Two weeks ago, black British teenager Rebecca Douglas was sentenced to at least 10 years for fatally stabbing her classmate, black teenager Julie Sheriff, in a street altercation. It was in May 2011 in South London – where I grew up and still live – that Douglas confronted Sheriff, accusing her of spreading “malicious gossip regarding boys” through cell phone social networking. During the heated exchange, Douglas got possession of a “pintail comb” that Sheriff was allegedly wearing in her hair, and in an over-arm blow, aimed the metal spike into the skull of the victim. Sheriff never recovered from the bleeding and swelling in her brain, and she died in the hospital almost five months later.
This senseless murder is a sad reflection of the ways we are failing our most marginalized young people. Indeed, the court heard that Douglas’ childhood had been violent and turbulent, and that the 15-year-old had no fixed address at the time she killed Sheriff. Yet, the judge who sentenced Douglas chose to use his summation to warn parents about the dangerous culture of young girls wearing combs as “fashion accessories.” While lamenting the fact that the “fashion industry might ignore” him, the judge explained:
There are considerable dangers to wearing a pintail comb in the hair as a fashion accessory. The origins are little more than, ‘Look at me, I’ve got a weapon.’
Those who have relatively young children, if they saw them wearing them as a fashion accessory, might not realize what they are. But we know that a pintail comb can be as effective a killing instrument as a stiletto knife.
That’s not a very nice thing to have in your hair.
With that judicial indictment, the media went into overdrive, with headlines declaring the dangers of the “Afro comb.” Yes, the “pintail” comb conveniently became an “Afro comb.” Indeed, almost every headline about this story mentioned this especially deadly comb:
Judge Warning Over ‘Afro Combs’
Teenager Given Life Sentence for Afro Comb Murder
Afro Comb Used as Murder Weapon
One newspaper helpfully broke it down:
A replica of the black comb – designed specifically for black African hair – with its spiked metal handle was shown to the jury during the trial.
So perhaps you’re asking: What’s the big deal? A comb is a comb, right? Not quite. The “Afro comb” is an explicitly racialized object, which gave the media license to make the not-so-subtle claim that this violence was indicative of “black” youth culture. (You see, white folks don’t do “Afro.”)
In the wake of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, there was a collective outcry against attempts to use the “hoodie” to legitimize racial profiling, and even the slaying of Martin. In a powerful demonstration of community resistance, the hoodie was transformed into a symbol of solidarity, and media commentators such as Geraldo Rivera were rightly called out on their racist logic.
Not unlike the hoodie, the Afro comb – as worn in the “black African hair” of teenagers – has become the face of dysfunctional and dangerous black inner-city youth. Youth fashion trends have often led politicians, police officers, the media, and even people in our own communities to blame such violence on particular clothing, styles, or colors. Today, apparently, donning an “Afro comb” in your hair is akin to carrying a lethal weapon. Douglas’ vicious and callous crime has not been interpreted as the act of an individual who fell through the cracks of an underserved community, but as evidence of a pathological hoodie-wearing, Afro-comb-wielding, black youth subculture.
The Afro comb, or more precisely, the youth trend of wearing a comb in your hair, has nothing to do with the violence our youth are experiencing and perpetrating. But what is dangerous is the flawed logic of a judge who blames the fashion industry and (black) parents who are apparently clueless about their kids arming themselves with hair accessories. In addition, the media’s reporting of this story is problematic and, quite frankly, reckless. Why? We know all too well that if, for instance, a hoodie or perhaps an Afro comb is legitimized as a threat if worn on a black body, that could conceivably get you killed.