Thorstein Veblen asserts that our current society is not really different from barbaric societies. He states that in order to maintain a temporary advantage, such as the ability to hunt in a pre-agrarian society, people will codify this behavior as superior and declare other forms of labor inferior, even though the other forms of labor might contribute more to the survival of the community. He goes on to show that people of the inferior class will seek to emulate their “betters” to gain status, even when that effort will undermine seemingly more important goals, such as physical survival or financial security. In class, we have discussed many inequities of our society, including the need of black women to process their hair to be successful. These inequities are predicted by Veblen’s model.
Genetically, the hair of people of African descent is tightly curled and coarse. European hair tends to be more pliable. Cultures of both people have developed unique ways of styling their hair that reflects the physical properties of the hair itself. White women choose large braids, large curls and simply letting their hair swing loose. Black women have found that small braids, dreadlocks and “afros” are the most flattering styles for their hair. However, in the mid-nineteenth century in America, black women began employing the use of hot combs and chemicals to break down the coarseness of their hair. The first female millionaire in America went by the name of Madame C.J. Walker and made her fortune selling hair care products to black women. This trend has developed into a major industry, with popular black hairstyles including human hair (most often from southeast Asian women) being woven into their own hair and increasingly sophisticated chemicals for perming or straightening hair. These hair-altering phenomena have been explained as black women attempting to look more like white women. Veblen would call this emulation.
Veblen’s economic model states that ruling classes distinguish themselves through conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste. In essence, they signal that they have enough wealth to afford unnecessary things. This level of financial security is equated with being better than other people. Veblen’s model also predicts that out of a desire to have what members of the leisure class have, lower class people will emulate the signals that the members of the leisure class signal. This seems to hold true even when it is extended to inadvertent signals.
Inadvertent signals are those that are correlated to the conspicuous consumption and waste signals but are not either. In this instance, hair type is an inadvertent signal because for most white women, pliable hair does not take much effort. However, because almost all members of the leisure class in American society have historically been white, pliable hair becomes associated with that class. (This description ignores the conspicuous consumption of many white women that comes in the form of expensive salon treatments.) Veblen would claim that that dominance of beauty salons in black neighborhoods was a rational behavior, given the institution of racism that our society has developed within. He would say that black women were emulating white women, since race in America is so often correlated with class.
Black hair is a highly personal and highly political subject because of this. Black people must choose between visually belonging to their traditional culture and visually belonging to the dominant paradigm, which is usually problematic because black hair often resists complete transformation. During the black pride movement of the late 70s, the afro became popular again and cornrows briefly became popular even for white women, as shown by Bo Derek in the movie 10. As an extension of this, dreadlocks have become more and more prevalent amongst women of color and have become popular with white youth, which prompted Jessica Young, adjunct faculty at Columbia College to write, “My hair does this because this is what it does. I can’t sacrifice that to some tow-headed, apple-cheeked cheerleader from Davenport, Iowa, who saw a rerun of Lenny Kravitz: Behind the Music and wants ‘hair like his, all hip and earthy.’ Locks are tied to a racial, religious and cultural tradition. You can’t just dive into that because it’s cool. Locks are mine, and I don’t want to share.” Professor Young imbues distinctly black hairstyles with value as a response to a history of emulation because that emulation itself tacitly agreed with the opinion of the white leisure class: that it is not a good thing to be black. In fact, it is common for black people who are born with naturally pliant hair to be described as having “good hair,” which reinforces the belief that black hair is bad hair.
Given this “truth” that to be white is better than to be black, what explains the rare emulation of black hair by white people and the increasing embrace of natural hair by black people themselves? Counter-signaling is one plausible answer. Counter-signaling occurs as the mean moves far enough in one direction (in this case toward white hair) and outliers discover that gains can be made by deviating sharply in the other direction. An expensive design firm locating its offices in the middle of the ghetto and a professor presenting his paper while wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap are examples of this. The website www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com is written by white people pretending to be people of color who are writing about the cultural habits of white people as an instruction manual for people of color for how to manipulate white people by pretending to emulate them. Articles such as “#28 Not Having A TV,” “#78 Multilingual Children” and “#107 Self Aware Hip Hop References,” satirize dominant culture in a way that has won the site international acclaim.
Another explanation involves the audience of the signals. It is possible that people who choose naturally black hairstyles have decided it is more important to signal fidelity to their community or themselves than to signal conformity to the standards set by the leisure class. This outcome is also predicted by Veblen. He writes: “The grounds of discrimination, and the norm of procedure in classifying the facts . . . progressively change as the growth of culture proceeds . . . So that what are recognised as the salient and decisive features of a class of activities or of a social class at one stage of culture will not retain the same relative importance for the purposes of classification at any subsequent stage.” As the physical characteristics of the leisure class change, so will the inadvertent signals working class people feel they need to emulate.
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