For a couple of years now, I’ve had my non brown skinned friends, colleagues and acquaintances ask me a couple of questions about my hair and afro hair in general; from questions like '...can I touch it?’ ‘...but why can’t I touch it?’
(as they proceed to touch it anyway) to ‘...why is it as soft as cotton?’
I don’t claim to be the authority on all brown skinned women’s hair boundaries, just my own. After thinking about whether to write this, and talking to a couple of my brown skinned friends who wear their hair natural too, I’ve decided to share a few do's and don'ts when you're interacting with any person of color that's chosen to wear their hair natural.
YOU CAN DO (OR SAY) THESE THINGS
Thing #1: Can I touch your hair?
When Solange Knowles sang ‘don’t touch my hair’ in her latest album, she was sending a clear message to anyone who still thinks it’s appropriate to grab Afro hair uninvited. It’s not so much a case of you touching my hair as it is you satisfying your curiosity without my consent. My hair is a symbol of pride. If in doubt: ask, don’t touch.
Here’s the interesting thing:
First, thank you for asking but even if you ask nicely… we don’t necessarily want you to touch our hair. I don’t know where your hands have been and I also don’t want you messing up my ‘do.' More importantly, most of us feel like allowing strangers to touch our hair just so they can experience it is akin to being pet like an animal. At best it’s awkward, and at worst it’s dehumanising. So, it’s fine to admire our hair from afar but please keep your hands to yourself.
Thing #2: You have very beautiful natural hair - it really compliments and enhances your natural features
Ok, ok! *insert smiley*
We could be friends. This is a great compliment, to me, and my ancestors who came before me - thank you! A simple compliment can go a long way. You don't have to make it a whole conversation.
Thing #3: I like how versatile your natural hair is, and how easy it is for you to change between hairstyles
You’ll get extra bonus points for congratulating a brown skinned woman for wearing her natural crown in all its glory, whatever shape or form - it’s not exactly the easiest of feats for a brown skinned woman to proudly wear her hair natural. Make no mistake, we wear it with pride, but it takes work!
DON'T DO (OR SAY) THESE THINGS
Thing #1: Ask a person to deconstruct their hair just so you can see how it was put together
If we're friends, I might do this for you and won't mind you asking of course. But if I don't know you like that - please don't ask! Not only is this exhausting, but it also immediately makes me stick out like a sore thumb. I've been asked this before and have had small audiences form and surround me with follow up questions like, 'why do you braid your hair?' 'Is that your real hair?' 'Is it heavy?' 'Does is hurt?' 'How long does it take?' 'How much is it?' 'Do you wash it?' 'Does it dry?' 'How long does it take to dry?' *sigh*
Thing #2: Touch a person with an afro’s hair without their permission.
I’m sure you’ve come across the warning not to touch brown skinned women’s hair before. But do you really understand why it’s so important to keep your hands out of our tresses? This is a super common racial micro aggression, which is a subtle form of racism often done by someone who doesn’t mean to be racist. I’ve had lots of people (usually white people) touch my hair, and in most cases, the touch came with a well-meaning compliment. You have no idea how often we have to deal with this. Brown skinned women deal with people touching our hair a hell of a lot.
If you approach a brown skinned woman saying “I just have to feel your hair,” it’s pretty safe to assume this isn’t the first time she’s heard that. However, my preferences vary: for instance, I’ve let curious children feel my hair because – unlike adults who should know better – they don’t understand why I wouldn’t want them to. Many brown skinned women’s boundaries include no hair touching, but that’s not even the whole point of why you should keep your hands to yourself.
The point is that everyone deserves to have their personal space respected. It’s never been ok to pet another human’s hair. They’re not a dog.
Whatever you do, refrain from making these snide comments
Each and every one of the snide comments below has been and sadly still continues to be said to me. When I think it’s worth it, I’ll politely respond in an effort to inform the other person that it's bad manners; but more often than not, I’ll hold a quiet gaze until the subject changes. Despite my silence, it doesn't go without a come back line which I say in my mind; because to be honest, it’s exhausting to continuously facilitate those conversations.
