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Controversy over Gabby Douglas' hair highlights ongoing debate
By Yvette Walker
| Published: August 3, 2012
Gabby Douglas is a gold medalist and Olympian at 16 years of age.
That's more than any troll on Twitter can say for herself.
In fiction, a troll is a hideous, wicked creature lacking humanity. In the real world, they post unkind tweets about other people. The definition fits the people who decided to criticize American gymnast Gabby Douglas for having what they describe as unkempt, sweaty hair during the women's gymnastics competitions at the Olympics in London.
Never mind the girl was working as hard as her body would let her. Never mind she was twisting and contorting on the uneven bars, the floor exercise and her nemesis, the balance beam. Never mind she was perspiring, as any human will do when putting your body through such a workout.
And, sadly, many of those trolls appeared to be African American women. Sad, but not surprising. This is not a racist tweet trend. It's an example of black women digitally beating up a little girl whose star is rising.
Were they trying to be funny? And if so, why focus on her hair? Any black woman can answer that. It's the old war of “good hair” vs. “bad hair.”
Among some African Americans, “good hair” is straight or slightly wavy, similar to the kind of hair on the heads of Caucasian people. “Bad hair” is tightly curled, kinky, or “nappy,” and is the kind of hair found on the heads of many people of African descent.
The debate has gone on for years in the black community, but digital technology is making it easier to air this dirty laundry.
One of the first to report the Olympic hair hate was the online magazine SportyAfros.com, which was picked up by Jezebel.com and others. Monisha Randolph, a regular contributor to Sporty Afros, examined three of the main complaints found on Twitter:
“She needs some gel and a brush …”
“Someone needs to give her a hair intervention …”
“She has to “represent” …”
Stunned, Randolph wrote, “ ... the last time I checked when you play a sport, you sweat. I know I do. And when a Black woman who has chosen to wear her hair straight begins to sweat, her hair will (not might) begin to revert back to its natural coily, curly or kinky state. Does Gabby need to stop every five minutes to check her hair? No.”
Linda Jones of Dallas, who does not straighten her hair, is reclaiming the idea of “bad hair” and turning it into a positive. Jones is a journalist and the founder of A Nappy Hair Affair, which organizes grassroots hair grooming sessions that are known as Hair Days. She also is author of “Nappyisms: Affirmations for Nappy-Headed People and Wannabes!” Thursday morning Jones posted on Facebook: “I don't care if she was wearing a Mr. T Mohawk, Gabby represented for us all.”
In a private Facebook conversation Thursday night, Jones told me her group's message goes deeper than hair. “It is to promote positive images of people of African descent. Gabby, our young role model, does that hands down.
“Whoever made those disparaging remarks about Gabby's hair while she was going for the gold, has bought pettiness to a new low. It smacks of jealousy to me — and also idleness.”
At first, I was afraid that Douglas' brilliant performance at the Olympics might become just another chapter in the tired, old story about black women's hair.
But social media trends are brief, and backlash against the trolls soon took over. Thursday, as Douglas soared and jumped and tumbled and strutted to her gold, there were few criticisms of her hair to be found on Twitter. In fact, some of the original “haters” seemed to change their tune.
After Douglas won the individual all-around gold, an interviewer asked her what it all meant to her. She credited God, her family and endurance.
“Hard days ... that's where champions are made,” she said.
Exactly, Gabby — in the gym, not in the hair salon.
Yvette Walker is night news director for The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, and is the E.K. Gaylord Media Ethics chair at the University of Central Oklahoma. She wears her hair straightened — but does not castigate any woman who chooses not to.