comments 13

Safe Spaces or Racism? Curly Nikki vs. Ebony

As many curly-headed peeps, I enjoy reading Curly Nikki from time to time. Her advice is helpful, the variety of writers and readers provide a well-balanced community from which to draw, and I find her writing style to be funny and easy to follow. I never thought much about the fact that many members of this community were black women, and I also never thought to even comment or draw attention to it; if you have hair that’s similar, and reacts similarly, then who gives a damn about things like that?

Nikki also feels the same way. Her community, like several other online hair communities, regularly features readers as ‘Curl Icons’ – people (typically women) with curly hair, what their routine is, and their hair journey. Nikki featured Sarah, who has naturally curly hair; the majority of the comments underneath are supportive, positive, and downright awesome – what I come to expect from the Curly Hair Community.

Sarah, the Curl Icon feature that initially sparked the controversy

Sarah, the Curl Icon feature that initially sparked the controversy

However, an article posted on Ebony.com by Jamilah Lemieux – entitled, “White Women on #TeamNatural? No, Thanks” – provides the opinion that the Black Hair Movement does not need to be racially diverse. She (at times, quite poignantly) argues that too much focus is placed on ‘curly’ hair, which is not the typical curl type in natural hair communities; rather, kinky/coily hair is the primary focus. She argues not only that more attention deserves to be given to coily hair, but also that:

Hair is emotional territory for many Black women and while we may be able to share products with White women, we needn’t share a movement that should be centered on overcoming the unique challenges that are thrown our way because of White people.

This article is well written and does provide some thoughtful points; perhaps from my biased perspective, however, it feels hostile and goes against much of what I feel websites like Curly Nikki stand for. Even more interesting was the fairly consistent and vehement support of the writer, as displayed in the comments section at the bottom. Nikki, ever the outspoken woman, responded with an equally aggressive post, relaying the fact that she never created her website with a ‘Black Only’ intention; she acknowledges the importance of creating safe spaces but also comes down hard on the side of inclusion in the hair community. She states,

Success in the natural hair movement is defined by the total acceptance of our hair by ourselves, and then ultimately, others.  I and other bloggers have been working hard to make the natural hair movement popular. It’s obvious now that our impact on the hair care industry and popular culture has been tremendous. Generally, this has led to good outcomes like a crap load more product options, and a warmer reception among friends, family and colleagues. Without popularity, none of this would have been possible. However, we can’t have popularity without sacrificing privacy. Is it worth the trade? Hmmm…who knows. As a practical matter, what I do know, is that it is difficult to try to make something popular and accepted by not sharing it with others. #WhereTheyDoThatAt

She also goes on to strongly indicate that this whole mess was perhaps created to stir the pot and generate some page views, of which I have no doubt. However, it did leave me with some interesting questions, and a viewpoint that I hadn’t previously explored.

I was curious to ask you all – black, white, curly-haired or otherwise: what do you think of Jamilah’s and Nikki’s arguments? Are these issues that you have come across before? Should the Natural Hair Community be a separate entity from the Curly Hair Community, or should it be inclusive? I honestly find this to be a fascinating area and am always open to opinions on both sides of the coin.

Thank you for reading and taking the time to respond!

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13 Comments

  1. Amber

    I think black women who just want to interact with black women on and off line should be honest and open about and create their own space that specifically says so. So many are so hateful and resentful about any and everything that doesn’t line up exactly with their own ideas that they truly need their own space, but they really need to be open about it and not “pretend” to be a friend of the world. But, to come onto a website created by another black woman who does not share their idealogy and demand that said website owner do so, is inane. If you don’t like the ppl CN invites on her page, then go away. Stop crying about how bad the “world” has made you feel.

  2. Pye

    I only recently – like in the last couple of days – came across this particular tempest in a teapot that has been overblown into a gigantic storm of reverse racism. However it explains a lot of things I have seen on several “curly hair” forums which have become overwhelmed by the political, rather than the practical, aspects of having curly hair.

