Aborigines and “ethnic” hair

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The headline on the CNN website caught my attention. It was outrageous and funny in an involuntarily pathetic kind of way. Scott Beason, a Republican state senator from Alabama, was in hot water for calling black residents of Greene County, Alabama, “aborigines.”

I had to put on my reading glasses to make sure I was reading correctly. “That’s y’all’s Indians,” said one Republican colleague, also from Alabama.

“They’re aborigines, but they’re not Indians,” Beason replied.

¡¿Qué, qué?! Seriously?  I had to pause and reread the first paragraph twice. 

This reminded me of a woman who phoned the other day asking to speak with me. I knew she was selling something, as only telemarketers and my mother (when agitated) call me by my full, legal name, which is a mouthful. Before I could utter “I’m sorry, but we are in the Do Not Call Registry,” she proceeded to tell me about a limited-time offer: a five-ounce sample of a new shampoo and conditioner line formulated for ethnic hair. 

“What do you mean, for ethnic hair? I asked, and then added, “Isn’t all hair ethnic?” 

“Um. You know. Uhh … for hair that’s … frizzy. And difficult to … to … tame,” she finally uttered. 

I let out a long “AAAAAAaah!” as if a slow-to-glow incandescent light bulb had turned on in my head. Having sensed the tension, she blurted out, “I’ll, I’ll send you the free sample in the mail … to thank you for your time today,” which had amounted to a full 40 seconds by this point, “and I’ll also include an exclusive promo code for 20 percent off your first online order.” 

At the time, I had quesadillas in the comal and no intention of telling the telemarketer how I truly felt about her exclusive offer and her presupposition that my hair needed some taming. I simply said “Awesome. Thanks,” and hung up.

“It’s not her fault,” opined my viejo when I told him about the call. He speculated she was reading from a script and just trying to make a buck to feed her family; that she wouldn’t be getting her commission because I hung up on her and interrupted her sales pitch. Awww….

But long after that phone call, I kept thinking about the ethnic hair shampoo. I was bothered by the thought of being bothered by it. But then a rapid succession of hair terminology came to mind. Pelo malo, pelo bueno, pelo lacio, pelo chino, pelo grifo, pelo quebrado. It took me years to figure out why some people say pelo quebrado to refer to wavy and not “broken” hair; or pelo chino to refer to curly hair when people from China generally have straight hair.

The answer is fascinating. I won’t bore you with it, but suffice to say, some sociologists believe the term originates with the “china poblana” – you know, the romanticized women from Puebla, Mexico, with the beautiful sequined gowns and the thick braids? From Puebla, not China. And then there’s the deeply and culturally rooted bias that gave birth to the term pelo malo as opposed to pelo bueno. 

Two weeks later, the travel-size, exclusive offer arrived in the mail. And guess what?  The bottle claims it can “turn seriously damaged hair into manageable hair!”  

So the assumption was not only that, given my name, I’m “ethnic,” but that my cabello was seriously damaged and unmanageable. Argh. 

And how does this relate to the senator from Alabama who called blacks in Greene County aborigines? Simple. The genius marketers behind this haircare line, like the senator from Alabama, can be well intended, but their word choices convey ignorance, bias and a sense of superiority. What role racism, political correctness and plain stupidity play in both of these totally unrelated instances, I don’t know.   

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