8 Things You Should Never Say About Black Hair, According to 8 Black Women
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard "Don't Touch My Hair" by Solange. I was living in London for grad school and interning at a women's fashion magazine. As I walked from the tube to the office, I was grinning listening to the song on repeat. I was so proud that Solange was able to articulate the Black hair experience so well, and impressed that she took the words out of my mouth on what it feels like to have Black textured hair.
When I arrived at the office, the conversation continued. The album was the only thing we spoke about that morning. My white counterparts were so fascinated with the record Solange produced and curious to know if touching a Black women's hair is as wrong as she made it seem. To answer them, I recited some of the prechorus:
"You know this here is my sh*t
Rolled the rod, I gave it time
But this here is mine."
To me, that perfectly explains the annoyance some of us Black women feel when someone asks to (or doesn't ask, but just does) touch our hair. We want you to know that it is ours, that we put in the time and that you touching it is a violation of our personal space and the hairstyles we spend time perfecting.
For myself, and many Black women, my hair has often made me a target for offensive comments and questions. People constantly ask if my hair is real, if they can touch it, if I wash it, and a slew of other unwarranted questions. Although a lot of this built-up energy stems from curiosity and a fascination for Black hair, some questions should be left unasked. For that reason, I put together a list of questions myself and other Black women get asked about their hair — but shouldn't.
1. "Is Your Hair Real?"
I've heard people ask Black women this whether their hair is natural or in a protective style. Although this question is invasive and rude, I want to give humanity the benefit of the doubt and assume they ask to scratch a curiosity of theirs. I think the curiosity is because many of our textures aren't visible in mainstream society. White women appear in media many more times than Black women, and this invisibility sends a message that our hair is unappealing. By asking us if our hair is real, you are furthering this stereotype.
2. "How Are You Going to Do Your Hair?"
The majority of my non-Black friends relish contemplating the fun and innovative hairstyles they might wear to an event. My Black friends do as well, but mostly in our own circles. When asked how we are going to do our hair by white counterparts, there is often a judgmental tone in the question — one that implies we are not capable of wearing a different style or that our hair is such a mighty task that they are scared we can't handle it.
Ida Legesse, an educator in Los Angeles, agrees with this sentiment. "I am rubbed the wrong way when this question is asked repeatedly to me by my looser curl-patterned sisters who are not pressured to report out their hair plans," she said.
3. "You Should Wear Your Hair Natural More"
Up until I was 25, I constantly wore my hair straight, braided, or weaved. At the time I wasn't comfortable wearing my natural hair because it was severely heat-damaged and resulted in multiple lengths and textures. The off times I wore it natural, a few people would say they liked my natural hair more. This was always confusing. I never asked for anyone's opinion but yet they felt so free to give it.
"This is my decision. Not yours. Please don't assume I'm suppressing my culture by straightening it."
Renata Pieterse Schmidt, a corporate relocation consultant, wears her hair straight most of the time and curly on occasion and finds this question equally frustrating: "This is my decision. Not yours. Please don't assume I'm suppressing my culture by straightening it."
As comedian and actor Phoebe Robinson so perfectly put it, "society has never figured out how to have a healthy, functional relationship with Black hair." White European beauty standards have produced the thought that Black hair is unkept and unruly when natural, so Black females will spend money on chemical straightening and braids, just to be told that our natural hair looks better.
4. "Why Do You Wear Weaves?"
Black women wear weaves for different reasons. Some wear them as protective styles, while others wear them because it's easier than doing their own hair. Some like the different textured looks they are able to achieve.
"It's inappropriate to assume weaves are worn because the woman has no hair or is bald," said Nicole Harris, a pharmaceutic advertising rep. In fact, there is no "correct" reason for wanting to wear a weave.
5. "Can I Touch Your Hair?"
This invasive question is a microaggression that not only perpetuates inequities but also discounts personal space. Asking a white person to touch their hair is incomprehensible, leading Black hair to be an aberration. People who ask to touch Black hair further the narrative that white hair is the norm and anything outside is abnormal. It discounts personal space by not getting consent and disrespects the personal agency over our bodies.
There's also a practical reason someone wouldn't want their hair to be touched, like in the instance of Dezré Marsh, who gets asked this question almost daily in relation to her afro. Often, afros are depicted as full and thick, but Marsh's hair is quite fine and requires a lot of maintenance to hold its desired shape.
"When someone touches it and then says 'oh, it's so fluffy,' I'm thinking, Wait . . . I'm not a pet," said Marsh. "Then I have to go back and fix it to the way I like again."
Ashley Branch, an NYC media specialist, wants to be able to claim her beauty and exist without being exotified. "So many Black women have been told for years and years that our natural state of being is not good enough, and it takes a tremendous amount of personal work and courage to ignore that and learn to love yourself and your hair. So imagine doing all of that to get to the point where you feel like the way your hair grows out of your head is enough, to only be treated like a petting zoo?"
When a stranger or someone you know invades that personal space to fulfill a curiosity of theirs, it can feel violating and trigger feelings from previous encounters.
6. "I Didn't Recognize You With Your Hair That Way"
I enjoy the versatility of Black hair and change my hairstyles multiple times a year, but we are living in a time of glorifying Black hair. People are fascinated by the wide variety of hairstyles Black women can wear, which in turn, produces unwarranted attention. I remember cringing at work meetings when conversations that started with, "I feel like you change your hair more than anyone I know," referring to the diversity of my hair, rather than focusing on business strategies.
Sadly, Black girls are often on the receiving ends of these comments, which can derail our confidence, personal growth, and sometimes, our feelings toward the speaker.
7. "How Do You Wash Your Hair?"
Before natural hair became a wide-swept topic of conversation, people were surprised to hear I only wash my hair once a week or once every other week. I would explain to them that Black textured hair doesn't retain as much moisture as other hair types and that shampooing often strips our natural oils, so we wash less. The question that followed was always, "So how do you wash your hair?" Annoyed, I would respond with, "the same way you do: with water and shampoo."
Imani Thomas, an IT recruitment consultant, also finds this question frustrating. "I get that I have locs and that it's a hairstyle that many people don't understand, but I'm pretty sure there is just one way to wash your hair. A product — whether it's soap, shampoo, conditioner, apple cider vinegar or whatever your heart desires — plus water. Standard."
8. "Why Isn't Your Hair In Cornrows?"
While working out at the gym, a woman came up to Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Stephanie Matsuba and asked her why she didn't have cornrows. At the time, her hair was in it's natural state - big and curly. After Matsuba gave the stranger a look, she proceeded to tell her that all the Black women she knew had cornrows.
"I was shook — I guess she saw my hair as what white people would define as wild or unruly," she said. "Afterward I remember thinking, You must have so much privilege and entitlement that you think it's appropriate to suggest how I should style or wear my hair. It was a total invasion of my personal space."
Black people are often "othered" in society. Even when the othering seems positive, like this women at the gym's understanding of cornrows, it doesn't feel good. It disrupts our efforts to simply exist without being treated like we're abnormal.