    I am a person of who has just enough of an “ethnic” genetic component that I have been mistaken for any of several minorities over the years. Whatever the minority du jour is – eg whoever is most likely to feel the brunt of racism from a “white” majority in that particular area – that is who strangers think I am, and that is how they treat me. WHITE strangers mostly. I have been derided and harassed for supposedly being Jewish, all manner of Hispanics, Native American, Greek, Italian, and Turkish, among other esoteric and less likely minorities. Only one of those is any part of my KNOWN heritage.

    I emphasize “known” because, as my dad used to say, “People who get all in an uproar over their heritage are putting an awful lot of faith in people they’ve never met, and CAN never meet.” The non-white portion of my heritage is (allegedly, because ran-away-to-Canada-to-escape-forced-resettlement so not-on-the-Dawes-rolls) Native American, and Native Americans are NOT known for their curly hair. No one in my family for generations has had naturally curly hair. My mother spent years making sure to pull all the curl OUT of my hair. Yet here I am. Pretty sure I didn’t come by it “legitimately”.

    (Irony on) I suppose it COULD be a spontaneous mutation – in which case, as a mutant, I’m TIRED of being REPRESSED by the MAN! (Irony off)

    I came across a stridently racist blog entry by a black woman who made it VERY clear that white women have no “right” to even THINK about trying to find help for how to deal with their curly hair on “black” forums – many of which I had no idea were SUPPOSED to be black, and, in fact, apparently weren’t actually (CurlyNikki being a case in point). Because if they do, they BY DEFINITION are racists using their “white privilege” to repress black women. In fact, white women (according to this woman) don’t have “black” hair and only black hair counts as “curly”. White women DON’T COUNT because they are white.

    Tell me how that is any different than white women who discount and denigrate black women because they are black.

    I was even more appalled by the multitude of black women who commented on the post in agreement: white women have no right to even use so-called “black product” such as SheaMoisture because doing so is somehow disrespectful of the experience of black women in the USA today (at best), and is counted as direct discrimination, repression, and THEFT of black culture and identity (amongst the more strident voices).

    Some of these voices go on to say that white women can’t talk about “natural” hair because they (allegedly) never went through a period of hair-denial and they never had to “transition”.

    Well *I* certainly did. My mother used various ploys to straighten my hair for the first 17 years of my life. When I left home, I DID NOT KNOW I had curly hair, I thought I had dry brittle lifeless stringy hair that I had to perm (to put curl IN) and that’s what I did for the next 17 years or so. I only found out I had curly hair by ACCIDENT in my mid-30s. I DEFINITELY had to “transition” from hair-damaging perms and brushing to grow out my natural curl. And learn to use a pick, and basically to treat my hair more like ethnic curly hair than straight “white” hair.

    I shouldn’t be surprised. People are people. The only REAL race on this planet is the HUMAN race. In all of our multitudes of skin color, body type, and yes, hair type, there is only the HUMAN race. Why should people nominally identified as “black”, who have been enslaved, brutalized, and disenfranchised for hundreds of years, ultimately behave any better than the white folks who did the enslaving, brutalizing, and disenfranchising?

    I see the EXACT same arguments being bandied about as to why “exclusion” is not actual racism that white racists used to justify Jim Crow and segregation. The SAME arguments. And they come from the SAME place in our common human psyche – a wellspring of hatred and anger based entirely on racism.

    And don’t tell me racism cannot exist in the absence of a majority wielding power against the minority. When you hate or exclude others based on the color of their skin – or the quality of their hair – that is racism. Whether or not people have “power” in the wider world, when they exercise what power they DO have to denigrate and exclude others, its the same old monster – RACISM.

    I guess its not shocking to me that such attitudes exist amongst minorities. Why wouldn’t they? We’re all human and we all behave – and MISbehave – in much the same fashions when we cordon ourselves off into our little cliques and groups.

    What is shocking to me is the vitriol expressed over HAIR as a political entity. When we have black women angrily insisting that white women STAY AWAY FROM THEIR HAIR PRODUCTS, its definitely gone over the top and far afield from the MANY far more legitimate complaints that women – well, ALL people, really – of color still have in this day and age.

