What Does It Mean To Choose To Dye Your Hair Blonde?
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
OK, of all the choices we make about our appearance, what does it mean to choose to dye our hair blond?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's a state of mind being blond. It's, like, happy and free and exciting. I don't know. But I've never - I've been brunette, but I didn't feel the same way.
CHANG: But what if you're a person of color and you choose to go blond? Are you choosing to go white? That is the question that poet Claudia Rankine put to a lot of people she met the last couple years. And she got a range of answers. Those answers and photographs are part of a new exhibit in Brooklyn called "Stamped." Claudia Rankine joins us now to talk about the work. Welcome.
CLAUDIA RANKINE: Hello.
CHANG: So how did you come up with the idea for this project?
RANKINE: Well, a few years ago, I was at a college. And a professor, a black woman, said to me, what do I say to my students who have gone blond? And presumably she meant her black female students. You know, my initial response was to say people should do what they want to do.
RANKINE: But then I began to look. And I realized that everybody was going blond. And it was also in the runup to the election. So, you know, it was hard to miss Trump, commentators, media, everybody in the media blond. And so I began to wonder...
CHANG: Including Hillary Clinton.
RANKINE: And including Hillary Clinton. So I began to wonder if this was just unconscious or conscious or - so I started asking people.
CHANG: I mean, when you went into this project, how much of it had to do with this idea that blondness was a standard of beauty in our society?
RANKINE: Well, it had everything to do with it (laughter).
CHANG: Yeah, yeah.
RANKINE: I don't think I would have been - I wouldn't have been that interested. But, you know, I'm interested in conversations around race because talking about race seems to be taboo if the race is white, you know? And - because it has become a sort of unmarked category to mean people when you actually mean white people. And blondness became a metaphor for that, a sort of unconscious, ubiquitous metaphor. And everybody was going blond - Asian women, black women and almost, it seemed, all white women.
CHANG: Well, when you asked non-white people why they dyed their hair blond, what did they say to you?
RANKINE: I did hear a lot that it made my skin look lighter.
CHANG: Oh, interesting.
RANKINE: And probably the most sad and moving report I had was a young woman in a shop who said, I - when I went blonde, I found myself. It was really me. My skin was lighter. Even my mother said so. And that - I found that a little tragic.
CHANG: I read that some people got kind of defensive when you brought up the issue of whiteness. Why do you think people got defensive?
RANKINE: Mostly it was white people who got defensive.
CHANG: Really? And how so?
CHANG: Defensive in what way?
RANKINE: Mostly young white women - they felt that the choice to go blonde was a personal choice. And they felt they looked better. They felt better. They were treated better. And...
CHANG: Treated better by men, by women, by everybody?
RANKINE: By everyone. When I asked them if they thought that was tied somehow to the expectations of whiteness, they got defensive around that. And, you know, a few of them said, can you erase the interview or...
RANKINE: ...I don't want to talk about this anymore. So, you know - and I think that's tied to the fact that talking about race is taboo among white people. And so to say that you have invested in a thing - and it is an investment. You know, it costs sometimes $400, $200 for touch-ups. So, you know, that line of investigation and inquiry was not acceptable to them.
CHANG: Well, could an argument be made that the decision didn't go that deep, that you're assuming there is some deeper attachment or non-attachment to whiteness? But maybe the decision to go blond was just a fun, kind of care-free thing the way some people dye their hair blue or purple. And why interrogate them about it?
RANKINE: Exactly. It - I mean, it could be that. And often I would say, do you dye your hair other colors? And some women said, no, it's always blond. You know, so if it's really about the funness (ph) of dying your hair, then perhaps you would do blue or green or whatever. But for them, it was a commitment to blondness.
CHANG: We should say that this exhibit is just one way that you've explored the issue of race in your career from poetry to the stage to essays you've written. I'm curious. How did this project differ from those other projects? What did it help you learn that maybe the others didn't?
RANKINE: Well, this oddly felt more community-based. I - when I started talking to people and taking their images with my iPhone - and then my husband joined in because he's a much better photographer than I am - I never really knew where it was going. I was just interested to hear what people would say. And it frankly surprised me how few had thought about blondness' marriage to whiteness.
CHANG: Claudia Rankine is an award-winning writer whose most recent book is titled "Citizen." Her exhibit that explores blondness is called "Stamped," and you can see it at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn through August 26. Thank you very much for joining us.
RANKINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.