My existence is a life-long treasure hunt.

Iranian Curls

I found this essay on Racialicious today. Amazing how natural hair struggles cross racial lines; interesting for black women to view this from another perspective and OTHER reactions to this other perspective. This was a fascinating read. Here are some excerpts:

…if you look at me now, the first thing you see is what happens when Ireland and Iran decide to come together to have a baby—curls that put even Shirley Temple to shame.

My father hated my curly hair. He said it made me look black. This is a problem to some Iranians, who hold a great pride in the purity of the Persian race. Iran is actually Farsi for Aryan. To this day, when people meet me, their first impression isn’t that I look Persian; it’s that I look black. My Arabic first name doesn’t help. It makes people assume that I’m one of “those black people” whose parents named her something from the homeland.

Even my mom, my number-one fan, called my hair kinky, a term commonly reserved for black hair. That never bothered her though. She said she loved my hair because she loved the look of African hair. It was exotic to her. She just wished she knew how to take care of it. At the same time, Iranians weren’t laying any claim on me either. To them, I looked more mullato than anything else. My father hated looking at me because he said I didn’t look like an Iranian child.

I relaxed my hair for the first time one spring weekend during my freshman year of high school. I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted the new me to be a surprise. Quite honestly, the chemicals are the worst smell ever, but beauty isn’t painless, and I was willing to deal with the smell if it led to me looking normal again. Of course, it didn’t straighten my hair. It only loosened my curls by about ten percent. What the fuck is wrong with my hair? That was when I pulled out a paddle brush and a hairdryer, and I yanked it until it dried moderately straight. Then I ran the flat iron through it. You have to realize how many products are involved in making curly hair look naturally straight.

All this, just to hide the fact that you just willingly burned your hair and your scalp for the sake of aesthetic hygiene.

Anti-feminist as it may sound to say this, it was a boy who finally made me feel comfortable with my hair. I was twenty-four, in my last year of graduate school. I went in to model one summer evening for figure drawing class that was run by a guy I would later fall in love with. My hair was pulled back, and he could see the ringlets in the back of my ponytail. Sometime that evening, he asked me to let my hair down. I was terrified—I had no idea what it would look like. He didn’t care, and he asked me again to take it down. Turns out, he loved it. That night, while he held me back after class to chat, he couldn’t stop telling me how much he loved it. I didn’t know at the time that I was going to date or even marry him, but his excitement over my curls made me want to try to make peace with them.

I also learned how to break product addiction—all I needed to style my hair was conditioner. When I got home and realized how much of my bathroom I could empty out, I saw how much time, energy and money I was sinking into achieving an image that was so completely against what was natural for my body.

Sometime after that, I realized that “American” does not equal just white. Maybe in the past it did, but look at our country. America is a catch-all phrase, and when minority Americans acknowledge themselves as equally American as white Americans, then our images of racial beauty in this country can truly change. It’s interesting to see stuff categorized as African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and so on. But American-American? It seems like a politically-correct code word for “white.” Any time a race is unspecified, we’ve been conditioned to assume it’s white. People think sometimes that it’s ironic for me to have this viewpoint, because technically speaking, I’m purely white. While that’s true, practically speaking, I’m not, because it really comes down to not genetics, but how you appear to other people. Unfortunately, we’re still a society that looks first, and then maybe learns later. The fact of the matter is that because I have kinky hair and tan skin, most people encounter think I’m black, and their projection of racial residue has really pushed me to look at race and ethnicity from a more black and less Eurocentric standpoint. I wonder what it’s like for purely white women with curly hair. Obviously, they’re not assumed to be black, but I wonder to what extent they feel the pressure to look and feel racially “normal”?

Thoughts?

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Comments on: "Iranian Curls" (22)

  1. Damn. This was an amazing post. Its nice to get perspective from other ethnicities & races.

    Spanish ppl are treated similar. Curly hair is considered ‘nappy’ & its really sad & disgusting.

  2. Loved the entire post. First the Middle Eastern woman in my salon getting a relaxer, then this. The pressure of social acceptance is ridiculously hard on women of all ethnicities. It’s a shame that women are made to feel that they aren’t beautiful unless they fit the images shown in magazines.

    I went through it firsthand when my mother had me in a Leisure Curl back when I was in middle school. I got SO many jokes(the twin did as well) that I literally refused to set one foot inside my high school with it and demanded to be able to grow it out and get my relaxer again.

    (then again, that curl shyt was just NASTY….)

