"The Other Black Girl": To Fix Racism, All You Need Is a Little Hair Grease
Sitting on the floor between my mother's legs as she tries to brush sap out of my hair. Feeling the burn of relaxer as tears run down my face in the back of a Dominican hair salon in the Bronx. Being told I am "tender headed" by my grandma with equal parts frustration and fondness in her voice. These memories are forever ingrained in my body: pain and the desire to be different tied up with community and love. I was rocketed back to these memories while reading "The Other Black Girl," the bestselling book by Zakiya Dalila Harris, back in 2021, and now watching the television show based on it that's currently streaming on Hulu.
"TOBG" centers Black women, hair care, and the never-ending struggle to combat racism in the workplace. But does it do a disservice to Black women and the communities built around hair?
Hair is something that every Black woman can relate to: the idea of "good hair," finding the products that work for you, and being in community with other Black women. Because getting your hair done? That's not a solitary affair. It's not a 30-minute trim. And it can't be with just anyone — you have to trust who is doing your hair, and that trust is not given lightly. Hair can be one way for Black women to express themselves, a thing of joy and beauty. But it can also be something that Black women get attacked for: having hair that is "too much" for the workplace. We've all seen the news stories about young kids being punished at school for their hairstyle, or workplaces having hair restrictions in their dress codes. That's why The Crown Act is so important.
In "The Other Black Girl," Nella is the only Black woman at her publishing job, and that comes with the classic microaggressions, misogynoir, and a strong armor against well-meaning white people. When Hazel joins, Nella feels a kinship: another Black woman to commiserate with when a white author pens a stereotypical and racist Black character. Until weird things start happening and Nella is brought into a community of Black women who are all the same: successful, chic, and happy puppets. The audience, and Nella, think the big baddie turning Black women into zombies is Richard Wagner, the smarmy and problematic white CEO. The twist is that it's not the white man CEO, it's another Black woman. Her method? Hair grease.
It's a product that renders the person "free" — from the constraints of capitalism, white supremacy, and the endless hardship of racism in the workplace. In this case, the hair gel is a metaphor for the ways that Black women need to tone down, change, and become someone else in order to be successful. Whether it's changing our wardrobe, straightening our hair, or never laughing loudly, Black women are continually told they are too much even as we are less likely to be promoted and are paid less than our white counterparts.
Diana, the main antagonist, creates a community of Black women; she has her "Conditioners" build trust with their targets and then use that trust to convince them to use the product. Diana is the quintessential cult leader, telling her followers that they belong, asking them what they want in life, and assuring them that freedom is something attainable if only they put some gel in their hair. She exploits that desire for community, especially for Black women who are often the "only," lonely in a workplace that can be hostile to their very being.
The hair product becomes an easy fix for a problem that is hundreds of years in the making, ultimately saying that to be successful, all you need is to change who you are, straighten your hair, or smile. That life doesn't need to be hard and "the pain" that "makes us who we are," as Nella says in episode 10, doesn't have to define us. But the problem isn't the Black women. The problem is institutional racism, white supremacy, and capitalism — systems and structures that work to keep people, especially Black women, down.
The problem is that our society has taught Black women that we need to change to game the system that is ultimately harming us. Diana espouses the freedom that these women will feel but instead they are trading a lonely and hostile workplace for a prison of their own making: a "sunken place" where they give up who they are to try and make things a little less hard. But as Shani says in episode nine, "That's not how the world works. It's always going to be hard." And no amount of "grease" will fix that.