Tuesday night’s This Is Us was packed with moments that deserve deeper dives. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is on a slippery slope with an addiction to pain pills. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) have to address racism with young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) because Rebecca’s mother (Elizabeth Perkins) is, well, racist. However, I’m still obsessed with the ongoing drama with adult Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his new foster child, Deja (Lyric Ross).
It’s been two weeks since Randall and his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) opened their home to the teenager, whose mother is incarcerated. They are trying their best to make her comfortable and welcome, but there are some literal kinks that need to be smoothed out. Deja refuses to wash or style her hair. The smell is becoming an issue for the Pearson family, and it causes a scene a scene at a bowling alley. Randall and Beth know they need to say something, but they don’t want to alienate their new daughter even further. Finally, Beth makes it clear that Deja needs to do something with her hair, but also opens up about how the practice was a bonding moment between the women in her family. The moments that follow are a great example of how styling and having one’s hair styled can take on many different meanings for Black women.
Deja doesn’t want to go to the beauty salon and reluctantly asks Beth to style her hair instead. In the kitchen, a location that is known to double as a beauty shop in many Black homes, Beth gets to work detangling Deja’s hair and finds several bald spots. Deja says that her hair tends to fall out when she’s under stress, a state that often finds her given the instability of her life. She has never heard of alopecia, but is comforted when Beth tells her that one of her sisters also has it, and that she can find a way to cover up the bald spots. Beth and Deja are closer, and the latter has a fresh set of cornrows. Problem solved.
But it wasn’t a coincidence that the two women bonded over the experience of one tending to the other’s hair. Beauty and barber shops are cultural hubs for sharing information, processing shared experiences, and working through interpersonal and emotional issues. The physical closeness required to get your hair done, in addition to the unique knowledge required to work with Black hair create intimate bonds between people.
Additionally, Black hair has always been tied to Black identity. It’s part of the reason hairstyles are often the most obvious cultural appropriation offences. Beth implies as much when she tells Deja that taking care of her appearance might help her feel better on the inside, too. But this works both ways. Randall interrupts Deja admiring herself in the mirror, eager to share that he, too, gets really stressed out sometimes. But Deja wanted to keep her vulnerability between her and Beth. The fact that Randall knows this is a betrayal, so to get back at both of them, Deja cuts off all of her freshly done hair.
Beth is heartbroken. Randall feels guilty. And Deja is willing to go back to looking like an outcast in order to inflict pain and maintain any level of control she can over her life. While I still think that This Is Us is only scratching the surface on the issues that surround a character like Deja, the twists and turns of Black hair was a great place to start.