Friday, September 30, 2016

Hair politics in Brazil

The other day, I was talking with a friend who'd recently spent two years in Brazil. "So tell me," I said, angling for a hairpisode. "Is there anything unique about hair in Brazil?"

"Yes, there is," Jenny replied. "There's a definite hair politics." 

"Hair politics? What do you mean?"

"Hair is a race and class issue in Brazil. A lot of people straighten their hair. In Brazilian culture, natural African hair isn't considered beautiful."

We moved on to talking about other things, but what Jenny'd said about hair politics in Brazil stuck with me. This morning on a quick Internet search of "hair politics Brazil", I came across an August 2016 article published in The Guardian.

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The article is about wearing natural hair to reclaim racial identity.

But from what, exactly? Why is hair a tool of political expression in Brazil? I found the answer in a poignant article about hair politics in Brazil, the racism against which these women are taking a stand. In the article "Look at her Hair": The Body Politics of Black Womanhood in Brazil, by Kia Lilly Caldwell, published in Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 11, Issue 2, Caldwell takes an in-depth look at hair politics in Brazil's racial democracy. She writes:
Having "good" or "bad" hair is also used as a means of assigning individuals who have questionable or ambiguous racial origins to either the "White" or "Black" racial category. Given the high degree of racial intermixture in Brazil, individuals with African ancestry may not readily appear to be "Black." As a consequence, hair texture has long been used as an indicator of racial background and a basis of racial classification. Although Brazilian notions of cabelo bom and cabelo mini resonate with ideas of "good" and "bad" hair found elsewhere in the African Diaspora, it is important to note that these notions are not confined to the Afro-Brazilian community; they permeate Brazilian society as a whole. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear White Brazilians describe someone as having "bad" hair. Widespread familiarity with the significance of hair texture amongst all racial groups further underscores the significance of hair as a marker of racial and social identity in Brazil.
The sexualization of women of different races is also described in Caldwell's article. In particular, how the sexualization of Mulata women brings out Brazil's nationalist image as a racial democracy and a racial-sexual paradise. A simple internet search of "Brazilian hair" reinforces this concept. Apparently, Brazilian hair extensions, and more precisely *virgin* Brazilian hair extensions, are all the rage. These images on Pinterest are the mildest version of what you'll find.

Whoa. This whole business screams subtext, one that, at first glance, appears threatening and unjust to women of color.