The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America

The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America

by Tamara Winfrey Harris


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626563513
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 07/07/2015
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 91,806
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Tamara Winfrey Harris is a writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, In These Times, and Ms. and Bitch magazines and online at the American Prospect, Salon, the Guardian, Newsweek/Daily Beast, xoJane, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Clutch magazine, and She has been called to address women’s issues in major media outlets, such as NPR’s Weekend Edition. The Sisters Are Alright is Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Book Awards in Women’s Studies.

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The Sisters Are Alright

Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America

By Tamara Winfrey Harris

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Tamara Winfrey Harris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-353-7



Pretty for a Black Girl

Thirty-nine-year-old Heather Carper grew up in Kansas and learned at least one lesson very early: "Black girls were never the cute ones. You could be 'cute for a black girl,' but you were never the pretty one."

To be an American woman of any race is to be judged against constantly changing and arbitrary measures of attractiveness. One decade, being waif thin is in; the next, it's all about boobs and booties. Wake up one morning, and suddenly your lady parts "need" to be shaved smooth and your gapless thighs are all wrong. The multibillion-dollar beauty and fashion industries are dedicated to ensuring that women keep chasing an impossible ideal, like Botoxed hamsters running on the wheel of beauty standards.

But while expectations for how Western women should look have evolved over centuries, one thing has remained constant, and that is black women's place at the bottom of the hierarchy. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson praised the skin color, "flowing hair," and "elegant symmetry of form" possessed by white people, writing that black men prefer the comeliness of white women "as uniformly as is the preference of the [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species." Stereotypes of black women were designed in part to provide the antithesis to the inherent loveliness of white women, leaving other women of color to jockey for position between the poles of beauty. Old beliefs die hard. Hundreds of years later, in 2011, the London School of Economics evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa published a series of graphs and numbers at Psychology Today, "proving" that black women are "far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women." Because ... science.

Moments in Aright

Anala Beavers, age four, knew the alphabet by the time she was four months old, could count in Spanish by one and a half, and never leaves home without her US map. (She knows all the state capitals!) Anala was invited to join Mensa in 2013.

Neither a Beast nor Fetish Be

The inferiority of black beauty continues to be reinforced partly through popular culture. In allegedly liberal Hollywood, black women are nearly invisible as romantic partners. American fashion catwalks remain so white that former model and activist Bethann Hardison, who formed the Diversity Coalition to challenge whitewashed runways, was moved to pen an open letter to the industry:

Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond 'aesthetic' when it is consistent with the designer's brand. Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.

Black beauty is even marginalized within subcultures that pride themselves on subverting mainstream values, according to twenty-seven-year-old Black Witch,* who is active in pagan, punk, and Lolita fashion communities. Lolita fashion originated in Japan and is inspired by frilly, Victorian-era dress-lots of petticoats and delicate fabrics. Black Witch says that many of her fellow community members see Lolita femininity as at odds with black womanhood.

"They call us ugly. They say we look uncivilized in the clothes," she says. "I once heard a person say, 'I'm not racist, but that looks like an ape in a dress.'"

Increasingly, black women are even absent in our own culture's illustrations of beauty.

"I don't really watch music videos anymore, but I have noticed that white girls are the 'it thing' now," says Liz Hurston, thirty-four. "When hip-hop first came out, you had your video girls that looked like Keisha from down the block, and then they just started getting lighter and lighter. Eventually black women were completely phased out and it was Latinas and biracial women. Now it's white women. On one hand, thank God we're no longer being objectified, but on the other hand, it's kind of sad, because now our beauty doesn't count at all."

Seeming to confirm Liz's observation, in 2006 Kanye West told Essence magazine, a publication for black women, that "If it wasn't for race mixing, there'd be no video girls.... Me and most of my friends like mutts [biracial women] a lot." In a society that judges women's value and femininity based on attractiveness, perceived ugliness can be devastating. The denigration of black female beauty not only batters African American women's self-esteem, it also drives a wedge between black women with lighter skin, straighter hair, and narrower features and those without those privileges.

Thirty-five-year-old Erin Millender says that the time she felt least attractive was as a teenager. "I went to a very white high school with a very J. Crew aesthetic," she says. "I was brown. I am built stocky. I've always had a butt ... and not a tiny, little gymnast booty either. I was aware of the fact that I did not conform to the beauty standard."

Erin is biracial. Her mother is Korean American and her father is black. Many would see her light-brown skin and shiny curls and note her advantage over black women with darker skin, broader features, and kinkier hair. But Erin says that in school she was teased for "anything that was identifiably black. White kids don't know the difference between various grades of nap. They see frizzy hair and brown skin? That's just nappy hair to them—the same as any other kind of black hair. Brown skin and a big booty gets 'ghetto booty.'"

