Why are the First Family's Hairstyles a Political Issue?

By Brenda Salter McNeil 09-18-2009

I, perhaps recklessly, began to think that the debate on black hair had finally been put to rest, that black women could choose to wear their hair straightened or natural, in braids, locks, or twists, or enhanced with a weave, without making a political statement, social comment, or value judgment. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The hairstyles of our new first lady, Michelle Obama, and her children have been the subject of much observation over the summer.

You may have read Catherine Saint Louis' recent New York Times article, "Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics," in which she reports that commenters on a conservative blog expressed disapproval at Malia Obama's twisted "do," which she stylishly (in my opinion) sported during a summer trip to Europe. There was even a suggestion that her natural hairstyle rendered her unfit to represent America.

Now, this news bothered me on several levels. One, Malia Obama is 11 years old; she is a child. A child who should not be judged, attacked, or criticized for how she wears her hair -- for any reason. Secondly, as a mother of a daughter who wears her natural hair in braids, I am disappointed that our natural hair is still seen as attackable. Thirdly, I am a minister of reconciliation who happens to be a woman, and I feel compelled to address the disrespect of turning Obama's hair or that of her children into a political issue.

I am displeased about the potential self-esteem damage such messages could cause to Malia, my daughter, and countless other young girls. Our hair is just our hair -- it can be beautifully ornate, skillfully short, or wonderfully relaxed -- and all of it is good.

portrait-brenda-salter-mcneilRev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil is the president and founder of Salter McNeil & Associates. She is a renowned speaker and leader in the field of racial, ethnic, and gender reconciliation, and author of A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Salter McNeil & Associates.

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