    • I know! That was crazy timing!

      Do I even want to know what a Leisure Curl is? Is it like the Jheri Curl? Soul Glo?

  3. I love the article. Very thought provoking but I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that minority americans have to have full confidence of being as equally american as the white american for racial images of beauty to change. I think what we are seeing is a slow transformation of other races being recognized as beautiful but it isn’t encompassing entire races. There are alot of black women being used in advertising, some of them natural, but many of them are either biracial or have a particular curl pattern. What about the others? Sadly it isn’t the ethnic groups themselves that push these images and those who are which is a group consisting of mainly white americans are only pushing the images they deem acceptable.
    It is as though there is a formula for which part of the race is acceptable. This is why our communities are so important. It starts there. We need to be able to combat the negavtive notions we and our children receive on a daily basis.

    • I do agree that it starts within our own communities but I must say I have been seeing a significant increase in black women in advertising/media with darker skin and kinkier hair, not just the obligatory ambiguous race with loose curled ethnic woman. So that area has been improving slowly as well.

  4. Great post – I read the whole essay on Racialicious and thought it was really moving. I went to her blog as well and read a couple of her posts – she’s a decent writer, if a smidge long-winded.

    It’s so sad and scary to think about how much influence our parents have over our self-image. I have a birthmark on my neck and I remember my mom teasing me, telling me my neck was dirty. I have vivid memories of scrubbing my neck in the shower and going to her and asking if it was clean yet. I know she never thought anything of it when she’d tell me ‘nope, not yet.’ Yet even now, the memory sticks with me.

    That’s what I thought when she wrote about her dad hating her hair and how sad that her mother’s love of her hair wasn’t strong enough to trump her dad’s sentiments. Poor girl…

    Oh also, we can gchat anytime. It goes to my phone so it shows I’m always available. Is there a way on wordpress that I can respond directly to your comments via email? I know you can do it on blogger but I don’t know about wordpress. It would be nice not to leave comments on your blog completely unrelated to what you wrote in response to something you wrote on my blog! Gets so confusing! 🙂

  5. I also went to her personal blog and agree totally. She is a good writer, draws you in, etc. but damn, cut some of that a little shorter!

    Wow at the birthmark story. I thought it was interesting her mother loved her hair but thought of it as “exotic”.

    I still don’t know about replying to e-mail? If you don’t want to reply to me on your blog, then just G-mail me!

  6. Hello! Wow this is a very powerful/truthful post! My ex boyfriend is half Iranian/half black and he too struggled with his self image and how people perceived him. However once he dug a little deeper and realized that he was better than all the ill comments he recevied from others he prevailed against all odds and is a better person because of the struggle. It is tragic that your father would say such a thing but as you stated sometimes people tend to think that unless you have a “euro” look then it is unacceptable. Thank you for sharing your story and please continue to education others.

  7. Sorry as I got so caught up in the words I totally forgot that this was an essay that you read/found! Either way thks for posting! ;o)

  8. Very interesting…

    I feel some kind of way about people who talk down to others because they look/are different. SO many African American individuals assume it is only THEM who have curly/kinky/nappy hair but our ethnicities have been mixed so much, it shouldn’t be that surprising when different nationalities can relate to various attributes/issues we also have.

    I wish for all people to get in a place where they are comfortable just being whoever they are, regardless of what everyone else might think about them. It would make for a far easier world to live in…

  9. I liked the essay; however, it sickens me to know so many other races view the black race with such negativity (referring to her father’s comments), and how people of other races often try so hard to not resemble us at all…

    …then you have those who secretly admire us.

  10. I found this essay to be very interesting.

    I can’t relate in terms of race (I am white and perceived as such by others), but I can identify when it comes to nationality.

    I lived in Brazil as a teenager and learned perfectly fluent, accent-less Portuguese at age 15. When I go to Brazil to visit, or meet Brazilians in other parts of the world, they automatically assume that I, too, am Brazilian. Which I’m not. None of my family is Brazilian (except my husband!), no historical ties there…I just went on a student exchange and learned the language really, really well.

    That said, it’s interesting to observe how people’s attitudes change if they think I am Brazilian vs. American (which I am). There is definitely different treatment – both positive and negative – reserved for the gringos.

  11. I read this article in its entirety, also. Its unfortunate what she went through but it definitely shows how deep the scrutiny of natural, curly and kinky-curly hair goes. This certainly showed me that its not just black and/or bi-racial people who experience this.