But at the predominantly black schools she attended before high school, Erin says some black girls targeted her, jealously pulling the long hair that brought her closer to the ideal of mainstream beauty. "Then, after school, in ballet, white girls made fun of my butt."

And the attention of men like West, who fetishize biracial women, is no honor. "[It is] creepy and insulting." Erin says that far too often that appreciation comes with backhanded compliments "implying that I don't really look black and would be less attractive if I did," plus "shade" from other black women, "who assume I think I'm better than somebody."

Black looks are not just erased; features commonly associated with people of the African diaspora are openly denigrated in American culture. (Though it is important to note that blackness is diverse. Black women can be freckled, ginger, and nappy; ebony skinned and fine haired; and every variation in between.)

Get the Kinks Out

Hair is a lightning rod for enforcement of white standards of beauty. And reactions to black women's natural hair help illustrate the broader disdain for black appearance. While black hair can have a variety of textures, most tends to be curly, coily, or nappy. It grows out and up and not down. It may not shine. It may be cottony or wiry. It is likely more easily styled in an Afro puff than a smooth chignon. For centuries, black women have been told that these qualities make their hair unsightly, unprofessional, and uniquely difficult to manage.

Don Imus infamously called the black women on the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." In a ubiquitous late-night infomercial for WEN hair products, the host refers to black hair as "overly coarse," assuming that white hair is the baseline next to which other hair is "too" something. In the 1970s, when veteran investigative reporter Renee Ferguson debuted a short Afro at the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, she was told that she was "scaring" viewers. Forty or so years later, some young black-female reporters still report being told to straighten their hair. In the summer of 2007, a Glamour magazine editor sparked outrage among many black working women when she told an assembled group of female attorneys that wearing natural black hair is not only improper but militant. Even the US military is ambivalent about black women's hair. In 2014, new military grooming guidelines provoked furor among black servicewomen and prompted a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from the women of the Congressional Black Caucus. The guidelines had banned styles traditional for black women without altered hair textures and also referred to some hair (guess whose) as "matted" and "unkempt."

The message that black natural hair is innately "wrong" is one that girls receive early. In 2013, two cases of black girls being punished at school for their natural hair made headlines. Seven-year-old Tiana Parker was sent home from an Oklahoma charter school and threatened with expulsion because her dreadlocks were deemed "faddish" and unacceptable under a school code that also banned Afros. Twelve-year-old Vanessa VanDyke also faced expulsion because of her voluminous natural hair that Florida school authorities found "distracting."

Is it any wonder, after generations in a society that affirms white features while disparaging those associated with blackness, that many in the African American community have internalized negative messages about their appearance and learned that beauty requires disguising, altering, or diluting blackness and that we pass that inferiority complex on to younger generations?

Patrice Grell Yursik, founder of, does her share of counseling black women scarred by a lifetime of beauty insecurity and parents who could not transcend their own conditioning. She shares a memorable conversation she once had with the mother of a young black child with cerebral palsy. The woman confessed to using double the recommended amount of a caustic chemical relaxer on her daughter's hair in an effort to make it straight. The mother was distraught that despite her efforts, the child's hair held on to its kinks.

"I was horrified. It made me want to cry," says Patrice. "This poor child who cannot fend for herself and cannot physically take care of herself is enduring this burning on an ongoing basis for what? So she can be what? Why are we doing this?"

It should come as no surprise that most black women, rather than wear the braids, twists, Afros, and dreadlocks that black hair adapts to most easily, alter their hair's natural texture chemically or with extreme heat or cover it with synthetic hair or human hair from other races of women.

Let me be clear: black women should be free to wear their hair as they please, including straightened. But as Patrice Yursik urges, "It's really important for us to ask ourselves the tough questions. Why are we in lockstep in relaxing our hair? Why do we all come to the decision that this is something we have to do for ourselves and our children, [especially when] so many of us hate the process and see damage from it.

"Always do what makes you happy, but at least know why it's the thing that makes you happy."

During the "black is beautiful" 1970s, many black women embraced their natural kinks, but that rebellion gave way to assimilation in the Reagan era. The popularity of neo-soul music in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with its iconic faces such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Angie Stone representing for natural hair, opened the door for a new generation of women to embrace the nap.

The challenge was that many would-be naturals found little support in traditional places for beauty advice, including beauty magazines (even ones catering to black women) and professional stylists. Often, even mothers and grandmothers were of no help; the hair care that many black women learned from their fore-mothers was solely focused on "fixing" or "taming" natural hair, not on celebrating its innate qualities. Many black women had not seen or managed their natural texture in decades. Black beauty magazines such as Essence continued to mostly feature models with straightened hair. And, until the recent renaissance, education for beauticians included little to no training about the care of natural black hair. Stylists were tested only on their ability to handle straightened black tresses.

