Wednesday, 18 October 2017

SheaMoisture is just the latest brand to erase black women from our own picture – The Guardian


It’s been a tricky time for brands. A few weeks ago it was Pepsi deleting black women from a movement they founded, and doing so while rehashing the tedious white saviour cliche. Then we had debates over the erasure of black women’s key role in the black racial justice movement of 1970s Britain, in Sky’s drama series Guerrilla. This week it’s the turn of US beauty company SheaMoisture.

Read the company’s Wikipedia page and under “See also” you’ll find a link to another page titled “Natural hair movement”. This explains how pervasive SheaMoisture’s reach is in the fast-growing natural hair market. The African-American-owned company, founded in 1992 by two friends – who were refugees from Liberia – started life selling homemade products hawked on the streets of Harlem. A customer base predominantly made up of black women has led SheaMoisture’s parent company, Sundial, to be valued at $700m in 2015.

Yet this week it was forced to apologise to its “community” of customers for an advert focusing on two white women – one blonde, the other a redhead – and a light-skinned African-American woman who would be considered as having “good” hair. That is, the kind of hair that may well be curly but nevertheless submits to gravity and the caprice of soft breezes. All suggested they had at one time or another experienced woes not unlike those of black women with “difficult” hair.

Black women who wear their hair natural invariably have a story to tell about their journey to that resolution. For me it began at the age of 23. I made what felt like the most momentous of decisions: I’d never again use chemical relaxer on my hair. Throughout my teens I hadn’t really been one for straightening or dabbling: I preferred braiding. But then Halle Berry won her Oscar in 2002 and I was emboldened. Maybe I too could have my hair out. Finally I would confront – in part – the panic that would sometimes engulf me whenever I thought people would see me with my real hair, which for me meant ugly hair.

Soothing my sense of terror was my hairdresser’s offer to texturise my hair. Chemicals similar to those found in relaxers would be applied and left for a shorter amount of time. I emerged from the salon feeling like I was living my own 80s makeover scene, minus the montages. Yes, I’d experienced a slight burn on the top of one ear where the relaxer hadn’t been thoroughly wiped away; yes my hair was short; but it was sleek and wavy, not curled and coily like pubes or Brillo pads – as the kids at school who couldn’t resist the urge to touch it would kindly note.

That sense of delight soon wore off. Repeated applications had left me burnt – literally – one too many times. My last treatment gave me what I now know were second-degree burns at the nape of my neck, which blistered then eventually scabbed over.

It’s a story many black women will find familiar. Pain and discomfort endured because we thought it a necessary price to pay for hair that was closer to “good”, flowing, white women’s hair. By telling us that “hair hate is real”, SheaMoisture’s advert took black women’s stories of physical and emotional torment bound up in our hair and served them back to us with a good dose of whitewashing, plus a healthy sprinkling of colourism for added bitterness. This is a company birthed by the recipes of a Liberian woman, but which has plainly erased dark-skinned black women out of a picture of our own making.

Some would argue that it is churlish to labour over the incident, particularly now that the company has admitted it “f-ed this one up”. But part of the anger unleashed in the backlash is at directed at the routine nature of black women’s erasure. Nearly a decade ago, social psychologists Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat found that in social situations black women were more likely than black men or white women to go unnoticed and unheard. Proof, not that we needed it, of the continuing urge to make us invisible. It is our reality, and one that makes us especially vulnerable. As of 2012, there were 64,000 black women missing across America, and yet that hasn’t garnered the levels of outrage the horrifying figure deserves. In the UK, government cuts disproportionately fall on low-income black and minority ethnic women, precisely because we are hidden figures.

The urge to silence and scratch out black women’s presence is nothing new. Such deletions do not exist in a vacuum but work in tandem, reinforcing social structures that already refuse to see us. Increasingly though, we have the means to vocally claim the space we deserve. This week it was SheaMoisture’s turn to see how forceful the backlash can be when black women’s struggles are appropriated and we’re recast as secondary characters in our own narratives. Let’s hope others take note.



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