“Hair is political.”
That was the line that stuck with me when my 17-year-old daughter recently regaled me with the minutiae of a lighthearted argument she’d had with a friend. It was about my daughter’s staunch resistance to straightening or altering her hair in any way.
The friend had insisted that such alterations were no big deal, to which my daughter took umbrage and shot back, “Hair is political.”
In my daughter’s view, such alterations were a sign of suppressive concepts of worth and beauty of which she would have no part. Presenting herself as nature made her was an act of self-loving defiance that demanded not her alteration but the alteration of others’ attitudes about how we expect people to bend in order to belong, about how many destructive subliminal messages we’ve all absorbed and how we must search ourselves for the truth of our own prejudices.
It reminded me of the profound commentary on the subject by actress Tracie Thoms in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair: “To keep my hair the same texture as it grows out of my head is looked at as revolutionary. Why is that?”
But to me, my daughter’s message was bigger than her, or hair, or a debate between teenagers. It was a life lesson that we all have to learn, over and over: Self-acceptance, of all stripes, large and small, is always an inherently political and profoundly revolutionary act.
We are so suffused in a mix of misogyny, patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia and hetero-normative exclusionary idealism that we can easily lose sight of the singular acts of ordinary bravery that each of us displays every time we choose not to play along.
Life is an endless negotiation with ourselves and with the world about who we are — the truest truth of who we are — and whether we have the mettle to simply be us, all of us, as we are, backlash notwithstanding.
And every time we answer “yes” to the question of courage, we stand an inch taller and we rise closer to the light.
In fact, Michaela Angela Davis, a self-described “image activist,” calls this the “Age of Identity and Intersections.”
It is a time when more people are asserting themselves as nonconformists as they recognize that there is a variety of intersections to subjugation. It’s a twist on the idea of diversity: not simply honoring a variety of origins as positive, but uniting under a banner that reminds us that the diminution of the very concept of variance has been a historical tool of psychic violence against those deemed “different.”
It is about developing kinship and alliance among the historically alienated.
It is about understanding that open hatred of — or even subtle, sometimes subconscious devaluing of — women, minorities (racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise) and people who don’t hew to sexual or gender norms are not discrete dysfunctions, but are of a kind, a cousin of flawed consciousness.
And when that is understood, the fight against them all becomes more focused. You stop hacking at the branches and start digging at the root.
Sometimes, when we are confronted by another overt act of intolerance in the news — another racial epithet, a further effort to erode women’s access to a full range of reproductive options, one more state attempting to hold on to its bans against marriage equality, another manifestation of rape culture — it can seem that we are going backward in this fight rather than forward.
But I don’t think so. I think that, as the saying goes, it’s darkest before the dawn, that these cases stand out not necessarily because they are growing, but because they are so at odds with this country’s moral trajectory. (Although, it must be said that there are increasing efforts, particularly in Republican-controlled states, to restrict women’s healthcare.)
Young people in America are growing up in a country that is quickly becoming brown, where women outnumber men in colleges, where acknowledgment of sexual identity is increasingly met with shrugs.
This doesn’t mean that they are immune to bias, but it does give hope that bias will diminish as difference becomes more mainstream, historical privileges become more identified and gender roles become less rigid.
That is why I greet with overwhelming optimism the continuous stream of people who refuse to conform and who insist on acknowledgment of their own identities, as they are, in all of their inherent glories and by way of their “revolutionary acts.”
As e.e. cummings once put it: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
And when we understand that that struggle against conformity and control is a shared, unifying experience, the accomplishment is made a little bit easier — and a whole lot sweeter.
Truth is political.
© 2014 New York Times News Service