I recently went on a social media rant regarding some of the hair related issues black people face in school, and in the workplace, if they’re a minority. What triggered my Instagram post was an interaction I had with two women at work.
It went a little something like this.
Woman 1: You changed your hair again! I love it!
Me: Thank yo… (I suddenly feel someone stroke/pet my head without consent)
Woman 2: Is it real? It feels real….I love when you hair is straight.
W1: I agree, it looks so much better for the workplace.
Me: What do you mean better for the workplace?
W2: Like it’s not ‘out there’ like some of your hairstyles.
The conversation awkwardly continued with more backhanded compliments, and me calmly asking if the way my hair naturally grows out of my scalp is unprofessional, or if they understand what protective styles are.
Maybe it’s because I’m turning 30 next month, and I can’t just smile and say thank you anymore, but I have had it up to here (gesturing waaaaaay above my head), with the unannounced touching, insults disguised as compliments and pure innocent ignorance. This has been going on my ENTIRE life. A few weeks back I was told straight hair looked more sophisticated on me by one colleague, and more professional by another.
It doesn’t always come from a bad place, and I think it’s important to educate people on how hurtful some comments can be before turning to violence, (I kid…sort of), so here’s my most serious attempt thus far.
For you to fully understand why this is actually an issue, I think it’s important to understand the history of black hair. I won’t be covering all aspects, but I’ll try to include the things I feel have to be mentioned.
Despite regular news reports on educational institutes, and employers, banning and discriminating natural and protective hair styles around the world, I often come across people who are shocked to hear about these issues.
The Comb Test
For those who always tell black people to get over slavery, there are a lot of ideologies from that time period that are still lingering, and unfortunately, some black people help keep these alive, like the definition of ‘good hair’ and colorism.
Though I personally only believe in one race, the human one, black people, were during slavery often referred to as the ‘wooly-haired race’. Anyone with this type of hair was seen as less worthy, dumb, and basically de-humanized.
After centuries of slave owners raping female slaves, a large population of ethnically mixed slaves grew and later on a free so called ‘m*latto elite’ emerged throughout The Americas and Caribbean. (Yes, I censored the M word because it’s just as bad as the N word, but that’s for another post)
Much like the brown paper bag test (which I’ll cover in a separate post), the comb test was introduced as a way to determine how much African blood was in someone.
If a fine toothed comb seamlessly went through a black/multi-ethnic person’s hair, they were seen as ‘whiter’ and received more privileges. If the comb was met with resistance and snag in the hair, it meant that the person had more of the less desired African blood in them and they’d be faced with discrimination.
It did not matter if two siblings sharing the same parents had different textured hair or skin complexion,(which is common in black families around the world), the one of lighter skin complexion, and “better” hair would still receive better treatment from both white and black communities. I write about how I have friends who want mixed kids for this very reason in this post.
Straighten yourself out
Madame C. J. walker, born around 1867, became the first self-made female millionaire in The United States, and one of the most successful black entrepreneurs in US history. She made her fortune by creating products that helped straighten kinky/curly hair amongst other things.
Once hot combs and hair relaxers, were introduced to black communities, more black women, and men did everything they could to be seen as well-adjusted, neater and cleaner to be somewhat more accepted.
I could go on and on about the historic implications of comments like “your hair looks more professional when it’s straight,” but I’ll save that for another time.
I am blessed enough to work at a place where my hair is not regulated by my employer, but there is still this subliminal belief, held by many, that straight hair is simply better suited for a work enviornment.
There are many people who don’t realise that their comments are the reason why many black people try to assimilate as much as they can to fit into western beauty standards to ensure they’re not singled out based on their appearance. It’s not easy for all of us to wear our hair natural or in a protective style when we’re only told we look professional with a straight weave or chemically relaxed hair.
These are just a few suggestions if you don’t know how to act around ‘black’ hair:
- Ask before touching someone’s hair, not just black people.
- Compliment them without adding ‘but’, ‘better than’, ‘compared to’ etc. if it’s in relation to a time they’ve worn their hair in it’s natural state or any other protective style you don’t understand.
- Ask if you’re curious about a hairstyle, assumptions are never good.
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice if you’ve never worked on 3A- 4c hair types.
- Keep an open mind.
At the end of the day, whether you’re experiencing these issues or not, try to define your own beauty because people will always have something to say. If people insist on touching your hair without consent, the one thing that I have discovered to be quite effective, is touching someone’s hair right back.
The looks are priceless.
There’s beauty in strength.
/ Love Tima Ahimsa
I do not own any of the media in this post.