What’s the Deal with Black Hair?

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I did not realize how big a role hair plays in my everyday life, partly because of where I live and with whom I interact.  The majority of my life has been centered with people that look like me.  I went to schools that were predominately black, my family is black, and as of lately most of my co-workers were black or some type of minority. I was lacking experience with cultural diversity.  I literally chose my alma mater, a predominantly white private liberal arts school, mostly because I wanted a chance to experience diversity.  I wanted to be in a place that made me uncomfortable, because true growth lies outside of your comfort zone.  Even still, I only had a handful of friends and only one or two were white.  I worked three jobs, was in three different organizations for my major and a member of a historically black sorority.  I rarely had time to know any other races on a personal level.  For those reasons, I was aware of the black hair problem but not a prominent member in the fight.

So what is the black hair problem?

It’s a pretty long and in-depth answer.  Putting it as simply as possible, it is the notion that black hair is not accepted, viewed as strange, wrong, an oddity and highly encouraged to be changed or in other words, more like Caucasian hair.

I was finally clued in when I moved to Nicaragua.  My mother always taught me my hair was my crown.  She taught me to reverence it and to keep other people’s hands out of it.  Considering that is a common lesson amongst African American women, I never had to tell anyone, “don’t touch my hair.”  It is an unspoken rule.  However, being in the Peace Corps has shown me, boundaries are respected differently in every culture. For instance, a Nicaraguan woman has no problem reaching out to touch my hair and/or body parts but hesitates to speak candidly about sex.  The rules of engagement are different here.  I have experienced several uncomfortable moments where my hair was being touched and/or pulled, without my permission. One such moment was actually caught on camera.

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[Photo 1, general interest + posing for the camera. What you don’t see is me kindly asking, “why are you touching my hair?” and saying “Please stop.”  Photo 2, me turning with a bit of an attitude, explaining that I don’t care the reason why, I don’t want anyone touching my hair.]

Obviously I don’t have any malice towards the people in the picture. We’re actually hanging out and having a good time. But I can’t deny how I feel when someone touches my hair without permission. It makes me feel irritated, sad, and upset. It makes me feel like I’m being petted, like I’m an animal. It makes me think of monkeys eating bugs from the scalp of another monkey and although, I am sure that is not their intent when they touch my hair, that’s doesn’t change how I feel. Neither does it change the fact that my personal space was violated.

Culturally, this problem has been getting more attention in the media.  In 2013, Antonia Opiah’s controversially started the “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit that occurred in Union Square.  Three women with three different hair textures held signs that said, “You can touch my hair”.  The originator’s intentions were to educate the masses on our hair and sate the curiosity.  It was an effort in demystifying black hair.  An attempt to state the obvious, our hair is just like yours: hair, mere proteins, growing out the top of my head.  A counter-exhibit rose up to negate their claims of openness.  A short distance away from Opiah’s exhibit, women held signs that said, “You cannot touch my hair”, “touch my hair with your hand and I’ll touch your face with my fist”, and “this is not an auction block” just to quote a few.

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Their feelings may seem extreme but are understandable, as some black women felt that although the exhibition was attempting to educate the masses, education could occur without tactile impressions.  They felt the exhibit was disrespectful, suited more as a petting zoo than an educational platform.  One lady who was interviewed said, “First we say it’s fine to touch our hair, then we say it’s fine to touch our bodies.”  In June of 2015, Teyonah-Parris, an actress who has had roles in Dear White People, Mad Men and the Good Wife posted a series of tweets detailing an uncomfortable encounter with a white man, while she was out to dinner with a group of friends. This white man, despite her many attempts to dissuade him, stuck his hand in her hair AND asked if it was real.  Wrong move.  This is not to say you cannot ask questions about our hair.  This is simply to say there is a right way to say everything.

So what’s the real issue here?

 

Well the first and most concerning issue is the fact that people, mostly white people, feel they can touch black hair WITHOUT permission.  Not too long ago, as a result of slavery, white people could touch any part of African American women’s bodies as they pleased because they were considered property.  Sadly, subconsciously, that thought prevails.  To touch a stranger without permission, says that you one, not only feel owed this right but two, don’t believe you will receive any consequence for such an action.  There is a fixation and often fetish in touching something so unlike what you have.

