our full lips. The final frontier in this journey to defining our own beauty has been embracing our natural hair texture (from being tightly coiled to having loose waves). The politics surrounding Black women’s hair are complex, longstanding, painful, and personal. For these reasons, criticizing Black women’s hair is off limits, even to so-called fashion experts!

I’ve worn my hair natural since 2008. My decision to go natural and remain natural is largely a political one—I believe that Black hair in its natural state is just as beautiful as naturally straight hair. I want Black girls to know that there is nothing inherently wrong or bad about kinky hair. I want to show pride in my culture. I want to validate Black women’s right to demonstrate, to decide, to dissent, to demand. And for me, my natural hair represents these actions. Although this political motivation is not the impetus for all Black women to wear their hair natural, I am still proud to see an increasing number of Black women proudly sporting their natural hair, regardless of their reasons. And because of this natural hair movement, many natural styles are widely appealing. Despite this acceptance of some natural hairstyles, those who wear locs are still subject to harsh criticism and stereotypes, such as the ones Guiliana expressed. Too many people hold the misconception that dreads are smelly and are worn by individuals who smoke marijuana. As a result, wearers are unfairly stigmatized.

Guiliana’s comments went far beyond making a fashion critique. She made a judgment of Zendaya’s character and implicated her of participating in what is still an illegal activity in most US states. But this isn’t all she did. Her comments insinuated that her straight bob with sharp edges is superior to Zendaya’s kinky locs. And by making these insensitive comments, she’s mis-characterizing all the other beautiful African-American women who wear locs. She abused her power, and consequently, contributed to existing negative discourse about African-American women.

What Guiliana did was attack a young lady who is barely an adult, which is why I immediately wanted to defend Zendaya. I didn’t think that a young Black girl (young lady) should be picked-apart by a biased White woman. But my defense wasn’t needed because Zendaya’s response was tactful, eloquent, and mature. Her response was perfect. In it, she referenced other talented celebrities with locs; she revealed that several close family members wear locs; and, most importantly, she powerfully stated that our hair is good enough. Go Zendaya!
And Guiliana’s response? At first, she tweeted a statement saying that her intent was to say that Zendaya’s look was “bohemian chic.” The next day, she released a longer apology acknowledging her rancid judgment. She admitted that she had crossed the line.

I would like to say to White women and all others who feel they can be critical of Black hair: You don’t get to say that.
  • You don’t get to make value judgments about our hair.
  • You don’t get to compare our hair to yours.
  • You don’t get to touch our hair without permission.
  • You don’t get to ask us absurd questions like, “Do you wash your hair?”
  • You don’t get to verbally attack our younger sisters.
  • You don’t get to give us unsolicited comments on our hair. 
India.Arie, whose song Zendaya referenced in her response, released a journal entry about Zendaya. In it, she states:
I love you Zendaya. You’re [sic] empowerment and Self Definition is the most BEAUTIFUL THING HERE! Continue to be self defined.
That’s a beautiful message to all Black women espoused by Black feminists everywhere: Continue to self-define.

Photo: Getty Images via Page Six

Altheria Gaston is a doctoral candidate in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. She is a Black feminist whose dissertation focuses on the realities of low-income Black women.   

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