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What's Hair Got To Do With It?

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I'll admit it. I was wrong. I was one of those naifs who thought that the past couple of decades of developments in our social and political life — the first black president, two female vice presidential nominees, four female Supreme Court justices (three serving at once), more than a dozen female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — all that and then some would take certain dumb conversations off the table. But I was wrong, so let me go back and say again what nobody should have to say.

First, another woman's hair is none of your business. That's unless strands of it are winding up in your food, in which case you should get a refund. Or you are the woman's hairdresser and she is paying you for your advice, in which case you should still step lightly.

Of course, I am referring to last week's kerfuffle over some catty tweets directed at Olympic star Gabrielle Douglas. Apparently some twits on Twitter thought her tresses insufficiently groomed for her Olympic moment. After that, there was some other nonsense from a conservative commentator about the color of her leotard not being patriotic enough.

Can I just tell you, this actually is not new. Even before social media made it easier than ever to be thoughtless and mean, some people have felt free to comment on the attire and appearance of women in public life in a way they rarely do with men — whether about Barbara Bush's prematurely white hair, Hillary Clinton's various hairstyles or Sarah Palin's updo.

Now, I realize that social media and the legion of reality shows have made it easier than ever for some people to believe that the rest of us are clamoring for their input on every subject. But I'll offer this admittedly unsolicited advice: We are not.

While I certainly understand the protective and defensive instincts that drive this kind of thing, Gabrielle Douglas supposedly "represents" us — us meaning black people, or black women in particular, or Americans in general — so we are entitled to weigh in.

This kind of thing actually feeds the unhealthy and unhelpful perception that anything one member of one group does inevitably reflects on everyone else in that group. We've seen, all too often, where that goes.

We have elections to decide who represents us. If Gabby Douglas puts her hand up and decides to run for office one day, she can. Until then, let's cheer her and the rest of the Fab Five for their athletic performance and joyful spirits, and leave their hair, clothes and whatever else alone.

But that leads me to the second thing I should not have to say. As Election Day gets closer, we're hearing more and more that African-Americans who support President Obama are doing so because he is black and nothing more. We're hearing a lot of this lately for various reasons: his stated support for same-sex marriage, which a slight majority of African-Americans oppose; and the poor economy, which is having a terrible impact on black Americans.

Now think about it: If race were the only reason African-Americans decided to support someone, Clarence Thomas would be popular and candidates like Artur Davis, Kenneth Blackwell, Michael Steele and Herman Cain — all of whom are black — would have gotten more black support.

Here's a news flash: Most African-Americans will probably support President Obama's re-election because most African-Americans are Democrats, just like he is. That means that they agree with him and their political party about more than they disagree. What is so unusual about this?

A majority of white voters supported Republican John McCain in the last election. But rarely is it said that these voters pulled that lever for McCain because he is white, except for one particularly obnoxious talk show host who actually admitted it.

On the social issues, according to the Pew Research Center, a majority of white Catholics support same-sex marriage. White protestants are as divided on the question as African-Americans are, depending on where they stand on various theological questions.

But rarely do we hear about this, because it's assumed, I believe, that these voters are using their brains and not just their hearts to make a decision. Of course there is pride in seeing someone of your background achieve something remarkable.

Yes, there is comfort when someone ascends to a position of leadership who shares whatever is important to you, whether it's military service, being an athlete or a single mom, having a disability, or running a business.

But Americans of all backgrounds have shown time and time again that eventually they will look not just at what people are, but at what they can do. It's time for their fellow Americans to respect those choices, whether they're about how they wear their hair or how they choose to vote.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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