#SpiceGirls

We Owe “Scary Spice” An Apology

Originally published on Medium in the Human Parts Collection. It was also listed in Dazed Magazine’s “Best of The Web” the week that it was published. 

mel b

Lately, I’ve been in my Black Girl Hair feelings. It’s winter and I’ve been travelling up and down the East Coast, so I’m spending more time in beauty salons, straightening it so that I don’t have wash it and risk pneumonia while it air dries (into curlsicles). But really, there’s never not a time that Black Girl Hair isn’t in my feelings. Solange’s wedding photos had every Black girl in the world — me included — feeling some kind of way. And as I finish testing over 15 products for an article about affordable hair care products for women of color in Paris, I’m being confronted with the global issues of how little Black hair is considered, much less, the possibility that it’s beautiful.

Of course, there are those comments to think about. The comments about Zendaya’s hair. The sound bites: weed. Patchouli. Dreads. Deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, the subtext of these remarks “dirty,” “undesirable,” and “unworthy.” Hair that is so unabashedly Black that it cannot be fantasied into racial ambiguity or “otherness” and thus, must be dealt with severely for its inability to amuse and/or be exoticized. Coiled dreads that are so unabashedly Black that Zendaya — who months ago many claimed she was not Black enough to play Aaliyah — is now so Black that she reeks of weed and patchouli through the television screen.

All of this talk has me thinking about Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown. For me, she was the first Black woman who wore curls and wore them proudly, the first I could identify with. And I think of her when White women say they are excluded from the natural hair movement, the new focus on curly hair in beauty products that hesitates to mention that aforementioned movement for fear of associating with Blackness. And in 2015, where a Black woman’s hair on the red carpet is evocative of deviant behavior, it’s worth collectively examining how we consider Blackness in its follicle form and the pathological fears and stereotypes that those follicles are wrapped in for mainstream consumption.

Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t get over the fact that we thought it was okay to call a brown girl with beautiful curls “Scary.” I can’t believe that we’re still using that name for her in headlines. Sure, she uses it herself in her Twitter profile — but as a public figure who uses name recognition as part of her brand, does she have much agency in the matter? That nickname is awful, erroneous, and racist. Why was Melanie scary? Because she’s Black? Because she has big curly hair? Because she’s the only Black girl girl in a group of White girls? Because mainstream doesn’t know what box to toss her in?

I remember so vividly the first time I saw Mel B. and her curls bouncing across the Zenith television in my room. My eyes immediately zeroed in on the cool Black girl amongst the other White girls, feeling an immediate kinship with that mise en scéne. (I was one of the few Black kids at my suburban elementary school.) It wasn’t that I didn’t think that Posh’s Gucci mini dress wasn’t cute or that I didn’t want Baby Spice’s pigtails; it’s just that I knew those things were unattainable for me. There was nothing in Baby Spice’s long, thin, blonde hair pigtails that went almost to her waist that spoke to my curls-turned-cute Afro puffs, not in any way. (And my mother was not buying a Gucci mini dress for her 12-year-old.) But Mel B. — she was a girl who looked like me. I was immediately obsessed. I wondered if she fought with her hair the way that I did, if she had ever gotten a relaxer (a Black girl in the 90s that did not get a relaxer might as well have been a unicorn), if she had spent hours of her Saturday mornings in beauty salons slathering creamy crack onto her curly roots while her White girlfriends were at soccer practice. I wanted to be Mel’s friend or at the very least, a pen pal. I did numerous and unfruitful searches on Netscape 2.0 for “Scary Spice hair conditioner.” Without question, “Scary Spice” was my first Black girl crush. After an 80s and 90s childhood that demanded I find myself in Alicia Silverstone and Winona Ryder, that gave me hair advice and tips that would never apply to my hair, Mel B. and her ringlets were manna from MTV.

But “Scary Spice.” It felt so wrong to call her that. Why was I calling this beautiful woman that looked like me, “Scary”? Sure, I thought she was beautiful, but why would the “people in charge” (in my 12-year-old mind, everyone) call her “Scary” if she were really pretty? I looked at her, trying to find something to justify the name, but couldn’t. And then I began to think, “Well, is she as pretty as I think that she is? Does that mean that I’m ugly?” The girls at my suburban middle school, many of whom vacillated between wanting to be Posh or Baby Spice, did not notice Mel B. at all. Was it because she was ugly? Less than that, she didn’t even register. She was just “the Black girl.” And though the “lesbian” and “slut” coding of Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”) and Gerri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) are for another day, the invisibility of Melanie Brown’s beauty to my friends only made me love her more, as I didn’t have to compete with anyone to prove who was a bigger fan of Melanie B. But it was also a reminder as to how hostile the world would be to me and the things that made me beautiful.

In normalizing “Scary Spice,” we trained a whole generation of Millennials to think about Black women and Black hair as frightening. (Millennials are less racially tolerant than you think.) Without realizing it, we’ve helped create a generation of feminists that lack intersectionality; those excluded are made to create their own spaces because of a lack of inclusion. And we’ve given a whole generation the continued license to not consider Blackness as something that can be beautiful without Whiteness being a reference point, thus enforcing White supremacy by means of implying that Whiteness is a neutral, identity-less baseline of objectivity. Beauty standards built on restrictive norms enforce this idea that beauty is a scarce resource and that anything outside of those resource boundaries (i.e., Whiteness) must be attacked and diminished to preserve the potency of resource horde.

I don’t think for one minute that Giuliana Rancic was thinking about all of that colonialism, perpetuation, and preservation of patriarchy when she compared the scent of a Black woman’s hair to patchouli or weed. I really believe she didn’t understand why those comments were hurtful. I think her apology was sincere and should be an example of how to listen to people of color and be an ally. But that’s the thing; the messages of ugliness, the unworthiness, the otherness of Blackness has been so thoroughly engrained and approved by our society, that the bias is implicit and subconscious. The associations of inferiority that were made were so smooth and unassuming, just like the straight, thin locks our society covets. Some might feel that being cognizant of how stereotypes and tropes are perpetuated isn’t fun, but having one’s humanity confined by them is a helluva lot less fun.

We owed Melanie Brown the apology that Giuliana Rancic gave Zandaya 18 years ago. And I’m glad to see we’ve come far enough that Zandaya received it. I don’t know Melanie Brown in real life, but she seems to be a complex, beautiful, and rather full person. A collective disregard and fear of Blackness and Black femininity prevented a more thorough appreciation of Melanie Brown, both then and now. The casualness of saying that a young woman on the red carpet at the Oscars smelled like drugs because of her un-malleable Blackness is completely related to the fact that for almost twenty years, we’ve called another Black woman scary because she too, had non-negotiable Blackness.

Some might say Melanie Brown’s singing talents are mediocre. This may be true, but then again, when did that ever stop the majority of White pop singers in this country? Melanie Brown deserves more credit than what we’ve given her. Not because she’s an overlooked talent, but because she stands as a testament to our subconscious anti-Blackness that is still rampant in its casualness and frequency. Mel B. was a big influence to finally cut off the chemicals and embrace their curls, and their Blackness, for many Black women — myself included — who went natural in the early 2000s. And though she’s rarely seen today with her curls, I still want to ask her what conditioner she uses — and to apologize for calling her “Scary Spice” without understanding what I was continuing or condoning.