Translating ‘Becky with the Good Hair’

Earlier this year, I wrote about Beyoncé’s politically charged Super Bowl performance, and the scandal that arose in its wake. Half the world praised her for giving Black empowerment a moment in the media, while the other half branded her a racist and threatened to boycott her music.

Beyoncé made no apologies, and paid no heed to the angry mob. Instead, she later followed up the performance with the release of Lemonade. Since its release, the album has inspired critical acclaim, a whole new host of pop culture references… and the witch hunt foone very elusive “Becky”.

In her song Sorry, Beyoncé stated:

He only want me when I’m not there
He better call Becky with the good hair

Brilliantly Bad Decision

In hopes of capitalizing on the spotlight thrown on Beyoncé yet again, two staffers of Glamour devised a brilliantly terrible plan. They fired back at Beyoncé’s Becky with the Good Hair by posting:

Becky with the Good Hair.jpg
Photo Credit: Glamour

I had to see it to believe it. I couldn’t believe that anyone living in a multicultural society, like America or the UK, could be so bloody clueless as to why this would be inappropriate.

The responses on social media further brought perhaps the biggest embarrassment any lifestyle and entertainment brand has faced in quite some time.

Becky with the Good Hair 2Becky with the Good Hair 3Becky with the Good Hair 5

Glamour Magazine is not Alone

But I would soon learn that Glamour staffers weren’t the only ones who didn’t quite get it. Many people actually have no idea what this means.

The following day, while Michael and I drove back from the gym, I asked him if he had heard about the incident.

To put things into context here, let me just inject the necessary detail that my husband is White.

Alexis Chateau Two Tone
Michael and I

Michael raps, has more Black friends than I do, and knows more about Ebonics than I will ever care to learn. Yet, even he was clueless as to why the article was offensive, and as to what on Earth the phrase “Becky with the good hair meant”.

“Isn’t that the whole thing about Jay-Z cheating on Beyoncé?” he asked me.

“Becky isn’t the point. Don’t you know what ‘good hair’ means?” I asked incredulously.

He didn’t.

It was at that moment that I had to step back and re-evaluate what I believed should have been common knowledge and fairly obvious. After all, I come from a predominantly Black country, whereas America is… well… America.

So let me explain why this is not just another minority-tantrum like the many that make it through the media.

The History Lesson

Of all the angry tweets directed at Glamour, this one summed up the root of the problem best.

Becky with the Good Hair 4

The keywords here are “historical significance”. This is because the phrase good hair wasn’t coined by Beyoncé for Lemonade, or even by 90s rap. It’s been a part of the Black Movement and the Black struggle since the days of slavery; and is deeply rooted in the journey of Black women (and men) from properties to human beings.

To keep slaves compliant, they were taught that their natural features made them somehow less worthy of rights and freedoms than other races. This primarily included the colour of their skin, and the texture of their hair. Coincidentally, these are the two most distinguishing features of what it means to be Black.

After slavery, as civil rights movements took shape and Blacks received their first chance of assimilating into regular society, these differences posed a problem. But while Black skin brought no inherent inconveniences besides people’s personal biases, Black hair did.

Let me explain how.

The Struggle is Real

For most Black women, our hair is still a part of that daily struggle – especially in an era where personal appearances mean so much. Our friends of other ethnic groups and mixes can easily throw their hair into a ponytail in five seconds. But our frizzy hair obeys no law and no man.

Even in the corporate world, many of us are forced to ditch our natural hair, because corporate thinks our kinky locks are too naughty for regular business operations. And at my Catholic school, every ethnic hair-do was banned in the rule books, and as we tried new ones – like my signature Mickey Mouse puffs in seventh grade – those were quickly outlawed, too.

But ironically, the people who notice our hair the most? – is us. While other teenagers mostly worried about body image issues and acne, we worried about that and our hair. Maybe mostly our hair.

Many of us have tried everything – perms, presses, cornrows, braids, and just cutting the damn thing off. Sometimes we’ve done so much crap to it, it just falls off on its own…

And all of that to conform to what regular society decides is good hair – which is essentially not our stubborn kinky hair. Good hair is the Black Community’s bitterly-spoken name for obedient, soft, silky smooth locks of the Mixed, the Asians, Latinas, and of course White folks.

It’s worry-free hair; the hair of the models they put in Pantene ads, and the girls on Pinterest with an effortless bun on the top of their heads.

In contrast, our naturally dry, frizzy hair is bad hair. We are taught from an early age through dolls, school rules, corporate expectations, and the media that our genetically gifted natural hair is not sufficient, fashionable, or appropriate.

To soften the message, the media often puts forward an image that kinky (or nappy hair) looks like this:

This is true to an extent, but more accurately, this is what African hair looks like when a woman is mixed. In other words, if Michael and I had a daughter, she would likely have a similar hair type to either of these two women. Often times, these hair-types become grouped with good hair because it’s “less Black”. 

But for most of us, our hair looks a bit more like this:

Black kinky hair.jpg
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo

Imagine trying to get hair that kinky to meet society’s professional, beautiful, and neat standards, like these Beckys with the Good Hair

Becky with the Good Hair.png
Photo Credit: Glamour

And then imagine the overwhelming pressure to meet these expectations. We quite literally get chemical burns from relaxers and heat burns from press combs just trying to keep up. As one tweep summed it up nicely:

beck with the good hair beyonce twitter

The Way Forward

Of course, things are changing now. Many corporations “allow” us to wear our natural hair without causing a fuss. I, for instance, wore my dreadlocks when I worked at Xerox Business Services.

Similarly, many magazines, fashion shows, and movies also feature Black women who embrace their natural heritage; whether they have bad hair, good hair or something in-between.

As we grow older we learn what works for us, and we accept that we’ll just have to spend more time and more money on making our bad hair good enough to meet societal expectations.

In fact, Beyoncé made a strong statement by refusing to chemically alter her daughter’s hair – at least, not yet. However, when that same Queen Bey – the most powerful female symbol in the Black Community – hires a team to make her look like a Becky with the Good Hair, you know we still have a ways to go…

Photo Tony Duran
Photo Credit: Tony Duran
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