'Why do we feel the need to taunt and judge black hair, rather than embrace it?'

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Following the controversy over remarks made about Zendaya's locs at the Oscars this week, writer Loretta De Feo is reminded of the remarks made about her own "exotic" hair growing up, and asks why it is that we feel the need to pass judgement over the beauty choices of non-Caucasian women

"I feel like she smells like patchouli oil and weed"

Captured in this comment - made by Giuliana Rancic on E’s Fashion Police regarding actress and singer Zendaya Coleman’s choice to wear her hair in locs for the Oscars (above) - is proof that racism is still alive today. It’s just a little more hidden from plain view.

On Twitter, Giuliana denied her words had anything to do with race. “Dear @Zendaya, I'm sorry I offended you and others. I was referring to a bohemian chic look. Had NOTHING to do with race and NEVER would!!!” Her tweet cleverly denies the brevity of the situation.

It is categorically not good enough to plead innocent in situations like this. The implications of her comment are as clear as day. To really break away from this sort of inferred racism, everyone must first accept that it exists.

To have absolutely no idea of the cultural meaning of certain black hair styles could be construed as just ‘ignorant’ or ‘stereotyping’, but to my mind, it’s no different than saying ‘all black people are criminals’. And, we can all agree, would be racist. Wearing your hair in locks does NOT mean that you smell like or smoke marijuana. 

Whilst artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga, with their array of wigs, are revered for their uniqueness and evolving style; Zendaya is ridiculed, while Beyoncé’s sister, Solange (pictured below) was recently compared to a dog in the pages of a women’s magazine, for sporting her natural hair texture. I find it completely astonishing that in an age when we’ve achieved equality on many leveIs in Western culture, discriminative beauty commentary is still a palpable issue. 

I grew up in a small town in Essex and was one of ten people in my whole school with an ethnic background. I dreamed of having long straight hair like my friends. I wanted to be able to ask for ‘The Rachel’, I wanted flick my hair around like Jet from Gladiators.

Instead, my hair in its natural state was way too much for me to handle. Even with a softer, mixed-race afro; it was so thick that brushing it every morning was like spending an hour lifting weights. Washing it took up my whole Sundays, so the only thing to do was to braid it with extensions – the braids wouldn’t have lasted as long with just my hair alone. 

At thirteen, I proudly walked into school with my fresh braids. I had chosen a subtle blonde colour for my extensions, because I wanted to look like a Spice Girl. I was immediately marched into the headmistress’s office to explain my new hair and was threatened with suspension - apparently it was against the school rules to have such a ‘funky’ hairstyle.

“But I can’t cope with detangling my hair every morning, Mrs Cook”, I pleaded. “It’s not a ‘funky’ hairstyle, Mrs Cook, it’s just something I have to do with my hair right now.”

It didn’t seem to compute. With my mother being black, I had grown up with one side of my family wearing braids, mainly as a matter of necessity rather than as a fashion statement. It was completely natural for me to be around that style. The fact that society deemed it somehow exotic, or ‘funky’, was a complete shock to me.

In the years since, I’ve experienced a steady stream of other people’s judgment towards my hair, as if it’s some sort of fairground attraction, to be tugged, gawked and jeered at. I’ve even being told that I’m a ‘show off’ for having my hair worn naturally. I was nicknamed ‘Whoopi’ ‘Moesha’, ‘Bob Marley’ and ‘Cleopatra’ by classmates and continually asked how often I washed my hair. I felt inadequate and unattractive compared to the girls with long, poker straight hair.  I didn’t enjoy standing out – I wanted to be the same as everyone else.

But that was the 90’s and I was fortunate enough to escape to London where I met people that felt comfortable enough around my hair, to not comment on it at all. So, will someone please explain to me; why in society, and in the media, it’s still permissible to pass judgment over the beauty decisions of non-Caucasian women?  Why is afro hair – in locs or not - still pointed and laughed at?

After receiving a backlash from viewers and voiced support from celebrities such as Khloe Kardashian [“@Zendaya you are a gorgeous, intelligent young lady! I love all that you represent! Keep empowering and shine bright!"], Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, ["You're beautiful, Queen. We bless the ignorant and wish them well. Onward. xo"] and co-presenter-Kelly Osbourne tweeted, “I DID NOT MAKE THE WEED COMENT. I DO NOT CONDONE RACISM SO AS A RSULT OF THIS IM SEREIOUSLY QUESTIONONIG LEAVING THE SHOW” (sic).

Mellissa Rivers, the daughter of former Fashion Police host, Joan Rivers today took to twitter to share a picture of Zendaya siting on the late host’s lap. Giuliana finally followed up with a seemingly sincere TV apology. “I want to say to Zendaya, and anyone else out there that I have hurt, that I am so, so sincerely sorry. This really has been a learning experience for me — I've learned a lot today — and this incident has taught me to be a lot more aware of clichés and stereotypes, how much damage they can do. And that I am responsible, as we all are, to not perpetuate them further. Thank you for listening.”

This isn’t an issue reserved to the media either. It happens on a ground level too.

I still can’t walk into a non-black salon to get a blow-dry without the hairdresser moaning in my ear about how tough my hair is to work with and how it’s natural thickness is exhausting for them to deal with.

I used to find myself apologizing for this, but I refuse to do that anymore. From hairstylists, to TV presenters to the audiences of those TV shows, we all need to except and more importantly respect black hair as another spoke on the diversity wheel, and as such, see it as something to embrace and refrain from taunting at.

Last year, it felt we’d moved a tiny step forward in terms of the media’s representation of black women, when Lupita Nyong'o was universally celebrated at the 2014 Oscars for her beautifully natural, cropped hair, but this year it feels like two steps back when such damaging and negative comments are made in a public forum against a young, mixed race girl wearing her hair in a way that’s true to herself and true to her roots.

The locks were neat and pretty and her entire outfit would smell of beauty - not weed.

If the media surrounding the Oscars only continues to applaud beige dresses and glossy up-dos, there will be no excitement or diversity left to this globally-watched event.

There is no question that the fashion and beauty industry still has a way to go in embracing different ethnicities, but let’s start here and now by ending the insults thrown at black hair.

Zendaya looked beautiful, that’s comment enough. 

What do you think? Is the Zendaya hair jibe at the Oscars indicative of a wider racist judgement over the beauty decisions of non-Caucasian women? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Follow Loretta on Twitter 

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Stylist Team