From the complex, braided manes of West African royalty, to the head rags of enslaved women in America, different hairstyles have signified one’s social status and power within and outside of the black community for a very long time, according to Ayana Byrd’s and Lori Tharps’ Hair Story. The women and men in these pictures are no exception. If you type “ghetto hair” into your search engine, chances are you’ll come across any number of these pictures. I don’t want to create another exploitative post that invites people to laugh at the presumed “absurdity” of these styles and questions the intelligence of the models wearing them in order to generate lots of comments and ad revenue. Instead, I’d rather question what’s wrong with that picture and does it say more about us, than the people in the photos?

While writing this post, it dawned on me that criticism for the “wrong” hairstyle can come from a member of any “class” or community. Indeed, I was sometimes teased for having a corny ‘do, by the working poor, while my family was a part of the middle class. So, it goes both ways to be sure. However, whenever I present the “ghetto” hair shots, the discussion often takes a different tone. Onlookers don’t just dislike the hairstyles; they quickly decide that the people wearing them are “wrong” or “stupid” for embracing their own unique sense of creativity.

When I’ve asked why these styles are wrong, folks usually explain that they would not be tolerated in the workplace, and therefore people that wear them are “extra stupid” because their chosen style, aside from making them look “ridiculous,” will prohibit them from advancing in life. That sort of thinking begs the question, “Where do we draw the line in how we allow cultural norms in the workplace and “mainstream” society to dictate our lives?” I’m not arguing that these hairstyles should be allowed at work-that would take an entirely different, much longer post. I am questioning the validity of the argument that says, “We should always conform to whatever way of existing that will allow us to advance in society. Everything that our society says is normal- is. Normal should always be everyone’s goal, and anyone that falls outside of that framework, whether by choice or by circumstance, is stupid, flawed, or wrong in some way.” In other words, should someone’s culture constantly be suppressed in the name of fitting into the mainstream?

I’m not judging people for laughing at these styles or for wearing them. Truth be told, I’ve done both. But I do think that if we are laughing, we should ask ourselves why we are laughing. I stopped long enough to ask myself if the reason these styles were so funny was more about who was wearing them and less about the hairstyles themselves. After all, in the greater scheme of things, hair is just hair, whether it’s fashioned in the shape of an afro, or a helicopter. It’s the social context that gives it meaning, that makes it funny. I won’t even pretend to have the answer to that question. But, I can guess that it lies somewhere at the intersection of race and class.

Like the names we give our children, our most prized possessions, the hairstyles we wear are birthed from a deeply personal place that is nurtured by our lifelong experiences. I believe these preferences have their roots in far-away lands and long forgotten meanings. I once heard Tim Wise, a celebrated activist and public speaker, tell a woman that was considering changing her mind about naming her son a stereotypically “black sounding name,” that she should not change to make those around her more comfortable. Instead, he insisted that mainstream society would have to change in order to make room for people with different names and to stop punishing them for being different.

There is something to be said for changing and “doing what you have to do” in order to provide the best life you can for your family. That’s a powerful choice that should not be made light of or made fun of. And yet, there is something incredibly intriguing and beautiful about a people that choose to be themselves no matter what anyone has to say about them–even if it means forgoing the prizes of assimilation. Plus, there is always so much talk about how far black people are willing to go to fit in with the mainstream that it is refreshing to celebrate those that embrace their own ways of being, without apology.

As an aspiring artist, I appreciate creativity in all of its forms and I think it’s a shame that anyone’s creative voice is stifled in the name of conformity or sameness. For someone to weigh the cost of being judged as “ghetto” and still choose to wear one of these ‘dos, they must really, really like it. Part of me is saddened by the fact that by “giving into” their own sense of style, they will be perceived negatively. That is, until these styles are embraced by the mainstream, and a few people make lots of money selling fads originated by those we once laughed at (ala Nicki Minaj’s colorful hair). While I’m not going to go out and get a “helicopter weave” any time soon, I am truly inspired by these women and men to be my own definition of fly, no matter what anyone else thinks about it.

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