It’s a notion that every black woman feels at one point or another, and Solange Knowles captured the frustration and politics of the subject beautifully on her A Seat at the Table album in the song Don’t Touch My Hair. For one, as black women, we’re statistically at the bottom of the social, economic, professional totem poles because of how people view us. We’re not seen as a priority among other groups of people, and when we do voice our concerns, we’re viewed as if we’re whining, bitchy, or lazy by non-blacks and manipulative and bitchy by black men. Nonetheless, our hair is our own. But it sprouts from OUR heads. Are we not human enough in society’s eyes to claim our own personal being or to not be prodded like a puppy in a pet store? No? Still on the auction block, huh?
As I’ve been rocking my braids recently, on more than one occasion I’ve felt like a goat in a petting zoo. And it makes me wonder, in what world do people think it’s OK to voluntarily and without permission touch another person?
At a Starbucks, I was sitting down and waiting for a friend. Before I knew it, I felt a tug on my hair and the white woman next to me said, “How do you get your hair like this? You’ll have to excuse me,” and she laughed, “I’m old.” I had to let the woman know that she wasn’t that old, and quite frankly, I don’t know if you’re ever too old to realize that it’s inappropriate to touch another person against their will, especially if they don’t know you.
On another occasion while getting a drink at a bar in a casino, I was waiting on the bartender when a white woman said, “Your hair is so pretty.” Nearly immediately, she grabbed a couple of braids to feel it. At this point, I was clearly disgusted and showed her as much.
Is this really OK? I felt violated and like I was placed in a cage. Remember the story of Venus Hottentot: How she was paraded and poked for her larger than European butt? How she was transported to Europe like a circus sideshow to be mocked? All the while, white women wanted to be her after the mockery and began wearing those padded hooped skirts. I’m not sure what reality these people live in to think it’s fine to poke and prod another person. I’ve finally comes to grips that when and if another person does this (and it’s always a woman), I’m going to tell her that I like her shirt and grab a boob.
“I like your shirt! How do you get it so smooth and flat?” [Honk.] “Oh, it looks like you don’t like to wear quality bras. Cool!”
Yep. We’ll see how that goes over. I think they’ll get it then.
The history of black women’s hair is complex. During the Middle Passage, the women were forced to have their heads shaved. Some women had to wear their hair in wraps in the Antebellum South, as white women were intimidated by the black women’s coils and curls and the wraps could hide them. With more mixed children came different hair types, and those seen as more attractive — to white eyes — were fairer women with looser curls. This ideology carried on post-slavery where black women would use chemicals and processes to straighten their naturally textured hair. Natural hairstyles were seen as radical and militant. Even into the 20th century, black women felt they had to conform with straight hair in order to obtain jobs in offices. Afros and voluminous hair and braids were taboo; they weren’t seen as “white-collar.”
But of course, the practice carries on today. And we know it does, as black women. We debate about what to do with our hair on a daily basis depending on our job situation. Whenever I first start working somewhere, I’m normally hesitant on how to wear my hair the first weeks and try to be a bit more cautious so other employees may not form preconceived notions about me. One of my friends was going through the process of wanting to strengthen her hair a few months ago. When I mentioned braids to her, she pretty much immediately shut it down because of her line of work and how her conservative white clients want to worry how much they’re willing to spend for their company and not about if they can trust this black woman with braids trying to sell them something. I mean, the issues on ongoing. Once we embrace our cultural practices in hairdressing, it’s as if we’re no longer seen as people. Like we’re going against the grain, as if we’re purposely trying to start a fight or war on beauty. But really, didn’t the war start centuries ago when we were forced to cut our hair and elaborate designs or to wear headwraps to cover our tresses?
There are definitely moments in history where we have showcased pride in our hairdressing. The later ’60s to ’70s was really the first era in which we embraced natural styles and traditional cultural beautifying after years of forced assimilation. Though we experimented in various forms of braids and cornrows throughout the ’80s and ’90s, that same sense of black pride from the ’60s and ’70s didn’t fully transfer until today’s beauty scene. There are so many ways that black women are fully taking their hair back in braids and locks and twists and natural curls and various ways to wear afros; it’s really a gorgeous thing. So gorgeous because it does showcase who we are as a people; it showcases our versatility and creativity. Though I understood what she was saying at the time, I never fully got on board with India.Arie’s I Am Not My Hair because there’s so much truth that can be displayed about a woman and her hair. Particularly black women. Even more so when we own it for ourselves — in whatever way that means for us.
More recently, I’ve been wearing box braids. I love them. Haven’t really worn them since I was a child. But they’re easy, gorgeous; I can experiment with different colors, different lengths; and they give my hair a break from the constant stress of brushing and pulling and twisting. (Not to mention that I also feel like LL Cool J’s Around the Way Girl while wearing them. Just need to find some bamboo earrings.) However, I never felt the weight of hair politics until I started wearing them more consistently — except when I did beauty pageants and was instructed to constantly hide my hair in an updo or cut it.
When I was a young girl, I wore box braids while in elementary and middle school. This was at the time when I was in a predominantly white school, and, as fair as I am, I was basically the only kid of color in sight. Nonetheless, I remember wearing my hair in braids and loving them then. Once I took them out, we had an assembly in our gym when I was in about the third grade. Camp counselors came to visit us and talk about a summer program that they were doing. One of the women addressed how much fun they had and how “most of the girls wear their hair like…” and at that moment, she pointed to a white girl who wasn’t sitting far from me and had her stand up. The girl hair her hair in donned in box braids, and I felt robbed before I even knew what cultural appropriation was. The girl smiled and looked around like she was the newfound pageant queen of the elementary school. Just like those women and their hoopskirts.
I can’t stress enough how disgusting it feels when someone invades your personal space. And as black women, our hair has historically been our crowns — no matter how we’ve chosen to wear it — even before we came to this country. It is our personal right and accessory, something that we should wear for ourselves and no one else. Especially not another culture or for society’s standards. But we should wear it with our own mental and emotional health at ease. In ways that look and feel good to us. At the end of the day, those other people are not the ones styling or maintaining it, they’re not growing it from their heads or buying it from store. And we’re not asking for voluntary suggestions. And if someone takes it upon themselves to grab your hair, just remember to grab their boob. Yeah, they may get upset. But our anger should be just as sufficient.