Mixed chicks. Many interesting images come to mind when the phrase is uttered. You might think of old-school images like that of the “tragic mulatto,” or the character played famously by extremely light-skinned actress Fredi Washington in the 1934 movie Imitation of Life. In that fictitious representation of a mixed black woman, the character Peola was conflicted about her heritage and passed for white, but in real life Fredi Washington was as proud of being black as an African-American could be. The last thing I would think of these words is: “What a great name for hair care products for mixed women of color!” And yet, to my dismay, that is what it is.
My dismay began recently when I was taking the subway in New York. One cannot board those creaking trains without being inundated by ads that usually feature big budget films. But as a mid-priced marketing vehicle that is seen by a diverse audience, the subway platform is also apparently the perfect medium for reaching “Mixed Chicks” – a relatively new product line started by and for bi-racial women of African descent.
The Mixed Chicks hair care system has a laudable history. We must respect the founders and their business acumen, even if the name of their products evokes the ghosts of tragic mulattoes, the specter of miscegenation, and other ideas that seem outdated. According to Black Enterprise magazine, two biracial women, Wendi Levy and Kim Etheredge, started Mixed Chicks to address the fact that they could not find products for what they term their “combination hair.” These combinations that they are referring to are the intermixing of black and Irish genes, in the case of Etheredge, and black and Jewish genes in the case of Levy. (Some people would call their “combination hair” by the vestigial term “good hair” – but I digress.) At first the company struggled through start-up growing pains, but began to take off when famous mixed-race actresses began to give unsolicited plugs for their products in interviews, including African-American superstar Halle Berry. In fact: “Revenues doubled from 2008 to 2009—the year Berry announced her affinity for MIXED CHICKS products” (Black Enterprise).
This is interesting, because while no one can deny that Halle Berry is of bi-racial ancestry, she has taken pains throughout her career to identify herself NOT as a “mixed chick,” but as an African-American woman. As recently as her March 2011 Ebony cover story, she almost overstated her belief that she is a black woman, extending this identity to her mostly-white child, who is too young to have been infected by the racism of America to need to identify either way. This shows that the issue of racial identification is still critical in American society, and nowhere is it more prominent to black women than in the arena of hair and beauty.
Our various skin shades and hair textures are still used as tools of both internal and external oppression in a pointed way that keeps most black women tied up in knots that strangle our self-esteem. Our hair textures can’t help but be a major measuring stick of our relative value as beautiful or ugly. Hair makes us competitive against each other, and not having “good hair” can make us hate ourselves – or at least make escaping the chains of a self-hating self image an ongoing battle, even if many of us win it.
In terms of judging ourselves as pretty (or not), there is perhaps nothing more difficult for a black woman to accept than not having “good hair” — hair that is the opposite of the texture that Etheridge and Levy are taking great pains to correct through their Mixed Chicks product line. On some level, this is outrageous. Let’s face it – most black women would love to have this hair, even if that is painful to admit. Bi-racial heritage is so often assumed to grant greater beauty – and if their hair needs special help, Lord help the rest of us. So why would these two black women choose a name that underscores their inherent beauty privilege – and promotes this race-based power? Levy told Black Enterprise: “Some people gave us negative feedback, thinking we were trying to separate ourselves… We are providing unity.” Really? It seems more like they are providing themselves with a marketing vehicle through the black community, while targeting their multi-racial audience, at the cost of black women’s self-esteem.
By being featured in Black Enterprise, and shouting out Halle Berry as a supporter, these mixed chicks are clearly drawing on the energy of the black audience for their company’s benefit. At the same time, they want to emphasize the fact that they are not black — flaunting hair black women spend billions every year trying to replicate. Hair is such a sensitive issue to black women, it is inherently divisive to market a product for mixed women through avenues intended for a predominantly black-identified audience. I find it abrasive and wrong.