There is a very famous woman by the name of Saartjie Baartman (more commonly known as Sarah or Sara Baartman) who was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa.  When she was barely in her 20s, she was sold to London by an enterprising Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop, accompanied by a showman named Hendrik Cesars.  She spent four years in Britain being exhibited for her large buttocks (steatopygia).  Her treatment caught the attention of British abolitionists, who tried to rescue her, but she claimed that she had come to London on her own accord.  In 1814, after Dunlop’s death, she traveled to Paris.  With two consecutive showmen, Henry Taylor and S. Reaux, she amused onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal.  She was subjected to examination by Georges Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History.  In post-Napoleonic France, sideshows like the Hottentot Venus lost their appeal.  Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of an undetermined inflammatory disease in December 1815.  After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, and then displayed her remains WITHOUT her permission.  For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton, and genitalia until she was buried.

In 1855, selling of slave women included the prodding of the mouth, breasts, and butt to decide their value.  While white women were covered in multiple layers: corsets, floor length dresses etc., no honor was given to enslaved women for modesty.  The black female slave at any time could be forced to disrobe for the pleasure of her owners.  Rape was viewed as normal and even an expected occurrence.

There is more history saying black women are open for your curiosity, than history to say, they are not here for your pleasure.  (Note several medical experiments done on African Americans, without their permission.)  This applies to our hair as well.

Touching someone’s hair is an intimate gesture.  Depicted here, in a video segment from Endia Beal. It should be welcomed, not forced.

Endia Beal is a North Carolina-based artist who uses photography and video to explore conversations about race and diversity in the corporate setting explored the intimacy of such a topic, which led to her most notable portrait series, “Can I Touch It,” presents white women in corporate attire wearing traditionally black hairstyles.

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‘Some of these ideas first came to Beal while she was interning in the IT department at Yale while she was there getting her M.F.A. in photography. Beal is tall and black, and at the time she was sporting a large red afro that stood out among her colleagues, who were mostly shorter white males. One colleague told her about a rumor circulating around the office that many of the men were curious about her hair and wanted to touch it. Being an artist and not wanting to shy away from her afro—or what Beal called “the elephant in the room”—she asked the men to not only touch her hair but to really pull it. She then recorded them a week later on video talking about what was for many of the men a new experience.’

The second issue is the demonization of black hair.  There is often no space welcoming our diversity.  Black hair is the only hair that can be a gravity defying afro on Tuesday, bone straight on Wednesday, and be cascading braids on Thursday.  Despite such wonderful aspects, our diversity is more times than not discouraged.

Many corporationsuniversities and even the army have instituted policies banning Black hairstyles like braids, children have been banned from school for their hair, and celebrities like Zendaya and  Viola Davis who embrace their heritage have experienced public humiliation, all as a result of black hair.  There are terrible and inaccurate stereotypes, for instance, calling dread to the idea of locking one’s hair.  There is nothing dreadful about letting your hair naturally coil as tight as possible or honoring the long history behind such a style.  Our hair is what makes us different from each other.  It’s what makes us unique from other races.  It is a reflection of our personality and an integral part of our identity. Having natural hair outward declares conscious choice to not adhere to the yardstick of beauty standards, which is whiteness. It certainly is no coincidence the first Black millionaire, Madam CJ Walker, received her fortune from selling hair products.  Why “black hairstyles” are still considered a novelty?  These styles have developed and evolved alongside “white hairstyles”, and yet they’re still considered exotic.  The problem is not that they’re thought provoking, but that they’re not considered to have a place in the norm. I think it is one thing to visit a country in which you are the clear outsider, the cultural minority (for example, me currently living in Nicaragua), and another thing to live side by side with these women and still treat them as outsiders.  Given the long history in the United States of immigration, slavery, civil rights, etc., it is downright disrespectful to treat black women as a novelty.  Which is the underlying problem.

Lastly, the third issue is the appropriation of our hair.  Appropriation occurs, according to Amandla Stenberg, who is an American actress best known for her portrayal of young Cataleya in Colombiana and Rue in The Hunger Games and her video called, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” she shared which was part of a project she and another classmate created for their history class,

“when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that there are partaking in.”

This is like white men with braids, black hairstyles on women other than black women on the runway or white artists winning rap awards. EveryDayfeminist cited four reasons why cultural appropriation is wrong.

  1. It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression
  2. It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People
  3. It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color
  4. It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor.

