It was near the end of the "Blogging While Brown" conference on Saturday when a woman in the Air Force stepped to the microphone to tell the group that she blogged about natural hair and that there were "so many restrictions" on it in the military. If you have "relaxed" hair, she said, a new rule says one can't have two inches of new growth showing.
Black women were told they couldn't wear braids, cornrows or locs. "It's like singling us out," she said.
"I'm here because I don't know what to do."
Given that it was a conference of bloggers and the room was equipped for wireless, the twitterverse lit up.
"Makes me wonder what other indignities black military endure but does not complain about? #bwb," read one tweet, using the "bwb" "hashtag" for the conference.
Another wrote, "So apparently, the military has banned women from having more than 2 inches of new growth. The whole room just went 'WTF?!?' #bwb"
The founder and executive director of the conference committee, Gina McCauley, was reassuring. "You're not alone. You have a sisterhood of bloggers," she told the military woman. McCauley also gave out the Web address of a site with information on how to blog anonymously.
The Air Force attendee — who was wearing civilian clothes — was in the right place. The 206 official registrants for the third annual Blogging While Brown conference, held at Washington's Walter E. Washington Convention Center, were mostly other women, mostly black, less interested in looking like the latest hair-weaved video star than concerned about making a difference.
"To see so many women with natural hair here," marveled Patrice Yursik of the blog Afrobella, which is devoted to the topic. "Not to mention natural hair blogs. There seems to be an explosion of that." Sitting next to Baratunde Thurston of jackandjillpolitics.com (and formerly of the Onion, the satirical newspaper and website), and Lola Adesioye of Britain's Guardian, formerly of the New York Times and CNN, Yursik announced that as of July 1 she was launching a broadcast counterpart, Afrobella Radio.
That was just one panel. Also represented were blogs such as Racialicious and blackWeb2.0, Scott Hanselman of "Ways to Make Your Blog Suck Less," Facebook, Comcast, Afronetizen, the Federal Trade Commission and former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, among others. They served up expertise and inspiration. "Don't let your job interfere with your career," a quote from panelist Anil Dash, was a popular retweet.
McCauley reminded the audience that it was the black blogosphere that helped keep alive indignation about the racially charged beatings in Jena, La., in 2007, until the issue became a cause and caught the attention of the mainstream media.
One panel followed up that thought with lesser examples of black-blogger activism: Creating an AIDS-awareness campaign called the Red Pump Project, whose ideas were picked up by the Centers for Disease Control; monitoring a Hollywood that rewrote Asian, black or brown characters into white ones; or conversely, raising the idea that the next screen Spiderman did not have to be white.
In the eyes of McCauley, an Austin, Texas, lawyer, African Americans who blog don't get enough respect. She showed a clip of a blogger being honored by Rush Limbaugh at February's Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. "When was the last time a blogger got an award from the NAACP or the Urban League, even by an intern?" she asked.
Nevertheless, Curt Johnson of the NAACP, his organization ridiculed by tweet after McCauley's comment, stepped up to the microphone to announce his presence and support. ("i stand corrected - rep from @naacp comms dept is here at #bwb. (tiny digital applause) —> lol, fair enough," tweeted one attendee.)
Corey A. Ealons, who coordinates African American media outreach for the White House, arranged for the crowd to meet in the Executive Office Building Friday with Melody Barnes, head of the Domestic Policy Council, and himself. He told the group that the White House was working on how best to get its message out "so it is easily digestible" on the Web, and that he viewed theirs as an ongoing conversation.
"Social media should be used to get the word *in,*Dash, of Expert Labs and of Indian background, said on another panel. "Sending input to the White House."
J. Jioni Palmer, communications director for the Congressional Black Caucus, did not fare as well. After explaining that he had more than 40 members to represent and thus did not see how he could tweet messages that would satisfy all of them, Palmer was ridiculed: "Comm Dir of Congressional Black Caucus is defending his cluelessness about twitter to crowd of black tweeters - incredible #bwb."
But he delivered some truth-telling: "I've been burned by bloggers more than by traditional reporters," he also said.
Though the day saw little of the us-against-them posturing that once routinely marked bloggers' mentions of the "mainstream media," Palmer's remark pointed out that there are still stark differences in training and background between the two.
On Monday, an Air Force spokeswoman was asked for details about the change in guidelines about black hairstyles.
"For your clarification:" Maj. Cristin L. Marposon, USAF, said in an e-mailed response.
"The Air Force has not issued new guidelines for African American women's hair. The Air Force does not establish appearance guidelines based on an individual's ethnicity."
The woman who raised the issue at the conference stood by her statement, but said the directive against braids and cornrows, proposed about 2005, was never implemented after an uproar. "what i was saying is reality," she wrote to Journal-isms. "A lot of it is at the discretion of your supervisor. If they feel like your hair is 'faddish' or it does not look within regulations then you will be told to change it or face the consequences.
"A lot of the people that are making the decisions don't understand our hair. It's not a fad, it's not something that can be just slicked back and everything is alright depending on our texture."
What will the bloggers do about that?
Blogging While Brown: Blogs Represented at Blogging While Brown 2010
Bobbi Bowman, Maynard Institute: To reach future audience, ONA and minority journalists must unite [October 2009]
Danielle Lee, Urban Science Adventures: Travelogue: Blogging While Brown - recap #1
Scott Hanselman, Computerzen.com: 32 Ways to Keep Your Blog from Sucking
TheRoot.com: Worth Obsessing Over: Our Favorite Blogs
Baratunde Thurston blog: June 18, 2010