All Black girls speak hair. We’re a diverse, dynamic, and complex group, but that shared language connects us. This is
probably definitely why my phone was blowing up on Wednesday night during the vice presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence.
“Omg Kamala’s hair looks so good,” a friend texted me as soon as she strolled out. I joked with another about her slightly lifted ends—it reminded us of the stylists we saw as kids, who would always say, “Let me just bump the ends. It’s looking a little flat.” Black Twitter was also lighting up with praises, from how bouncy Senator Harris’s hair looked to jokes about how the real MVP of the debate was her hairstylist.
I joked on my Instagram Stories that Harris’s hair was like an Easter Sunday silk press (IYKYK) and Black girls filled my DMs with laughing-face emojis. The asymmetrically-parted hair fell in face-framing swoops that hit just below her shoulders. There wasn’t one single strand out of place, even when she gave it a flip, it was laid. It looked like it smelled good, laced with that “Fresh Out of the Salon” eau de parfum. Even if you’re sus about Harris’s political past, you couldn’t help but admire the look.
Kamala’s press is so fresh I can smell the flat irons from here.
— king crissle (@crissles) October 8, 2020
For Black women, it’s never been “just hair.” It’s linked to our identity, culture, and creative expression. We don’t go to the salon once every couple of months for a cut or color. We have standing Saturday morning appointments to get braids, wigs, weaves, finger-coils. Hair salons are a do-it-all space for us (church! therapy! A talk show!) where you don’t have to put up a front. Our hair also allows us to shape-shift, glide from one space to the next—and that’s exactly what Harris did last night. She was able to connect to Black people without isolating anyone else.
“She looked Black, she looked Indian, she looked Latinx. Her hair looked so universal. Even a white girl could look at is and go ‘Mmm, look at those layers,’” Michaela Angela Davis, an image activist, tells me in a phone interview. It was a stark contrast to Pence. While Harris’s very intentional hair choice had universal appeal, he looked so white—like, “Did your family come here on The Mayflower?” white.
It wasn’t just the hair. Her smile wasn’t just a smile. We had flashbacks to times when we’d act up in public, and our mom/grandma/auntie/whoever would paint a fake grin on their face while saying, “You just wait until we get home.” The tone she took on when she spoke about Trump’s taxes (“It means he owes money to somebody”), about his administration’s plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“They’re coming for you”), and a future COVID-19 vaccine (“...if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it”)—while some viewers may have detected slight shade in Harris’s performance, Black people got the full effect.
It was Black with a capital B, and if you weren’t the intended audience, you probably missed it. There were other cues too—the side-eyes, the arched eyebrows. It was just enough for the internet to make a meme out of it but not enough to fall into the “angry Black woman” trope.
“Black women have to negotiate so many things to get to the table. She’s already more than qualified because of her journey. No white man or white woman has to go through what a Black person does to get on a stage like that,” says Davis. Harris walks a fine line, but she’s able to visually appeal to so many different groups at once, thanks to the softly bent hair, the glowy and natural-looking makeup, the pearl earrings (and in the past, colorful Converse and Timberlands). She’s the girl next door, no matter what neighborhood you live in. And last night, she was able to nudge away any ideas voters might have about female politicians being too “aggressive” or too “ambitious” with her style.
You have to think, Would Harris have become the attorney general of California and a vice presidential nominee for a major party—the first Black and South Asian woman to do either—if she wasn’t able to connect to so many people through her hair and her image? In a 1990 essay, writer Audre Lorde asked, “Is Your hair Still Political?” Thirty years later, it seems the answer might still be yes.
Our hair is an expression of ourselves. It’s been marked as “different” and “unacceptable” for so long. When you finally feel the freedom to test-drive new styles, it’s liberating and so damn fun. And I fully support it—get those long-ass braids! Buy that weave! But the gap between intention and perception still exists (especially in a country where you can get fired for rocking your natural hair), and Harris has to balance on a tightrope that only exists for her. She has to come off as a Black woman authentically but still make white America feel comfortable. There’s little room for error.
It’s complicated to be a Black woman anywhere, let alone this close to power. Harris has to be way more calculated about her image than any man or white woman will ever need to be. In last week’s presidential debate (um, if you can call it that), the testosterone levees broke and we were flooded with images of two white men yelling over one another, both trying to prove that they’re “tough” and “strong.” That was never an option for Harris—not only is she a woman, she’s a Black woman. Do you know what happens to Black women who don’t know their place? People try to put them in it. But at least during the debate, Harris couldn’t be caught. She was relatable, she was confident, she looked like she was having fun. Anyone who was trying to trap her in racist and sexist tropes was outmatched. I guess they didn’t realize that they were dealing with a master shape-shifter.
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