Unlike these two mixed chicks, Halle Berry, the mixed chick who put them on the map, does not identify as black when it is convenient and as mixed when the time comes to market herself to a target demographic. She claims her white heritage, but realizes that she wants to stand with the black audience as one of its representatives. She does not try to be both. We find that in entertainment, as in her case, or in politics, as in the case of President Obama, this is important for blacks who still need role models who represent our group with pride. For beauty leaders, especially when it comes to black hair, to flaunt being mixed over being African-American feels like a denial of blackness, not a declaration of unity, as the founders of Mixed Chicks claim. This denial of blackness cannot be tolerated by people who use African-American platforms to trumpet their successes. Black women still suffer from a fragile sense of self that perhaps as women with “good hair,” the Mixed Chick creators don’t understand. Maybe that is why they didn’t take their friends’ astute advice when they were warned not take the “mixed” marketing route. The baggage that goes along with word “mixed” is still too great.
From good vs. bad hair, to the light-skinned preference that still persists among us to a staggering degree, names of products that call out this difference will first and foremost remind most black women that their non-mixed features are not considered flattering. Like the black Hollywood star Fredi Washington before her, Halle Berry chooses to see herself as one shade within our wide beauty spectrum. This is creating real unity. As a black woman who can never use these products, and might never fully overcome her “good hair” jealously, I cannot applaud these women for stamping a product for “mixed people only,” while claiming black stars and publications to promote a product most black people can never use.
To be clear, it is the name that is offensive, not the concept. Of course, multi-ethnic people of African descent are part of the black community. I have many mixed friends. I know 100% black people with loose curls who I love, and who love being black. I even know completely white-looking black people who loudly identify as African-American. I actually respect the bi-racial and multi-ethnic identity, and believe that America should become more diverse in its definitions of racial categories, to the point that eventually these types of distinctions do not exist. But for now they do. And this means when someone puts the words “Mixed Chicks” on a hair care product, they are not only creating another scalp elixir in a jar – they are also printing a label on the newest can of racial worms spawned by multi-ethnic identities.
Is it rational? No. Is it fair to black women who happen to be bi-racial? Not at all. I am sure that Etheredge and Levy mean to serve their audience, and not to offend. But at this time in history this divisive effect is inevitable. The makers of Mixed Chicks should pick different venues to promote their hair care products, and perhaps a name that the average African-American woman won’t be insulted by. Their products are bringing our secret hair and beauty issues to the surface, instead of leaving them to lurk in the psychological undercurrent where they have always been. And this lava flow of repressed vitriol is so hot, the makers of Mixed Chicks, and others who are similarly naïve, have to deal with it. Nothing about black women and our hair can be anything but tinged with stinging emotion as long as socialization pushes every black woman who is not a mixed chick into the category of “less than” in terms of beauty. The superior ranking of mixed people is nothing to celebrate, no matter how great the beauty business success story. And that is what the name Mixed Chicks unwittingly does.
Perhaps through a herculean effort of emotional reprogramming, some black women can escape this internal feeling and be more level-headed, but no one can overcome the insane reality of these beliefs in the millions of minds that make up our society. While perhaps being strong in your sense of beauty on the inside, you will still be forced to face the ignorant belief that mixed is better every day. Sorry Mixed Chicks, but you are perpetuating that sad reality with this name.
Is it possible to overcome “hair jealousy” and share space (shelf space, editorial space, and otherwise) with the beauty products of mixed black women, even if you are a black woman who cannot use them? Is the name “Mixed Chicks” wrong, even if the product concept is right? I leave these questions up to the Coco & Creme audience to decide.
Can mixed people claim both bi-racial and African-American as simultaneous identities – or must they choose one as their predominant identification, even while realistically acknowledging the other? Is this kind of thinking antiquated and divisive in itself? These are questions to be answered as we move forward into the brave new world of the 21st century, as racial identities and black beauty categories will continue to painfully evolve.
– Alexis Garrett Stodghill