Race Card: Asians with Perms

Nadra Kareem Nittle
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Is cultural assimilation ever funny? Yes, says the irreverent Jen Wang of website Disgrasian. “Normally…the things non-white people do to look like white people because that’s what’s considered beautiful are sad and sometimes dangerous,” she argues. There’s one exception, though—Asians with perms. Wang said that trend, which peaked in the early ’90s, is hilarious.

asian woman getting a perm

After posting a photograph of herself with permed hair as a high school sophomore on Facebook, Wang’s friends of Asian persuasion confessed that once upon a time, they’d too chemically corkscrewed their manes to fit in. But Wang wanted more than their word that they’d committed this cardinal hair sin, she wanted photographic evidence. That’s what prompted her to launch the new Tumblr “Fuck Yeah, Asians With Perms!” If you’re Asian and have a photo of yourself with permed hair, you’re urged to submit the pic to the site.

When I first visited “Asians With Perms,” I expected to find the other photos as funny as I found Wang’s high school shot, but I wasn’t prepared to see pictures of children—some who looked like preschoolers—with permed hair. Why were kids that young having their hair processed? Was the pressure to fit Western beauty standards so fierce back then that parents imposed these standards on their children? Then, I remembered that I was only about 5 years old myself when my mother first straightened my hair. To be fair, she didn’t make this decision solely for the purpose of assimilation. After all, following my first relaxer, she still styled it in Afrocentric ‘dos like braids with beads at the ends. Considering that she’d cut my hair very short when I was in preschool to avoid having to wrangle it every morning, I know that she relaxed it, in part, to make my coarse coils lower maintenance. But, of course, straightening my hair also functioned to make me a more socially acceptable child in my mostly white school district and in U.S. society generally, much in the same way that perming Asian hair in the 1980s and early ’90s functioned to make Asian Americans more palatable in white society.

In retrospect, Wang feels that Asians with perms is something to poke fun at today because “everyone wants hair like ours now anyway.” Unlike African hair, Asian hair has long been idealized, but that doesn’t mean that Asian Americans have altogether stopped perming their hair. Today, Asians with permed hair simply opt for a more natural look—silky waves rather than the big crinkly curls that swept the 1980s. Type in “permed hair” in Flickr.com’s search engine, and you’ll see a number of pictures of Asians with artificially texturized hair. To boot, there’s the whole issue of hair lightening, which is standard in some circles of Asians. Like perms and relaxers, people of color who lighten their hair often face charges of selling out (See this post on Beyoncé).

Even in 2011, “ethnic” hair remains serious business. Style of hair may not only result in one being called a sellout, but also in one being deemed unprofessional or too black or Asian-looking. Because of this, many of us with so-called ethnic hair aren’t yet ready to join in with Wang and laugh at the ways the pressure to assimilate has influenced our styling choices. Perhaps that day will come when cultural baggage isn’t quite so entangled with hair baggage.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Funny thing about it, those

Funny thing about it, those big late '80's, early '90's Ally Sheedy type hair-do's were curly perms on the WHITE girls who wore them too!

It isn't just in the U.S.

My husband is from Seoul, Korea, and all of his family still live there. Perms are extremely cheap ($30-$40), and nearly every woman gets one at some point in their life (and several of the male actors on Korea's infamous Dramas also have them). Both his mother and grandmother have perms. After the early weirdness of the White girlfriend/fiance/wife wore off, they asked to touch my naturally curly auburn hair. His grandmother literally jumped back in surprise? horror? at how different my hair is from hers. She honestly wanted nothing to do with my hair after she and three female relatives wrangled my hair into a bun for our Korean wedding ceremony. I literally took out 40 bobby pins and had gobs of hair spray because they couldn't figure out how to make my hair stay in a bun looking the way they wanted it to look.

Several of his female relatives like to wear their hair short rather than long and in a bun--more assimilation with modernity that White folks, but I honestly don't understand the TODDLERS IN STROLLERS with perms. When I read that the author was surprised by pre-schoolers, I laughed because in Korea, that is pretty late to get your first perm for a lot of girls.

From my perspective, ever since G.I. Joe brought the U.S. to Korea during the War, aspects of U.S. culture have stayed with the Korean people, but get past the eye surgery, perms and Victory "V" symbols (aka the Peace sign with your index and middle fingers) in kid's photos, and you will find a people and culture who want nothing more than to maintain their ancient history and culture. As a Euro-American married to a Korean, my husband is considered to be defiling his race. Our bi-racial children will likely be shunned at worst and poked fun of at best for not being "Korean." They don't want to be White or American, they just want the sexist ideas of what they have been told is beautiful while also having the ease of caring for their hair in a sexist world.

I don't agree with the

I don't agree with the assertion that most Asians with perms (particularly in the 80s to mid 90s) altered their hair to fit in with white standards of beauty.

