Sheryl Underwood, stand-up comedy star, actress, and co-host of CBS’ totally-not-a-ripoff-of-The View gabfest The Talk, has spent the better part of the Labor Day weekend fending off blistering criticism on Twitter over remarks she made on the show about natural black hair. Discussing supermodel Heidi Klum‘s revelation that she saves all of her sons’ shorn hair, Underwood asked “Why would you save afro hair?” and in questioning the utility of the saved hair, observed that “You can’t weave afro hair,” and that “You never see us at the hair place going ‘Look, here, what I need here is, I need those curly, nappy beads…That just seems nasty.”
The clip first aired about two weeks ago, but when the show re-ran on Friday, Twitter took notice, and hasn’t let up. The Root‘s Tracy Clayton collected some of the reactions, and explained the criticism this way:
Upon hearing that Klum saves their hair, Underwood responded, “Why would you save Afro hair?” She went on to imply that nobody wants that type of hair, saying that you never hear of a woman in a hair shop asking for that “curly, nappy, beady” hair.
Co-host Sarah Gilbert chimed in, saying that she, too, sometimes saves her children’s hair, and Underwood interjected, saying that it was “probably some beautiful, long, silky stuff,” implying that that type of hair is desirable and worth saving. The only thing more hurtful than hearing those words was co-host Aisha Tyler’s silence and listening to the enthusiastic laughter of the audience, who, apparently, agreed.
The idea that blackness is bad by virtue of its not being white, that black people are biologically undesirable and unattractive, is nothing new. Underwood’s comments come from the same sentiment that has had black folks bleaching their skin and white folks lightening us for their magazines and advertisements. That Underwood bashed natural hair from beneath a very heavy-looking wig full of the “beautiful, long, silky stuff” she covets so much is telling.
To her credit, Sheryl Underwood engaged her critics on Twitter prolifically, but also made a point of not apologizing. Many of her fans tweeted support, as well, although I’m not sure telling black people to “lighten up” was all that helpful. Maybe some better advice would be to Feel It, even if Sheryl Underwood doesn’t.
The issue of natural hair has a long, divisive history in the black community, a history that was well-contextualized in the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair, and whose divisions were bluntly demonstrated in the musical number Good & Bad Hair from Spike Lee‘s School Daze. Despite all the jokes, it can be a deeply painful topic. A high school friend once told me that he asked his grandmother why she wore a head wrap to sleep, and she explained that it kept her hair from getting tangled in the pillow and pulled out. “It’s the cotton trying to take us back,” she told him.
Here’s the interview question that prompted Klum’s revelation, from YourTango.com:
YourTango: What art projects do you create together at home?
Heidi Klum: So two of my boys, they have big afros, and when I shaved them all down, I kept all the hair and I put it in a Ziploc bag. I keep everything! But then, I waited and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this.’ It was so beautiful, this whole bag of afro: one for Henry, one for Johan. The next time they painted their faces, I glued all their hair around it, so it was like this three-dimensional painting. It’s their face! And Henry was always a bit more blonde, like the tips are really blonde, and Johan’s more dark. So you can see, this one looks like Henry and this one looks like Johan. It’s so pretty.
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