    Anger over black women being fired for their hair, or forced out of the military? Justified and on point.

    Anger over me, a nominally “white” woman, using SheaMoisture because that’s supposedly a black prerogative? Bigotry.

    Telling white women to stay off “black” hair forums IS, in fact, the exercise of power to exclude based solely on skin color. Telling me, a person who is only “nominally” white (in fact under miscegenation rules, some of which still exist, even if unenforced, I am NOT white) that my experiences of hair-discrimination DON’T COUNT is more racism. Telling other people they don’t count and their experiences don’t count and/or are imaginary, overblown, “all in your head” is THE primary weapon (stopping short of out-and-out violence) bigots use to repress the people they hate. Its no more acceptable coming from a member of a minority than it is when coming from the majority.

    It’s like a rape victim telling another woman that her experience of being stripped, groped, and man-handled doesn’t count because she wasn’t actually penetrated. As a person who has been raped, I have heard women ACTUALLY say such things to each other. Pain is pain. Violence is violence. We ALL need to get over the idea that OUR pain is the ONLY pain that matters; that violence perpetrated against THIS ONE GROUP is the only violence that has impact.

    When white bigots respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “ALL Lives Matter”, they are negating the pain of the “other” group. While the latter is certainly true, in practice the former is a necessary reminder that there is a segment of our population that STILL, to this day, is being discriminated against – and DYING for it. THAT MATTERS. Whether or not a white woman is putting SheaMoisture in her hair and soliciting curly hair advice on a public forum DOES NOT.

    Until you tell her to f*** off.

    • I am so sorry I haven’t responded to this until now! A very thought-provoking response. I’m consistently drawn again and again to how much hair conveys to people; when it doesn’t ascribe to ‘typical norms’, hair becomes representative of so much more, doesn’t it?

      I think (and I may be grasping, as I do not have this shared experience) a lot of the defensiveness of typically black natural hair communities comes from the history steeped in oppression. I think my favourite line of this, is “they are negating the pain of the ‘other’ group.”

      Thank you for taking the time to respond, Pye!

  3. Lei

    I am glad I found this discussion. I am a curly girl belonging to a multi-racial background (African, East Indian, French and Venezuelan) with 3a/3b hair and I find Nikki’s website to be very informative. Lately however, I noticed that the comments being made are becoming increasingly inclusive to one race and seems to be leaning to the curl discriminatory side where ladies with type 4 hair seem to be in control of the conversations, where they would praise only the women with hair types like their own. Of course not everyone is doing this, but there seems to be a large volume of women who do this and it does not make me, as a woman with natural hair feel welcome to join in on the discussion sharing what I’ve had to overcome thus far on my journey.

    I have decided not to visit the website in the future for this reason. Every person with natural hair should feel inclusive in the whole natural hair movement, and not just women with type 4 hair. I am sure Nikki is aware of this- she’s very sharp and I really like her! But what is she going to do about it? No, the question is, can she do anything about it?

    • I am so, so glad you have said this, Lei. I’ve been noticing the same thing, too – although I don’t post on her blog, I do scroll through the comments from time to time and often feel intimidated by some of the personalities and comments. Although I can appreciate and understand the concept of celebrating Type 4 hair due to the fact that it’s the one most notably associated historically with having ‘bad’ hair, I think it’s doing curls everywhere an extreme disservice to be exclusive of one type.

      I’m not biracial, but my hair type is so curly that I’ve found a lot of the information on natural hair blogs extremely helpful and directly related to my hair. Why should those of us who wear our hair naturally (and, to be fair, different people categorize ‘natural’ hair differently; personally, I consider ‘natural’ hair to be any kind of hair worn in its natural, un-chemically processed state) feel ostracized due to the fact that our hair isn’t of the kinky variety? It’s ironic to me that many of these sites were created in order to create inclusivity of this hair type, and are now freezing out people like you and I.