Snide comment #1: 'Have you ever straightened your hair before? I think it would look cute on you! Actually, it would so much better straight!'
My mental come back line: uuum - that’s the way my hair grows out of my head. I’m quite comfortable with it - thank you!
Snide comment #2: 'Can you even get a comb through that bush? I don't think natural hair is for you.'
My mental come back line: It's attached to my head dummy; it doesn't get more 'for you' than that!
Snide comment #3: 'I don’t understand why you stopped perming your hair - you looked so good with your hair permed'
My mental come back line: Where do I even begin with this one?
Conversation from colleague 1 to colleague 2:
Colleague 1: ‘Hey, <insert colleague 2’s name>, have you met Fiona before? She’s got that wild exotic black bohemian hipster hair I was telling you about’
My mental come back line: *insert 360 degree eye roll emoji*
Snide comment #4: 'Your hair is so big and wild like a lion’s mane'
My mental come back line: Here we go again!
*insert The Lion King intro song*
Snide comment #5: I want hair like yours. I think I'd manage it better than you.
My mental come back line: I know you didn't just say that to my face! To have afro hair means being subject to highest degree of scrutiny — from assessments about your professionalism to comments from other brown skinned folks about your so-called lack of 'self-respect.'
Snide comment #6: From a former employer: 'You need to straighten your hair. Natural hair isn't part of the company dress code'
My mental come back line: Maybe this isn’t the right job for me! "Afro hair is hair, and it isn't 'unprofessional'. I quit!
Them: 'It's a shame Afro hair is so short' Me: Ummm, ma'am - that’s called shrinkage. Google it!
And my favourite since getting shaved sides recently:
'Sorry, your hair is too hard to cut'
This one felt personal so naturally, my internal thought process was a little longer:
The salon is a special place for brown skinned women, who have to deal with racism on a day-to-day basis. Hair shops are super important in that respect. They are rare spaces, somewhere to escape to. I don’t have to explain myself in that room - they’ve got me and they’ll take care of me. It’s like a little community.
So imagine when I go to a regular salon for a haircut (more out of circumstance than anything else) and get the response 'Sorry, your hair is just too hard to cut’ My hair isn’t 'difficult', but lots of high street hairdressers seem to think it is. If you can’t cut it, please politely ask me to leave because you don’t know how, not because it’s ‘difficult.’
I think it's important to support salons that do Afro hair as well as we can. Everybody needs a stylist at some point and the more we support them, the better the chances that we have them in business for long to help us on our hair journeys.
To some reading this post, I may sound a little 'extra' but I do it because I endured so much for so long and decided enough was enough! I don't write that for your sympathy, but I'm looking at the bigger picture; my daughter. She's worn her hair natural since she was born. When she was younger, she used to compliment women and other girls' hair but I noticed she only complimented the ones with straight long hair, not afro-textured. I remember cutting my own hair down to an inch shortly after I observed that pattern with the sole objective of demonstrating to her that hair doesn't have to be long or straight to be beautiful.
I don’t want her to fall into the trap of comparing herself to society’s idea of “perfection”
I don't want her to have to learn how to love herself, and her hair, not if I can help it. I've started doing whatever I can to walk with her on this journey like buying her books featuring children that look like her and teaching her how to speak up for herself when uncultured little white boys in her class make fun of her hair, stick pencils and erasers in it or worse still, touch it without her consent.
Despite all our efforts, everything else around her, when she steps outside our house, is telling her something completely different about beauty. Thankfully, there's a bit more awareness on billboards and in the advertising industry. More and more I see more diverse models, and hairstyles and that's great. It's a step in the right direction. A positive thing for everyone. Not just for brown skinned girls, but also girls of all races.
Brown skinned girl, when all is said and done, take care of yourself and do whatever makes you happy - you are beautiful regardless of what your hair looks like!
Do you sometimes wear your hair in an afro? Have you experienced similar situations? How did you handle it? Please share in the comment section below.
Love and Light