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Black Hair Talk: 100% Indian Hair

1 October 2009 16 Comments

“In tight jeans, Chinese eyes/Indian hair/Black girl a**/let me pour you a glass of Belvi” – Memphis Bleek, “Do My”

I have a close friend who is half Japanese and half Ethiopian. I have another who is half Panamanian and half Filipino. Both of these women expect to hear a common catcall in the street “Hey Indian Hair! What’s good?” Neither one of them as a single drop of Indian blood, so what gives?

chilli

Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas from TLC is of both Indian and Native American descent, and her baby hair game is notorious.

Google “Indian hair” and your search will yield page after page of hair from the Asian subcontinent for sale. Indian people typically have hair that is thicker than either European or East Asian hair, is usually devoid of chemicals, and is less prone to breakage. But when it comes down to it, our idea of “Indian hair” is really about the stupidity of the American lexicon resulting from Christopher Columbus’ original assumption that he’d landed somewhere in the Indian Ocean and not in the Americas. Yes, I mean the old feather versus dot situation. When we started revering “Indian hair,” we originally meant Native Americans, not people from India.

dotvfeather

Feather on the left, dot on the right. Don’t get it twisted.

First, a little history: When Africans arrived on this continent it was inevitable that we would mingle with both Europeans and Native Americans, with “Negro/Indian” marriages documented as early as the seventeenth century. Many escaped slaves found refuge among the tribes, learned the language, and passed for Indian to avoid recapture. Free blacks married Indian women so that their children would also be free by law, and Native American women married black men because of the post-warefare decline of available men in their tribes. Other blacks were enslaved by Native American tribes, and although the slavery was far less brutal it was just as legal as European slavery. In fact, by 1750 many colonies made it a criminal act to bring blacks to Native American settlements, considering it a threat to the security of the colonies and to the profitable institution of European-run slavery itself. Have you ever wondered why “I’m part Cherokee” is such a popular claim? It’s because the Cherokee held more African slaves than any other Native American tribe, and not until 2006 after a lengthy legal battle was the Cherokee nation required to recognize 1000 black members of their nation who’d previously been shunned. Although the history of Black Indians is often ignored, one of our favorite claims (and most eye-roll-inducing) is having some “Indian in yo’ family,” which helps account for the rainbow of features that American blacks uniquely possess. In fact, experts estimate that 90% of black Americans have Native American ancestry, so doesn’t it sound extra stupid to brag about having Native American blood instead of simply being proud of our typical American slave background? Are we existing in the bowels of ignorance or what?

blackindian

A Black Indian woman c. 1900

Race mixing in America traditionally leads to skin and hair hierarchies driven by the phenotype of those in power, and the interaction between Native Americans and blacks was no exception. Mirroring the valuation of European features in the mixture between whites and blacks, the idea of “good hair” has always meant having Indian blood just as much as it meant having white blood. Today the idea of “good hair” is still entrenched in our thinking about beauty, and black folks see something special about a person with brown, skin and long, straight, thick, dark hair. It’s right up there with the “black but not too black” beauty found in a sister with green eyes. Thanks to the European standard of beauty, women of all backgrounds feel pressure to straighten their hair to fit in, whether Jewish, Italian and curly, or of African descent. It makes sense that black women, whose hair tends to be the coarsest, feel more pressure to do so, and even more sense that physical features associated with oppression are less valued than those associated with freedom. It also makes sense that seeing the words “Indian hair,” trigger a yearning in black women to have that good stuff, no matter what continent it comes from.

indianhairstore

A beauty supply store in Los Angeles. The banner flew so proudly I had to snap a photo.

What intrigues me about the black experience is our group quest for self-acceptance, a quest that is always influenced by how “anything but black but still black” we can appear. However, replacing our kinky hair with something else is much more complicated than “trying to be white.” Paradoxically, we’ve ended up trying to be more of what we already are in the first place. Isn’t it preferable to be a black woman with naturally thick, straight, dark hair that looks Indian instead of naturally fine, light, and thin hair that looks European? Do you feel bamboozled yet? Without really thinking about it too hard, many of us are trying to be some kind of “Indian.” And guess what – we are.

16 Comments »

  • Dara said:

    Without really thinking about it too hard, many of us are trying to be some kind of “Indian.” And guess what – we are.

    LOVE IT.

  • Cyndi said:

    I was watching a rerun of Chris Rock’s appearance on Oprah and the section on his visit to India was heart wrenching.