      In answer to your question about Curly Nikki saying something – certainly she can, although I feel like her influence may be limited. She came down in her response to Ebony on being ‘on the side of inclusivity’, and her original intentions for the blog, which were to help women with curly hair. Aside from being consistent in her beliefs and continually modelling inclusivity, I’m not sure what else she can do, other than continue to model people of a variety of ethnicities/races/hair types. However, I agree in that the majority of her spotlights recently have been on Type 4 hair. Which, don’t get me wrong – is gorgeous, and a hair type I adore! – but it doesn’t cover the entire scope of kinky/curly/coily hair. And with the negativity against Type 3s in the comments? Frankly, I’d be nervous to volunteer myself up to the internet gods for that.

      All of this goes to show how socially charged a conversation about hair can be! It’s a really interesting phenomenon to me, and something my former history student self would love to delve into in deeper details.

      Thank you so much for responding to this, Lei! I love a good dialogue.

  4. Whew I’m afraid to say much about it! I don’t really know what to think; I thought this post was a reasonable and unbiased summary of the controversy thus far. Though reading through the comments was certainly illuminating. I had no idea there were numbers/labels for different types of curls! I think I sit somewhere between a 2b and a 2c? At any rate, I think there is more than enough room in this world for many, many conversations about curly hair. Some of those conversations may be more “exclusive” than others, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s certainly not my place to demand that I be included in all of those conversations, though I do have to say that I do find that particular strain of thought very saddening.

    • I do, too. I like the other girls’ comments on the definition of natural – technically, if you’re wearing your hair the way it is naturally, then you are ‘natural’. I can appreciate the different hair textures, but often my curls don’t fit into the looser waves associated with women of my race. It seems silly to bar someone who has a similar hair type out of a conversation which could benefit them; I do feel very much that although I understand what Jamilah is saying, that she is being racist. Which is never cool.

      It’s an interesting point of contention and I’m continually fascinated with how much people attach emotional importance to their hair (which I do, too!).

  5. Yikes what a touchy topic, and you covered it so eloquently! (You deserve the big words).
    People are entitled to their opinions, but when it degrades others that are supportive of the same movements, well it gets touchy. I didn’t look at her original post because I agree with you that she was trying to get more hits (controversy tends to do that) and I didn’t want to add to it! Ha!
    What I wanted to add though was that this whole deal is not only excluding people from a movement that is pretty important to boys and girls of curly hair, but it makes other ethnic backgrounds invisible, such as Latinos and Asians (yup you heard me correctly, Asians also have curly hair).
    The natural hair movement is much bigger than a one-dimensional cultural, ethnic, and geographical identity, and it discredits the movement to suggest it is. Much more importantly, I don’t think we ever got anywhere positive in history without banding together with a multitude of cultural, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds to achieve the goals we wanted. What better way to do that then to write a blog that can be read all over the world?
    Ok rant over. Thanks for your post! 🙂

  6. Sarabi Nikolanna Eventide

    The “natural movement” has so many meanings to so many people. I won’t say any opinion is more correct than the other, but I definitely don’t think the “natural movement” needs to be exclusive. I’ve never had a relaxer in my hair (though I went through phases of obsessive flat ironing) so if one defines the movement as ridding oneself of chemical straighteners (which tends to be the definition I hear from friends), even I would be excluded.

    I, however, think “natural” simply means “as it occurs without interference.” From that perspective, all women who rock their hair as-is are considered natural; their skin color and hair type don’t matter. The thing I find most interesting in the natural discussion, though, is the fact that a black, African-American or mixed girl with a 3b or even 3a texture is still considered “natural” while a white/caucasian woman of the same texture would simply be considered “curly.” I believe the distinction is unnecessary, and hair products don’t know the difference–I wrote about that ;).

    Jamilah’s argument is definitely racist, but I understand it. Minority races want something we can claim as our own, because our culture (music, food, clothing, etc) has become quite mainstream. As more people taking up the “natural” label, pictures and advice for truly kinky hair becomes more difficult to find. 2c/3a hair is becoming the ideal, making it hard to maintain acceptance of type 4 hair. One day I walked around town with a friend who rocks 3b hair. My hair is naturally 3b/4b mix, but that day I chose a kinkier style. People stopped to compliment my friend’s hair, but ignored or expressed confusion towards mine. These attitudes can be remedied with time and persistence, but it feels like a battle right now. Battles are won with allies, so I’m all for including everyone in the so-called “natural movement.”

