Gabby Douglas and the Brown Paper Bag Test

Gabby Douglas Hair The Brown Paper Bag TestWhen she heard that Olympic gold medalist, Gabby Douglas, was getting flack from a sector of the black community over — of all things — her hair, my friend Kay (not her real name) asked my opinion.

I responded to Kay by noting the issues at play that week and replying with a bit of sarcasm:

We’ve got local police departments using tax payer dollars to procure drones, the number of vacant/foreclosed homes in this country exceeds the number of homeless people, Anaheim police walking around with weapons that look like grenade launchers to stop protestors from entering Disneyland, people dying because they can’t afford decent healthcare, polar ice caps melting at rates unheard of in recorded history,  and oh. . . yeah, Gabby Douglas’ hair.

I guess I was a little snarky. In all fairness, Kay contacted me because, in the past, I’d written about the link between black hair and social ranking within the black community. In my article, I talked about growing up black in America in the 60s. I discussed the connection between hair and conforming to implicit and explicit codes of behavior — those dictated by both the dominant culture and by the black community, a community that is often misunderstood by those outside of it.  Kay, who is white, told me the article shifted her perspective. It gave her answers to questions she was raised to believe were impolite to ask. She suspected that the chatter about Gabby’s hair may have been connected to what I’d written months ago — so she wanted my take.

In case you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about – Gabby Douglas, the first U.S. gymnast to win Olympic gold in both individual and team gymnastic events was the topic of a much heated debate — a debate between blacks about her hair!!.

Hard to believe? Search “Gabby Douglas Hair” in Google.  You’ll end up with more than 700,000 results — significantly more than you’d get if you were to perform a similar search for any other Olympic athlete. Do the same search but replace Gabby’s name with Michael Phelps’ and you get about 3,000 results. Want to compare Gabby’s hair searchability to another female gold medalist? Okay — do a similar search this time using the name, Misty May Treanor, the two-time U.S. Gold Medalist beach volleyball athlete – you’ll get about 18,000 results.

While it may be hard to understand why this Twitter debate would be a featured story in thousands of publications — from to the Washington Post — the mere fact that it was gives rise to lots of questions, not the least of which is its relevance to contemporary racial dialogue. The article carried in the Washington Post talks about the toll this has taken on Gabby and how it negatively impacted her performance.

The screenshot below captures the tone of the debate. This is just a snippet of the tens of thousands of tweets. The rest of the article continues below the screen shot so please keep reading:

A couple of weeks have passed since this topic was trending but still the stories about Gabby’s hair continue to be carried in all the major news outlets — the most recent story is on her new hairdo.

So, to my buddy Kay and anybody else who doesn’t get it, here’s my take:

What we see in this debate is an outward expression of an internalized set of beauty standards that trump performance, excellence, and intelligence when ranking social standing. The tweeters were expressing disapproval of the breaking of an implicit social norm adhered to within the black community. According to tens of thousands on Twitter, Gabby violated the oft-unspoken rule of exposing unintentional kinky hair. This violation, in some sectors of the black community, isn’t simply a social fau paux, this is a major misstep – one that was important enough for them to address. This debate is not new. What is new is the attention given to it by mainstream media.

The Gabby Douglas hair debate, within the black community, is similar to the color debate — again, I’m referring to the color debate that exists within the black community, which is  somewhat different from the one openly shared with so-called “mainstream” society. Not unlike other ethnic groups, blacks adhere to an implicit social pecking order, the rungs of which are loosely tied to physical traits as well as other traits.  Before the Black consciousness movement of the 60s, this social pecking order was much more rigid and explicit than it is today, but it lingers nevertheless. Early in my childhood, it was clear to me that blacks who most closely resembled whites were hierarchically advantaged. This pecking order is addressed in fact and fiction by acclaimed authors Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and others. Alice Walker coined the term, “colorism” to describe this social order.

Wikipedia defines colorism this way:

Colorism refers to a form of prejudice or discrimination in which human beings of the same-race are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. Colorism can be found across the world, specifically in the United States,Latin America, Asia, the Arab World and Africa.The abundance of colorism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy,” a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin color.

Whether the social pecking order is determined by skin color, hair texture, facial, or body features, the standard being measured against is the same: physical characteristics that are typically associated with being Caucasian are considered the best. Having physical characteristics that appear to have come from sub-Saharan African ancestry will put you on the lowest rungs of the social pecking order, especially if one is female. This can have far reaching consequences.

