BGLH Was Just Dragged for Describing Lighter-Skinned Women with Loose Curls as “Black”

When it comes to blogging I’m not one to complain about the comment box. If you have a high traffic site (or want a high traffic site) you have to get comfortable with the idea that your comment box will be reckless. It’s just life on the internet.

But there are times when a heated conversation in the comment box points to something much deeper.

Such was the case Friday, when BGLH did a post about ‘heat damage transformations.‘ Heat training is a popular way to get natural curls to ‘behave’. Essentially you blow dry/flat iron/press-and-curl your hair regularly enough that the curl pattern loosens permanently, rendering your hair less textured.

I’m not one to judge what people do with their hair… but this particular look is hard to pull off. The curl loosening tends to be uneven, and over-heated ends typically end up straight and limp. Still, it’s long been considered more ‘acceptable-looking’ than a headful of healthy curls. When one of my writers noticed that a significant number of women on Instagram were showing their before and after heat damage pictures, I was fascinated by the idea that this technique might be losing popularity and approved the concept for an article.

As we always do when we find a hashtag worth highlighting, the best pictures (clearest, most visually striking) were selected. In this case it seemed that most of the pictures populating heat-transformation-related tags on Instagram were of black women with looser curls.

I have my own theories on this. I’m a 4B/4C natural myself (for those of you who don’t understand the lingo, my strands are very very tightly curled… my hair is more coily/kinky than curly) and I attempted heat training my senior year of college. Within a year the bottom half of my hair was basically gone.

When I started heat training in March 2007


What my ends looked like a year later, in March 2008

The *general* rule of thumb is the tighter the curl pattern the more fragile the head of hair. So I’d posit that maybe looser textured naturals, with stronger hair, are more likely to manage long-term heat training than naturals with tighter curls. Either way I thought the finished article was great, and we posted a link to our Facebook page.

Within minutes we were inundated with Facebook comments accusing us of colorism. Many believed that the women whose photos we selected didn’t qualify as black nor deserve to be highlighted. Someone actually said, “These women are not black because we all know that black women are dark-skinned with kinky hair.” As comments became increasingly offensive we began removing them.

The fiasco highlights a fundamental challenge of black womanhood.

On the one hand, I understand the anger. Because it is not inaccurate to say that a majority of black women in this world are darker-skinned with kinky hair. In terms of our phenotype, it’s pretty damn common. But this image is regularly suppressed in favor of one that is closer to whiteness/non-blackness.

And this pressure comes from both outside of and within black culture. When they tell us we’re ugly, we scramble to tell them they’re wrong by pointing to our Iman’s, Zendaya’s, Tyra’s and Halle’s. We figure we can meet the establishment halfway — give them a black or bi-racial woman, but one whose features are familiar enough that their beauty can’t be denied.

We, the darker-skinned, kinkier-haired, broader-nosed mothers, sisters, cousins and friends stay in our place in the shadows, understanding that we are not the pretty ones, but grateful to have proximity to those who are.

And of course this is not a universal story for all dark-skinned black women. It’s reductive to associate dark skin with tragedy. But it is also a narrative that plays out way too often.

As we try to process our anger over colorism, it is easy to lash out at the women we see as its embodiment. We tell them they are not really black, that they cannot sit with us, that their struggles are invalid and don’t belong in the dialogue on black girl anguish. We resent them for having access to spaces we don’t. We forget that, yes they have privilege, but rarely enough to escape the burdens society places on the backs of black women. They’re carrying a lighter pack, but we’re all hunched over.

So what do we do? Where do we go?

I actually don’t think colorism is discussed enough in black culture. I know this because it is still so casual. From black men crowing about ‘exotical’ chicks, to black parents breathing a sigh of relief when a baby emerges with a ‘good’ skin color and hair texture, to the way we tend to erase dark-skinned black women from our narratives and render them invisible. We’re not even close to truly exploring this phenomenon and its implications for the humanity of those we feel are on the wrong side of the ‘color scale’.

But how do we give voice to darker-skinned black women while not refusing lighter-skinned women a seat at the table of black womanhood?

The irony in all of this is that the writer who compiled the article for BGLH is herself a fair-skinned, loose-hair-textured black woman who regularly fights the notion — projected onto her by others — that she is not black enough. When she compiled those images, she saw a reflection of herself — a black woman. What a jolt to realize that others do not.