  12. Gem,

    Great post. I’d like to think that as a parent of bi-racial children, that I have some chance to give them enough self-confidence about who they are to not care about things like hair or skin when they grow up, but I also know that’s a bit naive and over-hopeful. No matter what I do or say, they will have to deal with their own racial identity on their own.

    Random sidenote……….the older my daughter gets, the more she looks like Shirley Temple, lol.

    Sandman

  13. Oh no, Its sad that this woman learned to hate a part of herself from her darker parent. As a man he may have damaged his daughters self worth in
    so many way. He taught her to “hide” who she really is and to hate it.
    Soooo sad!

    The world seems to hate anything “AFRICAN.” Its funny because many
    people consider people of Latin America, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Middle East,
    Thailand, India to be African decendants. If you study their history of these civilization there is always a touch of the motherland but there is such hatered and division when it comes to color. In America we would just say they are passing. Many from other countries come to America and try to pass so because in their eyes being “white” is better.

    Many still want to become what Hilter said was the standard of beauty. Look at some of the best selling products of the world. Consumers of all races using bleaching creams, hair coloring, perms, and even plastic surgery all in a
    quest to be accepted and beautiful but that also means “hating” how you were born.

  14. sassncurlz: Thank you for visiting me! That is really interesting about your ex. Did he have trouble from his family too?

    AW: You are so right. Every ethnicity deals with this to varying degrees so it is fascinating to hear others’ perspectives.

    BCU: I know, that’s one of the most interesting things to read from the “others” perspective, as black people we don’t always hear first-hand someone saying negative things about us (although it happens don’t get me wrong) but to read these words it’s like…wow.

    Ali: I have heard this a lot from other people about different countries like Jamaica (the split treatment you get). People allow perception to rule a lot.

    CO: I know, right? I am glad she accepted/loved her curls finally.

    Sandman: Ok, I definitely need to see an updated pic of your lil Shirley 🙂 I feel the same way about my imaginary future children. Especially with all the research that shows children (even young ones!) are unconsciously socialized by their parents to express the parents racial views.

    Sistergirl: YES GIRL! TELL IT! I have actually been looking for a good, comprehensive book that details African influence in different societies because SO many ethnicities have this history (notably certain Hispanic, Italian, and Thai) but do their best to put themselves on the other side. Thank you for visiting me!

  15. FubsyNumbles said:

    ::Tip-toes into the lionesses’ den….::

    Ummm….really interesting article. My thoughts from it are three-fold:

    Firstly, are women the ones who are hardest on other women most of all? Which would obviously mean that there is where the fear is greatest.

    Secondly, when it comes to men, do you think that the prejudices are more societal, in that we don’t necessarily express them individually, but more insidiously in the way society is structured and where hair-types lie within that….? Speaking for myself, I don’t think it particularly bothers me whether a woman of any race chooses to look natural or not so much, as long as what they do they’re happy with.

    Thirdly – Irish-Iranian? Wow. Dontcha just love those combos you’d never think of yourself…..

    Oh, and fourthly, hi Gemsta…..

  16. FUBSY!

    Firstly: It does seem that women are hardest on other women especially concerning appearance but I also feel that male family members can be especially cruel to their female family members if it’s something they don’t agree with (like this woman’s father was).

    Secondly: Specifically regarding hair (especially curly/kinky), yes I believe men’s preferences are taken from society and pop culture. Interestingly, when I first went natural (and I’ve heard this from other women too) most of the positive attention we received were from non-black men. Once my hair grew out to a certain length I got more attention from black men.

    Thirdly: I know! My concentration for my master’s degree in Sociology is race/ethnicity and I love reading about different combinations.

    Fourthly: Hey! Thank you for visiting me, don’t be a stranger!

    • FubsyNumbles said:

      Oh, and with that second point, I wasn’t wondering where we men took our pointers from as such; but more whether ours are less likely to be individual judgements, and more likely to be larger group ones, ones that are less solidly defined and therefore more slippery. For instance, instead of individual men judging on individual women, the male-constructed world of advertising and pop does it on our behalf…..

  17. FubsyNumbles said:

    Yes, I’d for some reason not taken the family members into account – that is definitely where men can be the crueller of the sexes. So you’re right there, I reckon. Masters degree in Sociology, eh? And race/ ethnicity….Tres interesting…….And what the Irish-Iranian connection does is add another level of proof to my own anecdotal claim that the Irish get bloody-well everywhere….(I’m half-Irish myself).

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