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The politics of hair – Neal Boortz edition

[Welcome Buzzflash readers!]

I haven’t blogged on this topic in ages, but every once in a while, something crops up that brings it front and center, though the deeper issues involved aren’t usually addressed — and so that’s when I post about it again.

Let nationally syndicated radio bigot Neal Boortz show you how hair politics bullsh*t is done. He’s talking about Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), and what is and isn’t an acceptable assimilationist black hair style in his mind. (Media Matters):

BOORTZ: For instance, or for goodness sakes, jump in and I’m gonna say — I’m gonna start out with something controversial. I saw Cynthia McKinney’s new hair-do. Have you seen it, Belinda?

BOORTZ: She looks like a ghetto slut.
SKELTON: Well, how is it?

BOORTZ: It’s just — it’s hideous.
SKELTON: Is it braided? Or —

BOORTZ: No, it’s not braided. It just flies away from her head in every conceivable direction. It looks like an explosion in a Brillo pad factory. It’s just hideous. To me, that hairstyle just shows contempt for — no, it’s not an Afro. I mean, no, it just shows contempt for the position that she holds and the body that she serves in. And, I’m sorry, there’s just no other way to — it’s just a hideous and horrible looking —

…MARSHALL: It looks better than the braids she was wearing.
BOORTZ: No, the braids had some dignity. They had some class.

MARSHALL: The braids had dignity?
BOORTZ: They had more class than this thing.

MARSHALL: This says, you know, kinda 2000s, you know, stepping up to the plate. Contemporary look, you know?
BOORTZ: She looks like Tina Turner peeing on an electric fence.

This bastard is a racist prick, and you know what? I bet he doesn’t have a clue how or why he feels the way he does about her hair — this sh*t is deep and internalized by Americans. It’s a topic no one likes to talk about.

Just so you know, that new hairstyle McKinney is wearing is called a twist-out. I used to wear it that way on occasion before I decided to loc my hair. You can do a twist-out this with unaltered, kinky hair, or, if it’s not too damaged, with relaxed hair. I can’t really tell in her case. You can wrap it wet or damp around rods or in two-strand twists. Once dried you can take it out and shape it; no hair spray needed if your hair is in a natural state.

It’s a fierce style – I don’t think it’s inappropriate for a member of Congress, though it might be non-conformist, which I think is one of the surface objections Boortz has to the style. McKinney’s braids might have received the same scorn as this new ‘do had she worn them out and loose, as opposed to pulled back, as women with straight hair do when they wear their hair in a bun. It’s clear that the Hill has its unofficial, drab “dress code.”

I would venture a guess that Boortz would have had serious problems with her conservative braid style a decade ago; braids were not considered conservative or acceptable on the job in many places, women of color (or to be more specific, women with kinky hair), if they wanted to succeed professionally (or often even keep their jobs), had to torture their hair and scalp with lye-laden relaxers to “tame” it to assume European styles — the old good hair/bad hair beast rises again. It’s as bad as the whole brown paper bag test of the black upper class.

The Freepers, I might add, show their racial moxie and affinity with Boortz with some choice quotes.

Actual Freeper Quotes™

“Listen to Sha-Nay-Nay….keep your cracker hands to your damn self.”

I ain’t birthin no babies!

She looks like she stuck her finger in an electrical socket.


Did they use a Taser on her?

“Mrs.C don’t take no jibba-jabba from no security guard fools!”

Don King’s long lost daughter?

Good Lord. I’m surprised she doesn’t get tackled every time she goes into a store.

Buchwheat LIVES!! When I saw the presser today, I had NO idea of who that crazy woman was….really….she looks so damn different!!….and NOT for the better!!


Yes. Racism is dead.

From one of my earlier posts on this topic, a reason why McKinney’s “hair defiance” is not about disrespect of her position, but a simple acknowledgment of “difference” and personal acceptance of her hair. That’s threatening in ways that Boortz isn’t conscious of, but it brings that visceral reaction you read right out there into the open.

The bottom line is that many black people are turning away from the chemical processes used to straighten kinky hair. Permanent chemical treatments, like perms, texturizers, alter the hair from its natural state. Sadly, the majority of black women don’t even know what the texture of their hair actually is, because they have undergone the lye (and the lie) from the time they were young — when they were told that kinky hair = bad hair. If they didn’t get that relaxer as a young child, then they underwent the torture of the hot comb.

I was old enough to experience the “pleasure” of the thermal hot comb –you rested it over the gas flame of the stove to heat it up. Then the grease was carefully applied to your hair and that comb sizzled through the kinks till it was bone straight, hissing as you prayed the comb didn’t touch your scalp — inevitably you got scalp burns because the “stylist” f*cked up. [By the way, the “stylist” for most folks was usually a relative, but in my case, everyone in my family had straight hair, so my mom had to take me to a salon till she figured out what to do.]

Once the chemical relaxer came into vogue it was the same problem with a different twist, it became a watch-the-clock endeavor to see how long you could leave the vile-smelling chemicals on to achieve maximum straightness before your scalp started to peel, burn and get open sores. Anything for that damn straight hair.

Why would anyone do this? It can’t be because it’s fun or easy to maintain. Black women who wear their hair in straight styles obsess about it all the time. Don’t let it get wet, humid or exercise too hard because if you do, it will “go back” at the least opportune moment. At this point and time, the problem is two-fold:

1) an internalized self-loathing passed down through the generations of being told your natural hair is a “problem” and “fixing” it by using such extreme measures is a means to assimilate into the dominant culture … and

2) the dominant culture still has bigoted ideas about blacks and kinky hair that can profoundly affect the employment of, and treatment of people. This of course, means #1 will continue to occur.

So to Neal Boortz, this “ghetto queen” says “Vaffanculo.”

NOTE: You can file an FCC complaint against Boortz; reference the original audio of his diatribe, which is posted at Media Matters.


UPDATE: I’ve not posted here about the police/McKinney incident because we don’t have all the facts yet (there’s apparently a videotape of the incident, which I haven’t seen). Quite frankly, in the end, it’s probably going to look like both sides are in the wrong to some extent. Yes, race probably is a factor, also on both sides (McKinney’s post-incident posturing undermines cases of blatant and extreme racism that is still rampant in society).

Whatever the facts of the incident end up telling us, the fact that, Neal Boortz took the focus back squarely on her hair to denigrate her is both racist and sexist. Debating her behavior in the incident is one matter, but it’s telling where the RepubliKKKan thinking goes.

Does this make McKinney’s press conference race card bloviating justifiable? No. Does it mean the way she was treated has nothing to do with race? No. Is she being punished for deigning to think she should have been recognized? Maybe yes, maybe no. Was it presumptuous to think she should be recognized? I don’t know.

I do know personally of a few high-minded folks (not of color), in one case a well-known academic who plays the “don’t you know who I am?” card. I hate when someone uses that crap to get rules bent or to get off the hook for boorish behavior, particularly abusive acts toward people of a lower social standing than themselves (service workers, administrative staff).

It was a beautiful thing to hear that, on one occasion, the academic pulled that crap on a service worker and was told “No, I don’t know who the f*ck you are and I don’t care.”

There is a controversial post by John @ Americablog on the McKinney incident with the cop, as well as a very hot thread of comments pro and con.

All I know is that it’s too complicated an issue for easy answers or finger-pointing.

UPDATE post with a busy comment thread: Filing an FCC complaint against Neal Boortz

* My own hair journey is here.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding