It may not be common for natural hair to be brought up during a national presidential town hall, but one attendee used the topic to talk about a more pivotal issue in America. Columbia College junior Kyla Gray was given the mic at the Democratic Town Hall Tuesday to pose a question to Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; she opened the conversation with an anecdote on her treatment from others after making a major hair change.
“Recently I started wearing my hair natural,” the 22-year-old began, “and I’ve noticed a difference in the way some people address and look at me.”
But, Gray didn’t address her hair just to talk about it — the miniscule reaction others have to her hair stems from the larger problem of racism.
“In the wake of things like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter and the recent backlash against Beyoncé for her ‘Formation’ video, there have been a lot of racial tensions recently in our nation,” she said. “So my question to you is: what do you intend to do to fix the broken racial relations in our nation?”
Clinton first acknowledged Gray’s honesty about her experience before addressing the consequences of racism on several societal levels and the responsibility that white Americans have in tackling it.
“First of all, thank you for being so candid and brave to stand up and say this about yourself,” Clinton said. “I believe strongly that we have to deal with systemic racism, and systemic racism is found in our criminal justice system, it’s found in housing, in job opportunities, in education, and it’s also cultural.”
“We have serious challenges and I think it’s important for people, and particularly white people, to be honest about this and our experiences may not equip us to understand what our fellow African-American citizens go through every single day,” Clinton added.
But Clinton’s response took an unexpected turn afterwards when she tried to level with Gray, bringing up her own hair journey. "You have a right to wear your hair any way you want to,” she said before responding to Gray’s question. “That’s your right. As somebody who, ya know, has had a lot of different hairstyles, I say that from some personal experience.”
Black women have long faced criticism and discrimination for wearing their hair natural instead of adopting European beauty standards of long, straight hair. Beyonce has received her fair share of criticism for not “taming” her daughter’s hair (although she’s been accused of wanting to “be white” because of her preference for long, blonde hair). But, she’s chosen to finally address that critique in her music. In the lyrics to her song, “Formation,“ she declares, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and Afros,” as her daughter, Blue Ivy, smiles in the video. Beyonce isn’t the only one who’s dealt with this issue, as Jet magazine points out, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Ethiopian-born daughter was also put under a microscope for looking “wild” and “unruly” when she was just sporting her natural hair in a short afro.
As Salon notes, “there is something that is fundamentally problematic about deeming black women’s hair in its natural state to be unkempt. No other group of women is required by default to use chemicals to tame their hair or to pay money for expensive weaves ….”
But, still, prejudice exists in the form of punishing black women for wearing their hair naturally. Just this month, a group of students were threatened by school officials with disciplinary action for “untidy” and “unprofessional” natural hair, which spawned a #SupportThePuff hashtag. An online petition to support the girls, which received more than 1,700 signatures, notes: “Black women through the course of history have been told that their hair is unworthy and were made to chemically straighten, hot comb or cover their kinky crowns. In order to be seen as beautiful, many women of African descent were told unapologetically that their hair was not beautiful in any other form.”
In Clinton’s case, some people on Twitter took issue with the presidential candidate’s attempt to relate to Gray with a joke about her own changing hairstyles. But Renae Bluitt, founder of Beauty PR business Crush Media and entrepreneurial blog In Her Shoes, tells Yahoo Beauty that she is happy that the presidential hopeful is at least addressing “the difficult questions, including those about race relations and even natural hair.”
"Her initial response about being able to wear your hair any way you want was enough. The second portion of her response where she attempted to compare her exploration of many hairstyles to wearing natural hair was a disconnect for me as they are two totally different scenarios. But she tried and I commend her for that,” says Bluitt.
Gray acknowledged her question was about a lot more than just her everyday hairstyle.
"The stigma surrounding natural hair is a piece of the whole that makes up racism,” she said in an interview with Mic.com. “The only way to get rid of the symptom is to address the problem itself. I wholly believe that conversations about race are ones we need to be having. We can’t fix the problem if we aren’t talking about the symptoms.”
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