  • KelleBelle said:

    You already know my Indian hair game. First of all I know that beauty supply joint in the picutre above. Do not go there for your indian hair needs (we’ll talk). I’m going to break down the process of buying Indian hair in LA. And yes, I know this has nothing to do with your post. Per usual it was insightful, thought-provoking, while extremely amusing and witty. But I’m here for the technicalities. And I’m kind of over talking about black women and our hair drama. That and why so many of us are single. Yawn.

    My thing is, if you’re going to wear a weave, go for the good stuff if you can afford it. It’s this whole notion of “100% Human Hair” nonsense that is plastered on packages of hair that you know is more horse, plastic, etc. than grown from someone’s head. So in comes the Indians with their long, thick, gorgeously luxurious virgin hair, that they sold to buy bread and/or milk back in their hometown.

    You enter a completely non-descript house hidden in the Inglewood hills and enter the side room where there are rows and rows of hair on hangers. It’s amazing! Who have I bumped into there while shopping for Indian locks you ask? Serena Williams and allegedly Naomi Campbell’s glam squad members. I can only co-sign seeing SW. Anywho, you pay by the pound and it usually takes about $650 worth of hair to get my joint runway ready. The thing is that the hair, since it is actually human, lasts about 5x longer then the beauty supply crap which you need to replace about every 6 weeks. So in the end, you save money buying that “good Indian hair.”

    If we are ever in LA together I’ll take you to the secret hair house and we can walk up and down the aisles of hair…

    KB

    ps: you remember my hair from NYE in Philly! That was fresh Indian goodness. I miss it. I think I’ll pick up some more when I’m home for xmas. Field trip!

  • Julian said:

    Wow. I was a joint Af-Am major in college and I really just learned something new. Seriously, all Black children need to know that. The whole trying to be white accusation never made sense to me because nobody I came across wanted white girl hair. To your theory and in contrast that IS what they prefer over in Africa. In fact, just take a look at all of the African first-wives.

  • Sam said:

    Whenever a black woman makes a comment about doing something with their hair, my first response is typically “why don’t you go natural?”…

    …sometimes I get a response like I just asked them to cut off their nose. Kinda makes me want to reevaluate my friendship.

    I realize it’s through generations of conditioning that these kinds of perceptions have taken hold, but to see anyone hold such a negative viewpoint of what is “natural” is frustrating & upsetting. I’ve spent who knows how many hours encouraging black women I know to thumb their noses @ the white beauty standard and do what works for THEM.

  • Felicia said:

    You know…after awhile, the continued conversation of what type of hair a black woman is wearing, gets a little old. We have so many IMPORTANT issues to dialogue about (the state of our schools, how this Great Recession is truly affecting our community, how to become economically self-sufficient, etc.) that the only response I have for this conversation is …WHO CARES!!!!

    We need to move forward people and stop obsessing about what someone is wearing on their head, or what color person they are sporting on their arm. I mean, this is America right? We have the constitutional right to be whom we damn well please.

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Felcia
    I’ve never understood people who take the time to comment about things they’re not interested in, because cleary I DO care about this issue and raised it for discussion among others who do, which are many. If you’re not interested then why read/comment?

  • Felicia said:

    Thembi, I’m 20 years older than you and also from the Philly area. Take a good look around at the state of the neighborhoods; how Philly is becoming known as the city be be shot in; how the schools are failing our children;how the Urban league has concluded in their 2008 report that the endemic poverty level in Philly is 29%; and now this recession is quickly bifurcating our community, then you will see how this conversation about how black women wear their hair (a conversation that has existed since the straightening comb came out); then you will see how this conversation is useless.

    Don’t get me wrong…I love your blog and I have recommended it to others repeatedly. What you need to know is this conversation is a variant of one that has, unfortunately, existed in our community for far too long. It’s a distractor that keeps us from really making substantive change. But then again, if you do not want constructive criticism that will improve you blog, that’s on you.

  • msladydeborah said:

    Thembi,

    It is time that we learned to love ourselves just like we are. The whole hair thing has been a wrap for me for decades. I wear my hair in some form of a natural style. I’ve relaxed it a couple of times in-between-but I find that my natural hair is most pleasing to me.

    What’s always going to be most important is the love of self. If you’re not pleased with the person you truly are-then there is always going to be someting like hair that causes you to trip. We are people that have been blessed with physical diversity. Our coloring and our hair is a part of the package.

