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Self-proclaimed ‘Woke’ White Guy: “Let me guess, you straightened your hair?”

Me: *not even remotely energetic enough to explain the difference in straight and curly weaves/wigs/extensions* “Yeah”
Self-proclaimed ‘Woke’ White Guy: “Did you use one of those hot irons on the stove?”
Me: “No.”
Other White Female Bystander: “What do you mean hot iron on the stove?”
Self-proclaimed ‘Woke’ White Guy: “Well, when I worked at this intervention camp, the girls would use these hot combs on the stove and they would get them super hot and make everything smell like burning hair, and it was so disgusting. And, because they were so hot and a hazard, I had to hold it for them. It was so disgusting.”
Other White Female Bystander: Oh my word. I’ve never heard of that. People don’t do that. I’ve never ever heard of it before.”
Me: (to white female bystander)Actually, well, of course you haven’t heard of it. You wouldn’t have needed to have heard of it, and (to self-proclaimed ‘woke’ white guy) actually…(self-proclaimed ‘woke’ white guy leaves). *sigh*

In the past few years that I have decided to start to go fully natural, I have encountered many various responses to my body by way of my hair. 
When I did the Big Chop, white strangers would suddenly wonder – often loudly (and strangely unabashedly):

  • Why I didn’t want to grow my hair long?
  • Why it didn’t “behave” 
  • Had ever thought about straightening it
On the other hand, black women would ask me:

  • Did I actually think men would want me if I “looked like a man” 
  • And others would unashamedly ask if my white husband had a fetish for black girls…as if I could only be attractive if I assimilated or if others had a sexual fetish.
It is important to note that these ideologies stem from a history of sexualizing and denigrating black women, particularly characterized by three stereotypes: The Mammy, The Jezebel and The Sapphire.

I have been graded on my “appearance” for work evaluations, in social engagements and by the general public. And, my hair, while never truly singled out, has always been a topic of contention. When I wear weaves, wigs and/or extensions, I am often showered with compliments: how did my hair get to be so pretty? Is my hair actually real? Some have even openly wished that they had “hair that could be acceptably changed so often…” 
And, I began this particular blog post with a conversation that happened recently when I changed my current curly hair for a straighter option. Commenting about people’s hair is socially acceptable across racial borders; however, it is not appropriate to believe that one’s racial acceptance of “negative” and “positive” comments are also a universal standard
Hair politics, while a historically integral part of black feminist and womanist circles, is often largely neglected in contemporary discourse and activism. Achieving “good” hair has often come with succumbing to a life of dependence on relaxers, or what is often jokingly referred to as the “creamy crack.”  

In 2009, Chris Rock’s documentary entitled “Good Hair,” explored the lengths in which black women and girls go to achieve “acceptable” hair. From $1,000 weaves, to burning relaxers, black women with 4C and 4B hair are often damned if they commit to monthly straighteners and damned if they don’t. According to a New York Times Article that articulates a popular opinion, according to Ingrid Banks, an Associate Professor Black Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, “If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair,” she said, “you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.”

Like colorism, having “good hair” is often seen as a direct correlation of one’s inherent worth. If you have “good” hair, one is then seen as better or smarter than one without. When a white person comments to another white person about his or her hair there are implicit power dynamics articulated within the commentary. The same is true when a white person comments about a black person’s hair. There are implicit power dynamics that are also an integral part of the conversation.

For many white people, this tacit display of power is often so unconscious that they are often bewildered that a “compliment” is racially charged.

How can a “you have pretty hair” be interpreted as a racially insensitive comment?

How can a “…and that was disgusting” be interpreted as an implicit judgement on black hair?

So, let’s go back and dismantle some of the inherent assumptions in the conversation articulated above.

First, black hair has long been a part of cultural discussion and debate for whites and blacks alike, and it is important to know the historic impact white supremacy has had on black hair. You can check out some various timelines here and here and here.