What is profound about the natural-hair revolution is that it has been driven by everyday black women searching for a way to honor their natural features in spite of all the messages encouraging the contrary. Finding no support in the usual places, black women created what they needed, forming communities online. Forums buzzed with women offering support and maintenance and styling techniques when family, boyfriends, and employers rejected the natural look. Women with similar hair types learned from one another's trials and errors. Naturals pored through Fokti (a precursor to Flickr) to find photos of cute natural styles on everyday women. Naturals began eschewing the preservatives and chemicals in mainstream beauty products and instead searched for natural alternatives. Black women such as Jamyla Bennu, founder of Oyin Handmade, began creating natural products in their own kitchens and selling them.

"I didn't come from a family where people had [chemical relaxers]," Jamyla says. "My mom's hair is very loose; it's not like mine, so she didn't have the skills to do the cornrows and stuff like that. I was the Afro puff girl. Although it was always affirmed, there were not a lot of ideas about how to wear my natural hair."

Bennu muddled through, finally beginning to relax her own hair in junior high school. But seeing more natural women in college opened her eyes to new options. "'Oh my gosh, that's what you're supposed to do with it! You can twist it. You can braid it.' I stopped perming my hair and have had natural hair ever since."

In about 1999, Jamyla began making hair products for herself "out of general craftiness." She experimented with common ingredients, like honey, coconut oil, and olive oil, that she had grown up using in her beauty routine. And, true to the ethos of the time, she shared her recipes. A freelance website designer, she eventually took a chance and began offering a few of her products online. Today, Jamyla and her partner, her husband Pierre, not only have a thriving online store but a brick-and-mortar retail space in Baltimore. And Oyin Handmade products can be found in select Target and Whole Foods stores across the country.

The natural-hair movement is "an example of women deciding for themselves what's important, what's beautiful, what's natural.... Not only how they want to look, but what they want to use to make themselves look that way. It's a really empowering moment in black beauty history and in beauty industry history because it's a kind of user-driven change."

Jamyla, like several other black women, has become a successful entrepreneur through the black beauty renaissance, but she has done so in a way that is uniquely affirming, unlike most consumer beauty brands. When my first box from Oyin arrived in the mail, it included a small container of bubble solution, two pieces of hard candy, and a card that read "Hello, Beautiful."

Jamyla says that approach comes from "myself as consumer, as a feminist, as a person who loves being black, who loves natural hair. I was in a place of pure celebration and discovery, and so was everyone else around me. So were the people with whom I was sharing the product. It didn't even make sense to try to market as if to a deficit or a lack, because I didn't see a deficit or a lack.

"A lot of black women grow up with so much negative messaging around their hair—not only from the marketing, which is, 'Fix it by doing X, Y and Z.'" Jamyla points out that caregivers often frame black girls' hair as a problem from the time they are small. "Sometimes we'll get messages like, 'Oh, this stuff. It's just so hard to deal with.'

"My political feeling is that it is very serious work to love yourself as a black person in America. I think it's an intergenerational project of transformation and healing that we are embarking on together."

Jamyla says that when she found herself with a platform to reach black women, it was important to deliver an empowering message. "You know that this is fly, right? I know you know it's fly, I'm going to echo that to you so that you can feel a little bit stronger in knowing how fly you are."

Now, mainstream beauty and cosmetics industries are playing catch-up in the movement black women began. Not only are homegrown brands like Oyin enjoying broad success, but major cosmetics companies have debuted lines catering to black women who wear their hair texture unaltered. In 2014, Revlon purchased Carol's Daughter, a beauty company with roots in the natural-hair movement. Even Hollywood is taking notice, thanks to stylists like Felicia Leatherwood, who keeps natural heads looking good on the red carpet. Her styling of Mad Men actress Teyonah Parris (Dawn) made all the flashbulbs pop at the 2013 Screen Actors Guild awards. Buzzfeed gushed that the actress had "the flyest hair on the red carpet."

"We never thought that would happen," said Leatherwood of the attention-getting coif. And perhaps neither did Parris, when she first did what many black women call "the big chop"—cutting off relaxed hair, usually leaving short kinks or coils. Parris told Huffington Post: "I cried. I cried. I was not used to seeing myself like that, I did not want to walk outside.... My [friend] ... had to literally come over to my house and walk me outside because it was such an emotional experience, and it wasn't just about hair. It was what my perception of beauty was and had been for all of my life, and then I look at myself in the mirror and I'm like, 'That doesn't look like what I thought was beautiful.'"


Excerpted from The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris. Copyright © 2015 Tamara Winfrey Harris. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Trouble with Black Women
1. Beauty: Pretty for a Black Girl
2. Sex: Bump and Grind
3. Marriage: Witches, Thornbacks, and Sapphires
4. Motherhood: Between Mammy and a Hard Place
5. Anger: Twist and Shout
6. Strength: Precious Mettle
7. Health: Fat, Sick, and Crazy
Epilogue: The Sisters Are Alright
About the Author

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