    • Awesome response, Sarabi! (And I read your post on hair products being blind to race – it was good!). It’s funny that so many type 4 hair people say the same thing – I find it my absolute favourite type of curl. I covet the afros and your ability to have twists stay longer than two days! However, I realize that my opinion does not necessarily reflect the general public’s. I, too, feel like there have been steps towards acceptance and admiration of all hair types, although what you say about that loose, 2b/3a curl being the desired does ring true. However, for me, the curlier the better!

      I also really enjoy your definition of the ‘natural’ movement. It’s funny how slight changes in the definition can either include or exclude people.

      Thank you so much for your well-thought out, well-written response!

  7. Michelle

    While my own hair is a 3A and has a larger coil pattern than African-American hair, it is “natural” as I neither apply any form of relaxers (i.e. Keratin straighteners), nor do I have it chemically curled (permed). It is as it grows out of my skull – curly. Up until about 5 years ago, I relentlessly straightened my hair, that is until I just stopped straightening it. That’s also when I started reading up on the care & maintenance of curls and came across the curly hair communities. My hair is fine and abundant, but is easily weighed down by any product best-suited for thick and coarse hair – so I skip over articles & posts that discuss products recommended for a different hair texture than my own. Having said that, I do however enjoy reading any article or post that gives perspective on accepting one’s natural curl – it matters not if the author is white or African-American. I simply enjoy hearing about others perspective.

    So on to Jamilah’s arguement. Here’s my take on it. The short version is that she wants to access a natural hair care forum that essentially is white-girl free. The long version is that Jamilah apparently considers the inclusion of non African-Americans (more specifically – a white gal) as an interloper and felt so strongly about the inclusion of the interloper enough to speak up and voice her opinion. Her opinion is racist. She knows that & is obviously fine with it, so props to Jamilah for having the lady-balls to voice her racist views. Like the old saying goes, it can’t hurt to ask, and Jamilah essentially asked Nikki to exclude anyone not African-American.

    Nikki’s comment regarding sacrificing privacy for popularity sits hard. Is Nikki herself opposed to the inclusion of non-African-Americans as well? But that makes no sense as she willfully included Sarah, a white gal. It’s a tough spot for Nikki. She can exclude other races, but would have to do so in such a way to not be obvious in order to avoid controversy that might cause her advertisers to flee for fear of being linked to racism. Nikki’s site might generate plenty of traffic from causcasians, but unless these folks fess up to their race, then she wouldn’t have any ways of knowing.

    I don’t have an answer to this. There probably isn’t one anyways as Jamilah’s racist opinions are hers to deal with, despite airing it publically. Nikki is now thrust into the spotlight and can either continue to include caucasians or not – she’ll just need to be very discrete if she opts to exclude caucasians or risk racism on a site with advertisers who probably don’t want to be associated publically with racism either.
    The bigger issue is that for every person who tries to take a giant leap forward to squash out-dated exclusionary and racist habits, there is one person who takes a giant step backward ensuring these out-dated and henious habits continue.

    • Michelle, thank you so much for responding! I was genuinely curious to know people’s thoughts on this matter, and you seem to have summed mine up perfectly. Yes, I got the sense of Jamilah being racist, although to be honest, my ‘white guilt’ often kicks in under these circumstances, and I go out of my way to see the alternative vantage point. You provide some really interesting points about Curly Nikki’s potentially ulterior motives in regards to advertising – brilliant. This is something I certainly didn’t even consider.

      I also *love* your definition of natural; although Jamilah points out that white women have never had to transition the same way that African American women have, I would argue that curl in general has been suppressed and made to seem ‘unattractive’ in our general culture. However, Jamilah, as well as several commentators in the discussion section, brought up the history of slavery and the emotional brevity that hair has in these circumstances. As a history student, I found these poignant, but perhaps contrary to current issues.

      Again, thank you for your amazing, well-thought, well-written response, Michelle!

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