Misguided Movement: The Neoliberal Move Toward Natural Hair
Part 2 of 3

Published by: Zari Sundiata
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Lisa Price (far left) is having a discussion about “style” and one’s personal decision to be natural. From the framing of this picture we see their adherence to the ideals of the white-bourgeoisie and neoliberal, individualism. The “elegant” white table cloth, flower arrangements, after-five dress attire and tea, all the markings of being a “fabulous, independent woman of the new millennium.”

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A prime example of the new, Black, entrepreneurial class in the “natural hair movement” is the founder of Carol’s Daughter hair products, Lisa Price. Besides the entire website being riddled with individualistic stories of “natural hair journeys”, personal style, and misguided appropriations of the word “movement” (i.e. “Transitioning Movement”, please tell me how growing off a perm is a movement for social change, how does that work?), she has a video explaining her story and the website provides consumers with this excerpt about her success:

From humble beginnings in her kitchen, Carol’s Daughter founder Lisa Price transformed her beloved hobby of mixing fragrances at home into a beauty empire. After selling her natural beauty products at flea markets and from her living room, Price officially established Carol’s Daughter, lovingly named for her mother. Today, we offer prestige hair, body and skincare products made with rare, natural ingredients like Monoi Oil, Shea and Cocoa Butters and Açai. We have collections that repair (top-seller Monoi), perfect curls (classic Hair Milk) and soothe skin (favorite Almond Cookie). 1

Of course neoliberal proponents will never tell you on their websites that they are in business to make money and to make a better life for themselves (i.e. M-C-M ). They will have a lot of feel good, Horatio Algers stories, that make people feel proud because this one Black person has become rich off the backs of the rest of us. There is no mention of how Lisa Price built her “empire” and has been considering selling Carol’s Daughter to the private equity firm Pegasus Capital Advisors. No indication of how she procures these various oils, shea butters, etc. Did she build this so-called empire to build up any industrialization in Africa where she likely obtains all these raw materials? Does she advocate for a social reorientation to build a United States of Africa with the capital that she had to build Carol’s Daughter because of her privilege? Absolutely not, her goal was to build her empire by catering to Black women, thus building her market from our consumption, so she could get a better deal for herself (that’s what empires do, right?). There are bloggers out there who are disappointed in the turn Carol’s Daughter’s marketing efforts have taken in terms of having more white and light-skin Black women as her spokes people, but this is not the central problem. That is a symptom of the fundamental move toward neoliberalism. Build your business, with no state regulation, gain state protection once you adhere to “universal” European standards, then in the end you will be able to live in your ivory tour (pun intended). Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o explains this constant vacillation we see in the African petty bourgeoisie:

We encounter difficulties when dealing with the petty-bourgeois class, especially in a colonial context. Its intermediate position between peasants and workers (the oppressed, the exploited classes) on the one hand, and the imperialist bourgeoisie (the direct ruling power, the oppressing exploiter class) on the other, makes it a vacillating class with a vacillating world outlook simply because its economic base keeps on changing, making it sometimes stare at ruin (the lot of the masses), and at other times stare at prosperity (the lot of the imperialist bourgeoisie and its white-settler representatives).

When the people’s power seems in the ascendancy, that’s in times of intense struggle, it will move closer to the people and even seem to articulate their position and aspirations. When the imperialist bourgeoisie seems in the ascendancy, it will move closer to it, try some sort of accommodation and even articulate anti-people sentiments with a vigor only less intense than the one with which it had embraced the people’s cause because of the naked racism (colour bar) in the colonial system. When in power, this class will embrace imperialism if it sees the masses demanding real changes.2

In light of Wa Thiong’o’s analysis, it follows that since we are in the period of neoliberalism, which gives imperialism more power, we see all the petty bourgeois elements jocking for power, searching for investments, and using their access to the masses of the people to give our culture over to the oppressor class.

The Lisa Prices of the world will sell their products to multi-national corporations such as Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Whole Foods, Walgreens, and Target because these are the rich white folk with real capital and comprehensive distribution channels. They possess the perfect logistical machines to benefit Lisa Price individually while ultimately making the ruling class richer collectively. Meanwhile, the masses of our brothers and sisters languish in poverty and jail cells. This is a worldwide class struggle that presents a great obstacle for African people to overcome. George Reid Andrews gives this example when writing about Africans in Brazil in the book Afro-Latin America:

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Beyonce Knowles, the princess of neoliberalism (only second to Oprah), uses her celebrity to cater to specific audiences based on the culture and idiosyncrasies of certain political economies. This is an issue of the Brazilian magazine George Reid Andrews cites whereby Beyonce is almost required to have a textured hair style because Brazil has the highest population of African people in the Western hemisphere. With Beyonce being the “successful, business woman” she is, she knows how to use the people’s desire for building community to build her own brand.

Rather than participating in racial movements, suggests one Afro-Brazilian entrepreneur, “the best way to be a black militant is to be a success” in one’s business or profession. And as in any upwardly mobile group, Afro-Latin Americans who achieve such success want to enjoy its fruits. As the black middle class continues to expand, those of its members who wish to express their negritude have tended to do so not through political action but rather through the pleasures of consumption: more specifically, consumption of “black” (especially in Brazil, the English word is frequently used) clothes, music, hairstyles, and art. This emphasis on individual achievement and consumption, perfectly in keeping with the neoliberal tenor of the times, found its fullest expression in the launching of the magazine Raça Brasil in 1996. The first mass-market publication in Brazil aimed exclusively at people of color, the magazine was conceived in response to market research showing that 10 percent of Afro-Brazilian families supposedly earned household income of US $16,800 per year or more, and that, in the words of Roberto Melo, the magazine’s publisher, “blacks are voracious consumers. They spend, for example, more money on clothes than whites do because they need to signal clearly their social position….Blacks want to see themselves as chic, successful, rich.” The magazine sought to provide this self-image, with glossy layouts on clothes, style, music, and black celebrities. This formula clearly found its market, jumping immediately to a circulation of a quarter million copies per issue, thereby signaling to the Brazilian publishing and advertising industries the discovery of a new target audience.3

  1. See bottom/footer of Carol’s Daughter website.
  2. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (London: Heinemann, 1982), 160.
  3. George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 196-97.
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