Zeba Blay, cultural commentator  wrote an article called, “It’s A Slap In The Face When White Women Wear Black Hairstyles” for HuffPost Women. In it she said, “When Black women straighten our hair, or dye it blonde, we’re not “appropriating white hairstyles” — it is not the same thing. The word you are looking for is assimilation. White hair is the norm. It is the default. It is the societal ideal. There are many reasons why black women today wear their hair either natural or straightened, but for the most part, the practice of straightening black hair came from a real necessity to conform and survive, and to better emulate societal beauty standards that oppress women of all races — standards that just happen to be based around white beauty.”

There is nothing wrong with noticing differences or curiosity.  There are both good ways to mediate cross-cultural understandings, the issue is how your approach seeking enlightenment.  I am sure there are many cases of blacks touching other races hair as well, but there is a major difference.  It is different in the same way that it’s different when a female stranger on the street tells me I look super cute and wants to know where my dress is from versus when a male stranger tells me “lookin’ good!”  In the latter, there’s a sense of entitlement and I can’t help but feel the weight of the entire history of female objectification on my shoulders.

Silence enables wrongs to continue.  It is wrong to invade someone’s personal space for your pleasure.  It is also wrong to criticize anyone not open to you touching their hair or answering questions about their hair.  As an adult, it is your own responsibility to educate yourself.  It is not the responsibility of a marginalized people to teach you as to why and how they feel marginalized and to explain to every single person they meet or deal with, why they are marginalized and how you as a white person should act.  It can be mentally exhausting dealing with the same subject day in and day out.  Some people may be totally willing to explain and reach out to you but others simply don’t want to put up with the emotional baggage anymore and you should respect that.  This topic is a matter of following the golden rule.  Treat others, as you want to be treated.  If you wouldn’t want a stranger to randomly grab your butt, don’t randomly grab for someone’s head.

Touching anyone without permission is a major invasion of personal space, it is quite possibly  also, ruining their style.   Sometimes it can take hours to get just right.  Respect the boundaries in place by society and simply politely ask first.  Don’t take offense if they say no either.  Freedom of speech and freedom of choice warrants your acceptance, whether your curiosity was sated or not. I personally, see someone asking me about my hair as a moment to educate, and will allow them to touch my hair. Just ask. first. and listen with an open heart about the challenges I face with it and how to respect it. Don’t tell me how if you were black you’d wear an afro all the time. You wouldn’t actually, because the likelihood of it being accepted at work is pretty slim. Don’t try to pressure me into wearing a certain style because in your opinion, “I act like I don’t like my hair” or you want to see it more. I’m not here for you. Please understand, that there is a great history of pride AND degradation behind black hair. I’m doing the best I can to make sure I have healthy hair and that my hair looks good. How I chose to display that is my decision and doesn’t need your validation or commentary, that’s the deal with black hair.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with Black Hair?

  1. THIS IS AMAZING AND EVERYTHING. I have heard my precious daughter endure so many insensitive and hurtful comments and despite trying to overcompensate with positive and affirmative words and actions, I know that there are already scars. What would have helped you when you were a little girl? And what can I do to lessen the inevitability of others nastiness?

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I have to say, the misunderstanding of black hair is worldwide and scars are often deeper than we can know. However, my mom did three major things that I think helped me embrace everything about my hair. 1. She showed me what was beautiful by example. She informed me how much harm perms did to her hair and educated me about the opportunity I have in youth but also in this tech industry. She didn’t take away my power but forcing me to have a perm or forcing me to go natural. 2. She told me it was beautiful. Specifically, my mom would say, “your hair looks amazing today.” “I love those curls.” “Did you try something new? It’s cute.” She never allowed me to tear down my hair. In one instance, I tried a twist out that worked perfectly for the YouTuber, but in my opinion, looked a mess on me. Instead of agreeing, my mom stood behind me in the mirror and said, “ok, so it’s not what we wanted but it isn’t all bad. Let’s see how we can make it better.” She worked with me to put clips in my hair, fluff it and affirm me that no matter what, my hair and inevitably, I am beautiful: no matter what. 3. She connected me with other women, whether to affirm each other how beautiful we are or to share hair tips and suggestions, I never feel alone in my appreciation of self. Now there are several YouTubers and blog to talk us through being natural and the proper care. Black hair is beautiful, straight, curly, wavy, kinky, nappy and any other word. It is pure magic that it can defy gravity and simultaneously float like a butterfly and sting all those who wish their hair was the same but don’t know the proper way to communicate their appreciation. Good luck with your daughter!

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