In one of the best books I’ve read in many years, author and civil rights attorney, Connie Rice (cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) discusses the impact of colorism. The book, Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones, was so compelling, I couldn’t put it down. She got me with the opening chapter, a story of early childhood when she encountered a very dark skinned poor black boy. Rice, who is labeled ‘high yellow’ by one of the characters in the book, is light-skinned. Upon entering public school, she is confronted by this dark skinned black boy who asks her, “What Is You”? Rice makes a connection with the boy ultimately following him home. As a result, she sees a side of life that she dedicates the rest of her life to fight. I won’t give the book away.  Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

People of color, but more specifically, Black people, are acutely aware of this hierarchy, even today with the Obama family in the White House. In fact, some argue that the Obama administration — with its appointment of so many blacks that have passed the “brown paper bag test” — is yet another demonstration of this deeply rooted far reaching adherence to colorism. Lest you think this a nonissue at the higher echelons of society, take a look at the montage below:

Margaret Hamburg, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner; Susan Rice, United Nations Secretary; Lisa Jackson, EPA Commissioner; Valerie Jarrett, Senior White House Advisor; Eric Holder, Attorney General.

But although we frequently talk about skin color as being a defining characteristic of blackness, hair texture is as much or more of a focus in the black community – particularly with black women. Perhaps because it is easier to control, due to inventions dating back to the turn of the 20th century. For example, in 1905, Madame CJ Walker invented a method of hair straightening that became so popular the revenue it generated made her the first African-American  millionaire. Frankly, I believe that skin bleaching would have been as popular as hair straightening had it been effective. But in 1905, blacks couldn’t lighten their skin or alter their features (think Michael Jackson) but they could de-kink or straighten their hair. And today most black women, especially those in the public eye, still do.

So how does this relate to the Gabby hair debate? Well, the “problem” with Gabby’s hair — again, this is being characterized as a problem from the standpoint of the twitter debaters who are apparently adhering to the social rules established in an effort to conform to white standards of beauty  — is that Gabby was wearing a straight weave but her own biological hair (which was visible during the Olympic games) was not straightened at least not at the roots. In other words, her natural hair — the new growth at the roots — had not been de-kinked before she went on camera. Her appearance on the international stage, showing unintentionally nappy hair, broke the rules. I want to be clear here. I am talking about UNINTENTIONALLY nappy hair – not the Whoopi Goldberg or Angela Davis kind of nappy where it is apparent that these women embrace their natural beauty. Gabby’s wrongdoing – again, in the minds of the tweeters – was that she or her mother purchased a straight weave but didn’t keep up with Gabby’s new growth by keeping it straight too.

This should have been a non-issue. But apparently, the Washington Post and countless other publications disagree. And maybe it is because of them and the 700,000 other online mentions of Gabby’s hair, that I felt the need to write this piece.

Gabby Douglas with the help of her family and coaches accomplished something no other American gymnast has accomplished. Notice I didn’t say, “no other African-American gymnast”. This feat was irrespective of race. Not, in the history of America’s involvement in Olympic gymnastics has an athlete, black, white, Latina, or Asian American accomplished what Gabby accomplished. She and her network of support deserve to be acknowledged and applauded. But this story also shines a beacon of a light on some of the often hidden factors that continue to linger, shame, and impede progress.

sharon kyle

Sharon Kyle, Intentionally Kinky

The LA Progressive is a social justice magazine. The reason I’ve written this piece and am publishing it here is because at its core, colorism is about unearned advantage and the flip side of the coin — unearned disadvantage. I don’t mean to imply that the Obama administration appointments didn’t earn their positions. I doubt that any one of them could have gotten as far as they have without dedication, intelligence and hard work. But I also suspect there were doors opened for them that possibly were closed to other blacks through no fault of their own. These are important issues to raise. When brought out in the open they can lead to discussions that result in greater understanding and, in a perfect world, a more just society.

Gabby Douglas will be interviewed on Oprah Winfrey’s new network OWN this Sunday. How much would you like to bet the hair debate will be discussed? My bet is it’ll be on the table.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

Published Friday, 24 August 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on August 24, 2012
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the Photo courtesy Wadeva Images.