Because chemically straightened black hair is often seen as a vehicle into white acceptability and thus, by default, better jobs, better finances and a better standard of living, natural black hair is often seen as dangerous, unprofessional and, for some,  militant (ie: Malcom X; Black Panthers and Angela Davis).

When I got a job at a PWI (Predominately White Institution) rocking my natural hair in a high, TWA (Teeny-Weeny-Afro) puff, I was naturally (catch my pun?) pleased and excited that I actually managed to get an Administrative job without relying on chemicals to get me through the doors. Like most black women with 4C hair, I had quite a lot of trepidation that my job-callbacks would be in direct correlation with the amount of sass (or, really – lack of “sass”) I carried in my hair. Often after applying for jobs, I would stress about my hair and what sorts of things I may be required to do in order to be considered.

However, hair jokes are often tucked in most of the micro-aggression’s. After switching to a weave, the compliments attributed to the hair suddenly seem backhanded.

“Oh, that hair is so beautiful…that hair looks so good…that hair is so smooth…
(and my personal favorite): that hair is so professional…”

Making comments about black hair is often a mine-field in which white people have and will continually be blown up. And, I’ve heard all of the responses:

1. I was just trying to make conversation
2. I was just trying to give a compliment
3. I was just…trying

As the victim of the “white hair grab” by strangers, friends and family alike, I often find myself in that whole “bend down to get through it” position rather than opting to “make a scene.” I tell myself that there is too much at stake because:
  • I can’t afford to be the “crazy, angry, black lady” (but then again, I can’t afford to not be)
  • I can’t make a scene because I don’t want to unconsciously perpetuate a particular stereotype on all the other black people in which my white community has and probably will never meet. (And yet, I also find it is my duty to make a scene. Racial education does not happen by doing nothing. 
  • I can’t emotionally afford to be an educational bridge every time something racially charged occurs, particularly when this squarely positions the role of the educator on minority persons as opposed to on the predominate racial majority. (And yet, I can’t emotionally afford to not speak up for myself)  
  • I can’t make a scene because I need this job/church/community/grocery store/family/friend in order to be seen as intellectually competent, reasonable and rationale and in order to give the same characteristics to my future children. 
The comments up above, while perhaps “well-intentioned” clearly articulate a tacit cultural understanding of what is “good” based on a white-black binary model. Black hair is only deemed as negative because of the white hair standard. Understanding and interpreting how and why we believe certain things are good and certain things are bad or “disgusting” requires intentional commitment towards unveiling and dismantling our own racial prejudices.   

And yet, “good intentions” cannot and should not mitigate impact. Well meaning people still create damage. Well meaning people still can be complicit and perpetuate racism. Well meaning people can still perpetuate harm.

So, what- should we never give each other compliments? Should we never say that something is “disgusting?” We are all entitled to our opinions, right, even when they are our own imperfect truths, right?

And you’re right. We all have our own opinions. And, we are all going to make mistakes. But, I wonder, when we lean in, when we listen deeply, when we take a step back and rethink our decision to say…grab that black person’s hair in order to feel it…(yes, this happens quite a lot!), we start to ask ourselves some deep, uncomfortable questions like:

  1. Why do I feel entitled to touch this strangers hair? (HINT: Power and Privilege)
  2. What could my “compliment” be interpreted as?
  3. Do I have a relationship with this person in which I am engaging? (HINT: Even if you do have a relationship with someone, say a minority, don’t ever touch/grab the hair.)
Now, I’m not advocating that we can’t smile at that stranger or say, “Wow! Those braids are neat!” But, I am asking us to consider that our words have impact and that we have the ability to be challenged in the ways in which we engage in relationship cross-racially.

For the white people reading this, I often hear the “but…are “they” going to be nice when “they” correct us?” Hint – Check your privilege. People are going to react in ways that are going to challenge, embarrass and probably make you feel uncomfortable. And, that is okay. We as a people have the capacity to be challenged, embarrassed and uncomfortable and learn anyways.

For some excellent resources regarding privilege, power, and that whole black/white binary, check out my new page here

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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