Relaxers & Colourism: My presentation for the Race & Sex Event by the Runnymede Trust by @CongoMuse

(Cross-posted with permission from Musings of a Congolese Lesbian)

The End Racism this Generation campaign

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I was on a panel discussion about Race & Sex organised by The Runnymede Trust. The event, which was part of their End Racism This Generation campaign , stimulated lively debate and plenty of food for thought. My fellow panellists, writer Joy Goh-Mah andDr Ornette Clennon, provided vital insights on the topics of the Fetishisation of Asian Women and the Hyper-masculinity of Black males, respectively. Click here to find out more about their presentations.

Drawing on experiences from my  childhood, my presentation focused on the notion that Black women’s bodies are intolerable to society and to themselves  You can read the full transcript below.  I will be posting the the full audio recording of the event so keep an eye out!

Presentation:

When I was growing up, from the age of about 7 onwards my mother would relax my hair. To relax hair, for those unfamiliar with the term [creamy crack], is the process of applying harsh chemicals onto Afro-textured hair in order to achieve a straighter more European texture.  She would do this about every 3 to 6 months on a Saturday or Sunday. The process would take about two hours in total. It was always the same routine, she would pour the different chemicals in to the pre-packed jar and I would have to sit down and stir the mixture until it was the right consistency, (failure to mix it in properly could result in heavy burns and scarring) whilst she prepared my hair.

The Just for Me brand is owned my Unilver, the owners of Dove, who started the Natural Beauty Campaign in 2004

Once the mixture was ready, she’d section my hair and apply the concoction onto on to it and leave it on until it burned – literally. After about 30 – 45 mins the relaxer could then be rinsed out. Now, because of the toxic nature of  relaxer you have to be careful when rinsing it out – leaving even a trace of the chemicals on your scalp could lead to serious damage. Part of the kit came with a special shampoo that would react with the relaxer and change colour – if the shampoo changed colour that meant there was still some relaxer in the hair and another rinse was needed. If you left any trace of relaxer you could end up with serious damage.

Isabella Broekhuizen author of “Because I Wasn’t Worth it” suffered permanent hair loss due to a hair relaxer application produced by L’Oreal

I still remember that great feeling I would get a after a relaxer. My scalp no longer burned and I could finally flick my hair like my white girl friends.

Another memory I have of growing up is, playing the Who is lightest? gameI played this game with my cousins and with other black children at school. The game was simple; we’d each hold out the inside of our forearms and compare the shade of our skin. Whoever had the lightest skin tone won the game. It was a very basic game, and like the relaxer sessions, it seemed, for me, like a normal part of life.

Whoever had the lightest skin tone won the game

Skip forward to my final year at uni. I’m reading black feminist and feminist theory, I’m going to talks and marches about getting Coca-cola off campus and I’m supporting  Obama , I’m basically doing the whole hippie student thing. Meanwhile I’m still relaxing my hair and wearing weave [hair extenstions]. One day I came across Peggy McIntosh’s famous article White: Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack –   in which she states the daily effects of white privilege in her life.  Prior to this I’d read Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, James Baldwin etc but nothing could prepare me for that. After I read the article, I suddenly became very aware of my blackness (I went to a plate glass uni in the outskirts of Brighton) and for the first time, I understood what raceracismwhite supremacy and patriarchy actually meant.

“If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones” – Peggy McIntosh, White: Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

I finally understood that there was a systematic oppression of the black female body. From the hypersexualisation of our bodies in popular culture to having to wear a wig for a normal day at the office, black women’s bodies are constantly accommodating to the needs of society.

For years I’d been relaxing my hair and wearing weave that resembled white European hair thinking it was normal. I took pride in my light skin, my European name, and my non-offensive curves. From a young age I, like other black girls, was taught that my hair was dirty and that it had to be tamed, it had to be “relaxed”. I was taught that lighter skin is better skin.

I have since been trying to undo the internalized racism, misogyny and homophobia that I have been taught.  I have been trying to unlearn the lessons of heteronormativty that have been forced onto me by my schools, the media,  the government and the multi-mullion-dollar corporations that call us ugly and sell us self-hatred in a bottle and call it ‘beauty’.

The media only shows us images of pretty, long-haired, light-skinned, able-bodied women (Sophie Okonedo, Thandie Newton, Lenora Criwshlow) and I’m sure by now we all know the danger of a single story, as author Chimamanda Adichie tells us:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

We need more diverse representations of black women in the media

It is time for us to tell our own stories; stories of dark skinned women, stories of gay women, stories of disabled women, stories of gender-non-conforming women, stories of refugee women, stories of older women,  stories of Black women that aren’t allowed on prime time TV.

We need to open up the dialogue on our diverse experiences with race, especially where they intersect with gender and sexuality. I am thankful for organisations like Media Diversified and Black Feminists Manchester who give us, Black women, a platform to tell our stories in our own words.

Thank you.

Christina Fonthes is an Afro-Feminist from Kinshasa by way of London, and now living in Manchester. She writes about her experiences as an Afro-wearing. Congo-centric woman in love with another woman. She is interested in the pre-colonial and & post-colonial history of Congo – especially the practices of same-sex relations and relationships; the diverse experiences of race and where they intersect with gender, sexuality and class; Congolese music and all things natural hair. (@CongoMuse)

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