Note: Rev. Keller speaks in the audio in conjunction with Kim Green.
What does it mean to self-eradicate? Alice Walker asks us, each time she plays with her hair, changes it out, not by slathering it with toxic chemicals, but by — at one time in her life anyway — coloring it up. Are these experimentations an act of freedom of choice, she wonders out loud, or from the perspective of African American comedian Chris Rock, listening to the plaintive question of his young daughter about whether she had “good hair,” do black women spend countless hours and hundreds of dollars in hair salons to make their hair straighter and silkier because they want to look white?
How about me and other Jewish women, other ethnic women, who in years past, perhaps even now, have been considered, or have come to view themselves also as not really white, or at least not quite white, by the standards of beauty, of acceptable looks, of fitting in, they see around them? And in at least that arena, needing to find a way to rectify this.
Just this past week, there was a style section article in the New York Times written by an Italian American, Tricia Romano, who recalled that when she was six years old she begged her mother to get what was called a wedge-cut Dorothy Hamill, ridding herself of her short curly hair, that in her words was never going to look stick straight and orderly, at least not without a lot of work.
She reported that in Los Angeles, a new salon called Drybar has been so successful since it opened last winter that five more are scheduled to open in the next six months. In August, the store sold nearly 3,000 $20 blowouts in a single day, and as she noted, that’s an awful lot of sometimes painful yanks of a bristly round brush and time under a hot, menacing hair dryer.
Historically, we are told, a straight, sleek hair texture has been regarded as more feminine and attractive. Look at the blunt-cut Flapper cuts of the 1920s, the Breck Girls, the long parted look of the sixties favored by hippies and mods alike, achieved in many cases by substituting large orange juice cans for rollers, like my best friend Janis did.
Open up any magazine, said the owner of the Drybar salon, profiting mightily from this preference, and see the professional, sleek, put-together straight hair. I mean gosh, she says, look at Barbie — she had great hair.
Let’s do look at Barbie, blogger Leah Koenig urges, listing some of this iconic doll’s personas: model, ballerina, fashionista, astronaut, rockstar… Jew?
Pointing out for many of us that did not know, that Barbie was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, a Jewish woman. The doll was named after Handler’s daughter Barbara, but with her blond-bombshell image and perfect nose, did not particularly resemble her namesake. Did the doll’s creator, we are asked, bruised by a history of anti-Semitism and marginalization, and living in a world before cultural specificity was, in the words of Leah Koenig — cool — give her daughter and the rest of us young girls who were not Jewish yet another completely assimilated model of what was beautiful, what was okay, what was good. My childhood, the America I grew up in and took my identity cues from.
But what about today’s generation, she asks? Are we free, truly free, to reclaim the Jewish identity that was so stifled in previous generations, to be, as one writer put it, “pro-choice,” in our identity? Not acting out of fear, or shame, or coercion, but out of unfettered liberation?
Using what might seem to be an over-simplistic, over-analyzed example: exchanging trademark (or what might be viewed as trademark) frizzy hair for straighter hair. One woman said that even now when she decided to go for a Brazilian straightening, she was accused of “letting her people down.”
This, at a time when controversy or at least conversation erupted in the Jewish community when the first Jewish-American Girl doll was added to this popular line a year or so ago. Some were upset that the doll looked stereotypically Jewish, while others thought it didn’t look Jewish enough. Like other minorities, one woman commented, we are still stuck between our desire to embrace our ethnicism and embrace our diversity as a community. According to the official website description of Rebecca Rubin, the character of the doll, who is said to be a 9-year-old who moved to the Lower East Side with her Russian-Jewish parents, siblings, and her grand-bubies, unlike her Hispanic peer Josefina or Addy, the African-American doll, we are reassured she does not have distinct ethnic features. Rather, long, only slightly wavy, reddish brown hair.
Or a less-popular contemporary 2010 counterpart, the Gali Girl doll, who, while representing “Jewish” values such modesty, kindness, respect, and charity, has uniformly straight hair. In fact, we are told, beautiful, brushable, styleable hair.
All of this came up for me several decades after my last round of relaxing, of riding that bike to Stanford Shopping Center, in a school and a town full of Smiths and Prestons and Hamiltons and Martins and taming one obvious indicator that I was not of their tribe. No longer adolescent, a much more than middle-aged adult — I chose to do it again. I underwent that expensive Brazilian Keratin treatment, which has been touted as more natural, cheaper, and less labor intensive than some of the other options.
I did it, or so I told myself, to make my life easier — so much frizz, so much hair weight in this endlessly hot summer was making me even crankier — and after all, we were traveling abroad, only this time without hair diffusers and my usual assortment of mousses and conditioners.
With some amount of guilt, as soon as I saw myself in the salon mirror, I felt relieved for another reason, and freer, that past sense of inching closer to acceptability, to ethnic anonymity returning. And then learning that this supposedly benign process is, like the types of chemicals used on the hair of black women, potentially dangerous, even life-threatening. That the formaldehyde, the embalming fluid, which hastens the transformation from frizzy and kinky to smooth has killed at least one woman and endangered the health of the beauticians who perform the procedure.
Did I “fix” my hair in the service of cosmetic freedom — or in service of the persistent identity conversion, hiding and covering that “differing” experience in an effort to literally survive or help ease the societal pressures that still haunt and oppress?
In what has been called a remarkable and elegant work, Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino, a gay Asian-American, argues that while we have as a society come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines.
He proposes that in the developmental stages of identity-claiming, from denying and then hiding to embracing, we first are asked to convert to another way of being in the world, as my (most likely) distant Sephardic Jewish relatives did in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella gave the Jews of Spain the choice of conversion to Christianity or expulsion.
Or, as Yoshino points out, when gays were forced to, or have chosen to, try to “convert” to heterosexuality. In his case, as a graduate student at Oxford University, attending chapel services regularly seeking to, in his words, kill his gay self. This phase, and all the phases he has identified, happen in groups as well as for individuals, with many gays routinely asked to convert to straight identity through lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and psychoanalysis.
In the second phase, we accept our identity but are forced to hide it from others, attempting to pass as someone other than we are — as when Jewish people and others changed their names and other identity markers in World War II, especially those of children who were adopted, the blonder and more Aryan-looking being the most likely to succeed in surviving.
Or in more benign, but still repressive times not so long ago in this country, changing names and even noses to avoid restrictive quotas in colleges and job and housing discrimination. Or don’t ask, don’t tell, as in the official policy of the US military, which up to this point was not considered a civil rights violation, but has now been judged, at least in one court, as violating the First Amendment rights of gays and lesbians.
And then identity covering, as Yoshino defines it, concealing what is or what we still perceive as a disfavored identity — for Jews, gays, and others, the question shifting, we are told, from whether they should convert or pass, to how to tone it down: dress white, smooth your hair, abandon street talk, play like men, hide paraphernalia used to manage your disabilities, drop your veils, not be too Jewish or too gay. Because it is still unacceptable and even unsafe to do otherwise.
We all cover in some way — Yoshino believes: in appearance, how we present ourselves to the world; in affiliation; in activism — how we politicize our identities; and in association: who we pick to be our fellow travelers, lovers, friends, and colleagues. Ways in which we mute our identities.
How then shall we, in the spirit of unity, assimilate to each other? How shall we cultivate the opposite of covering? How, as Kenji Yoshino asks us, shall we unearth the selves we have buried, or at least overlooked, so we can share the many gifts they bring? The stories, the songs and dances, the world views, the wisdom, the authenticity.