What’s the ‘wig’ deal…it’s post-racial America?

Halloween 2010 has come and gone this year. That’s not to say it was an uneventful season of horrors. In fact, there were quite a few shocking occurrences to usher in the traditional trick or treat festivities. Perhaps the most prevalent is the politricks for the upcoming elections, Still there was one other trick that came in the form of a supposed costume marketed by retailers, namely Kohl’s Department Store. It wasn’t entirely spooky or ghoulish as is customary for the “ultimate” Halloween costume. The item in question was simply a wig. Yes, a wig. Sounds harmless enough, right? It could have been. But… it freaked a lot of consumers out and exploded into a PR nightmare for Kohl’s.

Now, I’m sure Kohl’s and other retailers believed the costume would be a seasonal top-seller. Unfortunately, Kohl’s chose to market the wig as a “Ghetto Fab Wig.”  Granted the manufacture created the name for the wig, still the final decision rested with Kohl’s.

Outraged consumers found the wig’s name flagrantly offensive, a failed attempt at creative marketing. Social networks exploded with comments and blogs on the situation.

Eventually the company conceded with apologies and the removal of the wig from its online store.

This appeased many…and those who’d berated the company smugly tweeted, updated Facebook statuses and blogs about their assumed victory. Subsequently, Sears followed suit removing the product from their seasonal offerings, further prompting a declared social media victory celebrated with more glib posts, virtual high fives and fist bumps.

But here again, the root problem was NOT the wig.

Now that Halloween 2010 lives amongst the ghosts of holidays past, it has buried with it the impetus for a very necessary, American conversation.

In this century, where many love to wax poetic about our “post-racial” society, race, ethnicity and cultural differences seem to sneak back into our public conversation, all too often in ways that are not the most endearing. Truth is, we have never had a frank discussion on the matter in the first place, but then expect to jump over the real talk to get to the fluff. The only time we want to deal with complex issues is when a white person uses a racial slur or makes an evenly derogative comment.

Race and culture aside, it is an intricate and complex web of issues whenever you begin to discuss Black women’s hair.

The name prescribed to the focus wig symbolizes the utter ignorance related to cultural identity. It is a struggle that has always existed. And it is a painful struggle for Black women who share the history of Sara Baartman, paraded to the world as Venus Hottentot, as well as the fictitious Aunt Jemima. Over and over again in our history is a ripped wound where Black beauty has been ridiculed, parodied, yet simultaneously coveted in secret.

So when Whites use social class to describe hairstyles, fashion and the myriad ideologies culturally relevant to Black women, without an authentic understanding or appreciation, it is offensive at the surface level, and ignorant at its base. First to have some inherent knowledge for the origin and complexity of use for words is the only way to avoid misappropriation of language. Still, when a corporate entity commits the offense, it becomes much more reprehensible and is exploitative in nature.

Perhaps the virtual fist bumps and the high fives could’ve waited a tad bit longer. Because when, (as I know the situation has probably already made its way into a PowerPoint or Keynote), folks reference this as a case study for “social media activism,” I do hope they understand that this was merely a small scuffle, not credible enough to gain the title battle. We lost a momentous advantage to take up a worthy battle with deliberation. The battle yet to be won is when corporate entities confer with consumers who can speak to the messaging they aim at “targeted” audiences. It is to ensure proper representation is at the table when marketing “experts” seek to brand and promote “cultural” products as a parody. It is to put front of mind the imperative pairing of sensitivity and sensibility.

And though some may consider it a stretch, this outcome was/is the fear that caused such an emotional response from Black women following the news that Essence Magazine decided to hire a white woman as Fashion Director. We know the power put into the hands of those who first observe then seek to define us. One wrong move can crush progress and strangle race relations. Where intentions are mired with the end and hard to justify.

Even further, the battle is internal. We must define ourselves for ourselves. What we do and speak gives others consent to do the same, or worse. It is largely due to our own glamorization of certain terminology. While so many are quick to set up a “reality” scene with abject connotations to their very own culture; dismissing a group because of their social class all while sharing the same original pedigree, it gives way for misunderstandings from those on the perimeter. What is communal and a shared language amongst cultures always stands the risk of losing its meaning, but even more dangerous is the chance for outsiders to interpret the exchange with malice. This is a fact for strong consideration as we make music and art to express the gift of our culture. And it is especially detrimental if we do not consider it when purporting things as “reality,” no matter if we consider ourselves Housewives, editors, producers, journalists, and yes artists too.

Take caution in the use of language. After all I am a firm believer that words have the power to heal or kill. And so corporations and individuals must choose.

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