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Felicia

    I definitely appreciate your readership and thanks for the props.

    I’m well aware of the myriad problems plaguing the black community, but that is not what this post about. Sometimes I write about such things, sometimes I don’t. Anyone looking for consistent chatter about black America’s problems should definitely look elsewhere because that’s simply not what I was meant to focus on in life. What readers are interested in hearing about is important feedback for me, but I’m not going to start writing about things that don’t interest me at the moment just to please others. The purpose of this post was to examine something that not every one has thought about. If you have, great. Maybe it wasn’t for you, and it would be crazy if every single thing I write appeals to everybody, I’d never expect that to be the case. Take a look at the blogroll to the right – black Barbies, Fashion Week, Music, relationships – maybe 10% of the topics are about addressing problems in the black community so I have to say that your comment may have been a bit misdirected. Not everything SHOULD be serious. I write for entertainment, humor, enlightenment, and discussion, and if one person can learn something new or think about something in a different way, which at least a few people already have in the 2 hours since this post has been published, then I have succeeded. Not everything has to be about depressing stuff, and frankly, my contribution to such a discussion would be weak because that is not my forte. If I didn’t think cultural commentary were enjoyed by anyone or necessary to a thriving society, I wouldnt write it.

    But back to the idea that this conversation is a “distractor.” I firmly believe that at the root of most problems in the black community is a failed sense of collective identity. Anything that helps us to understand why other people do what they do and who we are as a people goes toward solving our problems. Thats always been true for oppressed peoples and in an environment where black womens’ self esteem is tied to their success in life and most people walking around today don’t even now their heritage. And I think its overly idealistic to believe that those of who take fifteen minutes to think about why we say Indian hair and the history behind it would instead take that fifteen minutes to work on one of the problems you mentioned. Just my perspective.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • Miss Mary Mack said:

    Thanks for doing this research, Thembi. I wonder where they get that 90% number from, its interesting to me because I had no idea that having Native American heritage was that common. Black folks never consider their problems to be our problems and maybe we should do more of that.

    I also have to say that I dont get why anyone would click on something with the title ‘black hair talk’ and declare that its irelevant. I dunno, not everyone cares, not everyone should, but thats kind of the point, no? I could stare at that photo of the black Indian woman all day, but that probably makes me weird lol.

  • Julian said:

    Until we tap into the psycho-social issues that plague our people any efforts at building (or re-building) are big wastes of time. You can pretty up the outside of a house all you want, but if it’s rotting inside what’s the point? Cultural criticism like this is important because – even if in small part – it encourages us to restructure that house from the inside. The counter approach has failed. And with all due respect Felicia, every black community problem you pointed out is a failure unique to your generation. With that in mind, perhaps you shouldn’t be so quick to knock fresh, more systematic outlooks and approaches.

  • Delphine Blue said:

    Every time I read an article about this hair issue I am glad I live in a city like NY. On any given day you will see Black women/girls with dreads, frohawks, TWAs, big ol afros, braids, relaxed pageboys, shaved heads, you name it. Yeah we have our hairdon’ts here also, but it’s nice to see so many of us proud of our own hair texture, and looking fab at the same time.

  • PBG said:

    I just read KelleBelle’s comment and just as I’ve long suspected, I can’t afford to be anything more than a natural-haired black woman, kinks, coils & all. I love it too. Didn’t always (20yrs of perms), but I certainly do now.

  • Melly said:

    This was a great article and so honest! Loved it! Keep educating the masses!

  • Lakesha Woods said:

    I really enjoyed the article. For me being someone who previously worked in “Corporate America”, it was really hard to be accepted by potential employers or employers with natural hair. Combing my natural hair really hurts but if I don’t comb it then what … I’d have to walk around with matted hair … not for me. Nevertheless, I’m going natural again due to a bad relaxer and I dread the thought of having to comb through my natural hair or the thought of taking the time to straighten it … uggh! To each his own or her own lol … I think all hair is GOOD especially if you’re blessed to even have some hair on your head! But soft hair is so pleasing to the touch and up against my dark skin it gives me a different look … I’m not trying to be White, Indian or Native American or anything else (even though I have many mixtures in my blood). I just want hair that’s easy to manage and hair that feels soft, anything wrong with that? My natural hair is just too hard yet perms make me sick … sometimes a weave is a girl’s best friend! lol

    ~Lakesha

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