Afro Combs Don’t Kill: Demonizing Black Youth Culture

by Althea Legal-Miller

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 ‘Penetrated Brain’ in Fatal Attack

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.

  • ChillyRoad

    The headline at the BBC website last month was “Julie Sheriff Afro Comb Murder.” This comb was used as a weapon to kill but its still a dam comb.

  • http://twitter.com/tigrah Tenneil

    As a 22 black female from London this story really annoyed me when it was everywhere about a month ago. Personally I never understood the fashion of wearing a rat tail/ pintail comb in ones hair and to be fair it happens almost exclusively in girls with relaxed/straight hair so I have often seen white girls do this also. There was a girl who I follow on twitter who retweeted this story and I told her its a pintail comb not an afro comb. She told me the article specially said it was an afro comb. I pretty sure most things online cannot be taken at pure fact.
    If anyone has seen an afro comb its clear you cannot stab someone with it the same way you can with a pintail. They are common hairdressing tools and I know that if this happened in a hairdresser and the killer was white there is no way they would be calling it a Caucasian comb.
    Rant is now over, tl;dr :)

  • Lucy Lucy

    Just another thing to tie a negative to black people. Great.

    Who do you immediately think of when you think of an “afro?”

  • Yb

    Afro comb is an Afro pick. How can you kill one with an Afro pick? When it’s come to the U.K.’s and the U.S.’s racism its hard to determine the lesser of two evils.

  • Ange B

    Basically, from what I can tell. ANYTHING in the possession of Black YOUTH is cause for violence and harm done to them. You wear a hoodie and you get followed and killed by a White man just because of clothing choice. Now this person used a comb as a weapon…yet actually weapons like GUNS are not banned the world over and I’m pretty sure more people died at the hands of gun use than comb use. But once the item in question is used by Black Youth it is always something more devious. Why not call it what it was..a girl fight gone wrong. She used what has available to her and killed another person. People die by all sorts of everyday objects and yet those don’t get linked as killing tools outside of that case. hmph

  • omfg

    good article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1245753 Nora Jean

    A comb like that would never be used on an “afro” (it would tear your GD hair out.) That comb is used mostly on relaxed hair that is made to imitate European hair. So why the hell would they call it an afro comb? Sheer ignorance.

  • LeonieUK

    Racial profiling is nothing new, be it in Europe, North or South America or Australasia. The issue really should be about the young girls fighting till a death took place, and another now completes a prison term. Teenagers, not middle aged women, but young females have now gone to the sidelines. I don’t have an issue with the media putting it as a Black issue, it is our issue to deal with after all.

    How did Sheriff have no fixed abode? Why were their social media contacts so under supervised? Where’s the presence of teachers and family members? As we all know as Londoners, real born and bred Londoners, race play is in effect. But when you get down to many aspects of our London communities African, West Indian, Asian, Cypriot, Irish, sometimes you can’t tell the difference, as bad children are just frigging bad children.

    Our youth are running rampant and our communities are not pulling their weight. I say stop the race issue and lets get down to the issue of what we can do, to and for our communities, to stop this stuff increasing and becoming our legacy.

  • Raych

    To me the real issue is that the journalist reporting this, clearly has no interation with black people or culture. I would go even further and say they couldn’t care less. Kmt

  • LaNubiana

    While this story is so tragic, where was this judge when serial killers such as the ‘School-girl strangler’ and ‘Suffolk Strangler of Melbourne’ were in action? Did he suggested to cut off their bare hands used to kill?

    They always make it racial and wonder why we get so defensive. Pure rubbish!

  • Leonard Smalls

    Would it be too bold for me to conclude that hypersensitive Colored people are extremely easy to agitate?

    Often times, one reaction to an act is more important that the act itself.

  • omfg

    colored?

  • Makda

    Who are we referring to when we say colord people?

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