Guest speaker dissects stereotypes surrounding race

Natalie Houalla

A presentation of the work, research, and recently published novel by anthropologist Lanita Jacobs-Huey brought a group of students and professors to the student lounge last Thursday.

Jacobs-Huey’s lecture, “Enacting racial and gendered authenticity in black hair humor” united two research interests, a six-year multi-sited ethnographic study of black hair care and a five-year ethnographic study of black comedy. Race, “realness,” and representation emerged as a central theme in her discourse.

She dug deep into the judgmental mind and presented ideas for how often overlooked details such as hairstyles can directly signify racial and gender consciousness.

This dialogue incorporated video clips from comedy shows and well-known Hollywood comedians along with a series of supporting PowerPoint slides.

Jacobs-Huey, who has done many different hairstyles herself, explained that often when women drastically change their appearance, namely their hair, assumptions are passed that they are “trying” to be something or someone else, or trying to make a statement.

In reality, it is usually simple matter of convenience or personal style interest, Jacob-Huey said.

For instance, if a woman’s hair is very short, she may be considered “boyish,” have her sexuality questioned or be accused of trying to make a strong statement when really, for her, short hair is just easier to maintain.

“[Ideas are] constructed and constituted through physical humor about hair,” Jacobs-Huey said. “Jokes illuminate how hair functions as a marker of authenticity.”

The stereotypical definitions of authenticity are often based on physical judgments and assumptions, she said.

Her most recent book, “From the Kitchen to the Parlor: Language and becoming in Black women’s hair care,” played a major role in her presentation.

“My mother is a cosmetologist. [Her salon is] in Oakland, California,” Jacobs-Huey said. “The salon became my four-month site before I moved on to comedy clubs, and the story just opened up to me.”

The book offers an explanation for how and why hairstyles matter in African-American women’s daily experiences. Symbolic and moral meanings are given to hair.

“It took about six years of research,” Jacobs-Huey said. “I started the book the summer before my tenure and finished it in about six or seven months.”

Jacobs-Huey completed her undergraduate and post-graduate studies at the University of California Los Angeles where she received her Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology in 1999.

She currently works as an associate professor in the departments of anthropology and American studies of ethnicity at University of Southern California.

Among her many diverse involvements, she is a member of the American Anthropological Association and an affiliate and founding member of the Linguists of African Decent (CLAD).

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