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.

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

354 Comments Add yours

  1. This is something that I’ve been wondering a lot about lately. Where is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

    What’s so distressing about this is that I’m positive that big media like Glamour can hire or at least consult experts in the field of cultural dynamics, but they either flat-out refuse to do so, or they think that pop stars like Beyoncé are always fair game. And, to be fair, I think she is, most of the time. But the issue here is that _Lemonade_ is and always will be a pro-Black album. I don’t think it’s _only_ for the Black community, but I do believe that Bey didn’t write it for her white fans.

    That’s where white people get it wrong. Obviously they’re not the only consumers of media, but most white people seem to think that if it’s out there, it’s up for personal consumption.

    Again, I ask, where is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

    I dunno, Alex. Am I making any sense? (Please let me know if I can use your real name in discussion.)

    1. Alex says:

      You make perfect sense.

      I don’t believe anything is wrong with cultural appropriation per se. I think as we become more of a blended society, this is inevitable and even a good thing.

      However, I think people should do a little research before jumping on the bandwagon. Simple research would have explained the concept of “good hair” to fashion experts like Glamour.

      This is true also that Bey did not write the album for a White audience, but I still believe it’s something everyone can use to learn about Black struggles. It shows that not even wealth and fame insulates us. I think it’s also much harder for African Americans than other places like Jamaica where we run our own show as a predominantly Black culture.

  2. Thank you for this post. I didn’t really understand “bad hair” from this perspective.
    x The Captain

    1. hairlabmd says:

      This is an incredibly interesting post, in Panama where the white population is only about 6% the term bad hair is used to indicate anything from mixed hair to black hair and while the cultural context is different to the one in the USA it also signifies inferiority of the black heritage, which to me makes no sense in a predominantly black/mixed country. The historical significance of bad hair is important and thanks to your post I understand a little bit better what I means in the context of African American’s past of slavery

      1. Alex says:

        Thank you. I’m glad my post helped to put things into perspective for you and a lot of others.

        The context in Panama is actually still very close to everywhere else, America included. It’s not so much about White hair, as much as hair that looks closer to it than others. It was Glamour who took it out of context.

        Thanks so much for reading, liking, commenting and sharing!

  3. Ethan Salter says:

    Nice writing and a level headed perspective approach. thanks.e

    1. Alex says:

      Thank you, Ethan. I’m glad the post didn’t at all come off biased. I tried to keep it as objective as possible.

  4. Beyonce’s reference to “Becky with the good hair” came at a time when we, African American women, are beginning to embrace our natural hair as our personal crowns again. It is interesting to see how the ramification of the “good hair” statement will unfold.We, (women) are well familiar with the reference to “good hair” as a subliminal implication if some hair is “good” then some of hair is “bad.” My hopes are we continue to embrace our hair regardless of whether it’s “good” or “bad,”and embrace India’s Arie’s song “I’m Not My Hair” as our personal theme and mantra.

    1. Alex says:

      This is true. Although I’ve been on that boat alone for a long time, as you can probably tell from my dreadlocks. That was no new decision.

      However, I do believe the irony is as I pointed out at that end of the article. Beyonce offers advice for black women to embrace their natural hair, but still insists on looking like Becky with the good hair, herself. She hires a whole team for that, and that shows us just how far we still have left to go.

      1. This is so true, your article is poignant for such a time as this. I hope we move forward and do not regress. I see the irony and paradox in what you’re saying.

      2. Alex says:

        Thanks again! Yes, I hope so too. I certainly will be moving along on my natural hair journey. Pretty sure my husband would have a heart attack if I straightened it.

        I wonder if Beyonce sees the paradox. Maybe soon she will surprise us all!

    2. Lol, tell it like it is!😄
      Accept me for who I am….

      1. So true, “I’m not my hair” 🙂

  5. karmenc14 says:

    I LOVED THIS! The only one’s that seem to care so deeply about my hair are the same people who look like me. I couldn’t even begin to situate my thoughts on why it was so irritating that these writers tried to make a statement and gain clicks without even understanding historical context. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this! I’m going to have to follow you from my personal WP account, too! 🙂

    1. Alex says:

      Thank you so much for reading! Such kind words. Yes, I read a lot of articles online that didn’t quite get it, so I thought I’d break it down from a Black woman’s perspective.

      I’ll be following you too!

    2. Attending school in the 1950’s, the teachers showed favoritism to the very light complexion children to sit up front(all black school, principal,teachers, the whole roll), even then I could feel the wrongness in such a way it is unforgettable, and in a way as I said before, events have a way of continuing on, and mind you this also had something to with how those teachers back then viewed their own kind over the same kind, only their hair and skin were different. In the 60’s black were beat up because of wearing a natural hair style or maybe even fired, to me this goes beyond stereotypes, it is who is calling the shots and are we brave enough to stand up and wear our heritage!

      1. karmenc14 says:

        Yes! I love my fro so much and wouldn’t wish for any other kind of hair. I love me, and I feel bad for anyone out there who doesn’t!

      2. Alex says:

        Agreed, but we can’t speak for everyone. Only ourselves. I agree with you, but I can’t claim to know other people’s stories and personal struggles. I just hope they join us soon.

  6. Nina Trema says:

    I like your post and it opens a window for me to better understand why I saw natural black hair for the first time in my life around 2000 on MTV. From that moment I am happy every time I see it and I hope to see it more and more in the future 😊 I also always thought that Beyonce hair was natural, because of her mixed origins but maybe I should check my sources

    1. Alex says:

      Thank you, Nina! I’m glad you read it and enjoyed it, and that it was informative. Interesting that you never saw natural hair until then, but not really surprising to me. Natural hair is experiencing a comeback though, so you’ll see much more of it for some time.

      Beyonce is mixed, but she’s no natural blonde and her hair isn’t straight or that long. She wears extensions and always have.

      Of course, this is a personal choice, but I find it odd to empower other women to embrace our “bad hair” while conforming to what she wants us to oppose…

  7. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for this! So interesting how apparently superficial or frivolous topics (like hair!) can be so deeply important to social and political issues.

    1. Alex says:

      Thank you for reading Charlotte! Yes, the Black journey is a complicated one.

      But at the end of the day, it’s for us to set ourselves free from those restrictions. As Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but our self can free our minds.”

      1. In a way, as a Jew, we may have a slight edge historically. Every Passover we soeak of the Exodus from Egypt and the 40 years in the desert. 40 years was a generation and those that came out were presumably born free. We thank God for what He did for us as if he did for us personally so every generation remembers but is free.

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