Why Making Gabriella Bernard Relax Her Hair for a Reality TV Modelling Competition Was a Serious Problem

At the point of publication of this commentary, the content may seem dated. However, the viral video of September 20th, which spurred a flurry of reflection and reactions throughout the country via the online community, is timeless and symptomatic of wider societal realities surrounding identity and power.

The video, depicting a young woman who was part of a modelling contest hosted by Wendy Fitzwilliam, drew reactions such as “this has nothing to do with race”, “Wendy wasn’t calling her hair unprofessional”, “it’s not that deep,” “changing your look is part of the industry.” Conversely, there were also reactions of sympathy for the young model who was deeply affected by the conundrum. This article contends that the situation depicted was in fact “that deep”.

The young lady was forced to choose between maintaining a characteristic inherent to her race [that could’ve been altered in less permanent ways] versus the potential of getting a job. It was unethical, discriminatory and potentially shattering.

“If they don’t want to do the hairstyle, they do it or they go back home” [Socrates McKinney, Judge]

The scene of the makeover was the most troubling scene in this clip. Her having to choose either to permanently relax her hair or go home bleeds with problematic rhetoric. A “makeover” is defined as a set of changes that are intended to make a person more attractive or “improve” his/her appearance. How is this “improvement” measured?

Theories of race disseminated widely during slavery and colonialism sought to prove that European brains and bodies were far superior to black brains and bodies, as a rationalisation for the master-slave dynamic. Vestiges of colonialism are still very prevalent in Caribbean culture – we see it in the skin bleaching epidemic, and also in the adherence to and reverence for European religions. Forcing a young woman to make a choice in order to “improve” her appearance, in this context, meant straightening the natural kinks and curls out of her hair. This is especially damning on a show aiming to promote Caribbean women, who are beautiful in their varying ethnic compositions. Beyond it being damning, it is further proof that mainstream standards of beauty in 2018 are still aligned with the legacy of our colonial past.

“My Hair is My Identity” [Gabriella Bernard]

Many people on social media commented that the young woman saying that her hair was “her identity” was a superficial statement. This fails to acknowledge how symbolic hair has and continues to be in culture. Hair has had a place in historical socio-political movements in Trinidad in the past, such as the 1970s Black Power Movement. During this period, many women and men gravitated to Afro hairstyles as a symbol of Black pride and indeed, as a form of protest. By finding issue with the young model saying that her hair was her identity is a flagrant disregard of how the physical body has historically been and continues to be used as a means of expression and also as a form of protest.

Why do protestors form human chains as blockades? Why is covering or uncovering the hair with a hijab sometimes seen as a form of protest in differing countries? Considering that the tools of protest are limited for some, the ability to have the power to choose how one styles the hair and uses the body therefore can become a statement. Attempting to rob this young woman of that power, by saying that she had no choice but to chemically alter her hair or be kicked out of the competition, equated to robbing her of not only her expression of her identity, but also a vital component of her sociopolitical capital.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Understand?

Although this is certainly not an issue that all parties will agree upon, it’s relevant why contrasting reactions have come from different groups of people. Kimberle Crenshaw is an academic who introduced the theory of intersectionality – a theory that suggests that there are people who are the subject of discrimination on multiple grounds. In other words, black women, or disabled black men, or poor gay women deal with social injustices that cannot be covered by a blanket solution. A simple way to think of it is as a Venn Diagram, where the two circles of being black and being a woman intersect.

Without taking time to reflect on struggles that are not in the realm of one’s life experiences, or, where we don’t fall into the Venn Diagram’s intersection, it can sometimes be difficult to sympathise. This is why everyone doesn’t understand why it’s “that deep”.

However, this brings me to my greatest disappointment. Wendy, who articulated understanding of the model’s stance from “that perspective” pointed out that she had been through similar journeys with her hair that could’ve and should’ve made it easy for her to sympathise. There were far better alternatives in that moment than calling her behaviour “naughty” and “unprofessional.”

As a role model for young women who are part of her “Venn Diagram intersection”, she could have taken that moment to commend Gabriella for attempting to stand firm in her identity. She could have used anecdotes to explain how she acted more “professionally” in situations where there was an attempt to permanently tamper with her identity for the sake of a job. Unfortunately, rather than using it as a teaching moment, she chose to extract herself from the intersection, and use condescension to shame Gabriella into a belief that her ideal-driven resistance was negative, and “naughty”.

As stated in the introduction, ultimately, this article is not just about Wendy Fitzwilliam and Gabriella Bernard. It is hopefully an impetus to a wider discussion about how we respect one another, even and especially those who with whom we do not share similarities. I dare say that many of the conflicts in our society are based on negative views about our differences. Whether these differences are based in gender, ancestral heritage, sexual orientation or any combination of the above, we cannot advance as a people without being mindful of how our history has conditioned us, how our environment continues to shape us, and how our celebration of one another’s differences can allow us to flourish.

 

A piece by Fayola K.J Fraser
B.A (International & Middle Eastern Studies), MSc (International Relations)

 

The XX Team

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