I'm of Chinese & Vietnamese decent & my entire family (with the exception of myself-- I have straight hair with cowlicks here & there) has super curly hair. My brother's hair naturally looks like 80s "jheri curls" if he doesn't add any products to it & my sister has large round curls & waves.

The only one in the family who ever had a perm was me! From the ages of 5 to 9, my mom would spend hours trying to give me Shirley Temple-esque locks. However, I would end up looking like I did before the perm about a week later. When I asked her why she spent hours curling & frying my hair, she replied that people were always asking if I were her niece because I didn't have the hair that my mom & siblings had. I don't believe that she was trying to make me look more in vogue with whites.

Even though I understand that my family phenotype is somewhat rare among Asians, I also want to comment on the hair trends of the 80s and 90s. Big, curly hair was the norm at the time. Many straight-haired fashionistas of all ethnicities permed their hair during that period.

Need evidence? Look at that these stars, who today are known for sporting straight, sleek locks. All of them sported wavy or curly styles.

*Jennifer Aniston*

*Demi Moore*

*Jennifer Lopez*

Overall, I just want to point out that while many ethnic minorities have modified their looks (sometimes tragically like the writer mentioned) to fit into Western society more, permed hair during this era was not one of those modifications.

Things change

I think these are the new trend for teenagers as of these days...

I agree, that curly hair was

I agree, that curly hair was the style in the late 80s/early 90s. I'm Filipino and was born with a full head of curly hair. I've even considered getting that Asian hair straightening process to make my hair manageable. How ironic is that? And I wonder if that would count in the "Asians with Perms" Web site? lol

Perms in Korea

Dobeal, I live in Korea and nodded in recognition at much of what you have to say, but think I should also add this. (You have probably experienced this.) Many Koreans living in Korea do not really appreciate that hair can naturally be curly. I have a hard time believing that anyone here is trying to look white in some way, when I go to a supermarket and am accosted by a girl pushing 'pamma' shampoo at me (shampoo suited to perm hair, which has been adopted as the Korean-English dialect word 'pamma'). When I explain that my hair falls in natural curls, so that shampoo is not appropriate for my hair, nine times out of ten the response will be a shocked face and "jjinja?" (really?) because the shop assistant apparently does not know of curly-haired people who were born that way. This absolutely does NOT only apply to white people either - a black friend of mine with a sizeable Afro who teaches in an EV is regularly asked by students where he got his hair permed. Any person of whatever ethnic background who comes to Korea to work, if their hair is curly, will probably be assumed to have a perm. You cannot mimic a natural trait that you do not know is natural.

I agree.

I'm white, with corkscrew curly brown hair. I taught in Japan for two years, and had children (and sometimes, some brave adults!) ask to touch my hair. They reacted with shock/fear at it, and despite my repeated assertions that it was natural, kept asking if it was a perm.

I made a mistake one day and spent two hours straightening my hair. That day, EVERYONE said, "Ohhh! So this is your REAL hair!" I simply could not convince them that no, this straight look took two hours, the curly one is completely natural.

After that day of straightening, I don't think they ever believed that my curly hair was natural. So even on a white girl, they were very resistant, or downright unbelieving that curly hair could be a natural trait.

Perms were popular in the early 80s until the bland 90s

My mom got her perm in the early 80s (before I was born) and I always loved curls. I got my first perm when I was 16 and always got one done since. Perms are out of fashion, but I'll always get it because I find straight hair boring.

Unfair Comparisons?

I appreciate the effort of these "Race Card" themed posts that seek to address the fact that yes, racism is sadly alive and well in our supposed "post" racist society. Though the issue is very complex and subtle.

The main point I wish to contest is that while Asians/Asian Americans may have done something "un-natural" to their hair at the time, it is always seen as betraying one's race when one does something that is in style. For example white people are not criticized for wanting to be black or another race for tanning their skin where as non white people will be heavily shamed for wanting to be white for lightening. I understand that standards of beauty such as ads for what is considered beautiful / models/actresses in the US are not diverse enough at all and that most are indeed Caucasian. However I think we have to take into consideration that in this case some Asian people who were around at the time were alive in the context of the culture, were a PART of the culture of the 80s/ 90s in which perms were popular. Yes some may have done it out of insecurity to fit in, but can you not say the same for Caucasians who got perms or wore giant framed glasses?

I think we need to start recognizing that non Caucasian americans ARE a part of the "trends" that go on and may just simply like the aesthetic such as how a Caucasian would. Until we can accept the fact that Asian/African/Latino/Middle Eastern/etc Americans DO have a part in the culture of America (be it the latest trends of hairstyle, clothing whatever) we will forever be stuck actually limiting the expressions and freedoms of identities we are advocating on behalf of. But of course there are limitations to this idea...

I was wondering if perhaps

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