Hair is a subject that I normally avoid and there are many reasons why. But after leaving the barber this week and walking home, I got two hair comments before I got to the house.
- “I like them lines in your head!” — said with much enthusiasm from a young dude coming off the train. He gave me a big afternoon smile and a feeling of freshness. My barber is dope and it’s so fun to get a fresh cut.
- “Hey miss! Hey!” I usually turn around on the second call to make sure I was indeed the miss in question. “Do dreads hurt?” Asked a teenager with a long mane poking out of her hoodie. I assured her that they didn’t hurt any more than braids and that “I do my own so I’m not gonna hurt myself,” she seemed to like that laughing, “True.”
I don’t talk about hair often because hair is political, black hair is politicized and honestly these are politics that I usually don’t feel like I can even begin to dive into as a bi-racial woman. But in a place like Portland, where there are way less brown folks in visible spaces — especially when it comes to downtown and public transportation — I guess maybe now its time to talk about my hair.
My hair is curly.
As in: everyone always thought I was Dominican growing up.
As in: my mom is white and my dad is black and everyone always asks what I am.
As in: people say dumb shit like, oh you got some injun in you. & yes people still say stuff like that.
The other thing this means though is that I have societal aesthetic privilege related to old school ideas about what kind of hair is “good hair.”
Aka on the spectrum of blacker or whiter, who is closer to white. And who looks closer to white.
If this is a new concept to you then I’m not even going to begin to do this conversation justice. I would highly suggest trying to find Ayoka Chenzira’s short film “Hairpiece” or doing some research on Madame CJ Walker so you can begin to understand the extent to which African Americans have tried to relax and straighten our hair based on respectability politics. (Please note that this is the origins of why hair straightening was necessary and at this point there are stylistic preferences — aka every person with relaxed or straightened hair isn’t trying to be white and doesn’t have low self-esteem. Please don’t read into this and try to remove all nuance from the convo by saying that’s what I’m claiming here. Or you are wasting your time b/c I’m not going to get into it about that BS). I also suggest doing some research into the definition of pickaninny, watching Bamboozled and watching Good Hair if you’re curious to learn more about controlling and diminishing racist images of African Americans and their usage in US history.
Side note: Maybe you’ll begin to understand why it’s so absolutely fucked up that white women get to parade around in “boxer braids” and get lauded for starting trends while wearing the same styles that black women have as heritage and yet have been called unclean, unkempt and unprofessional when wearing.
I will say this:
The elevation of Eurocentric culture in the western world and globally was an intentional and curated attempt to diminish the self-confidence of African Americans and keep us psychologically — in addition to physically and spiritually — in chains. Even if the physical chains are broken, after centuries of slavery and decades of continued disenfranchisement through prisons, unfair policing, lack of equal access to resources, etc. We are still doing work on the confidence of communities of color to assure that Eurocentric standards of beauty and aesthetics are not and do not have to be the goal for us, and that is our internal work…that’s not even talking about all the work white folks need to do to examine their own inherited deep-seeded prejudices and preferences (conscious AND subconscious) based on cultural norms.
I will also say that my expertise, research and personal experience comes from the African American lens. This means that so many other communities of color and their nuanced layered and complicated histories and contemporary lives are not represented here. I know that all ethnic and cultural aesthetics in relation to Eurocentric beauty standards have complicated relationships and tensions.
On this narrow and simplistic scale of black to white I have always benefited from the privilege of being light skinned with curly hair. I am literally whiter. When speaking of purely aesthetics, as someone who has had access to that privilege I’ve often felt that I don’t really have a right to be a loud voice in these conversations because I don’t really know what it feels like to be told my hair is unacceptable the way that it grows out of my head. How then, can I truly talk about the politics of black hair?
AND I have been able to make another aesthetic choice without major consequence. My hair is dreaded. That means I have dreadlocks. Never fear all of those who just tssssked when I said dreads. I am very aware of the politics of even that statement. Some people don’t like calling them dreadlocks and say there is nothing dreadful about them and they should be called African locks. Those people can call their hair what they want and I will call mine what I want….which is dreads. I get why some people don’t want to call them dreads. I do. I dreaded my hair based on being surrounded by Caribbean culture in high school and basically thinking I could run into Rasta to avoid the issues I had with Christianity. Spoiler alert…that didn’t work. I remain both Christian and not West Indian. Which will make many of my old friends chuckle and others that know me a bit less very confused.
While I say I had little consequence, I have been heckled in both English and Spanish and called dirty on the street mainly by other POC who would likely have more consequence in their homes and places of work if choosing the same aesthetic. There is a stigma attached to having dreads. For this reason my mom didn’t want me to get them.
When I brought home Dreads a photography coffee table book by Francesco Mastalia with the forward by Alice Walker thinking this would help my cause at age 15, it didn’t. My dad was also confused. My hair doesn’t grow out of my head in dreads, so that isn’t my natural hair he countered. Despite that fact they supported me in starting to dread on my sixteenth birthday. It didn’t work and it was uncomfortable — the part where the black women in the beauty salon were not pleased when I arrived with my white mom and tried to give me braids instead was the uncomfortable part. It didn’t work and after nine months I woefully brushed out my hair.
A note to white people who like to tell their friends with dreads that their hair basically dreads if they don’t wash it for four days. No it doesn’t. That’s offensive. Please stop saying that.
I started locking, as many call it, again in college. My friend Sherine started my hair in her dorm room and she is one of three people who have ever helped me with my hair since. After the experience of bad reluctant energy in my hair, I’ve become a lot more discerning. It’s been 12 years and I think I’ve learned some lessons so I wanted to share them a bit.
- Dreads are awesome. They are a lot of work and many people have many opinions about what they should look like and what they should mean. Do you.
- White people with dreads are still white people. Regardless of wearing your hair in a way that puts you decidedly outside of societal beauty aesthetics, you still have societal privilege based on your whiteness. My white ex boyfriend who had dreads before we met put this best in explaining to me why he cut them. “I have always gotten every promotion I ever asked for,” he said. Even with long, seemingly unkempt dreads, he still had more privilege and ability to navigate mainstream white environments than his BIPOC friends and coworkers. Growing up white in deep Brooklyn was far from easy for his family. He has always had majority non white friends and been privy to their challenges. I would go as far as to say that growing up there were likely times he didn’t want to be white, to fit in better. As an adult however, he was still able to recognize that — even if he didn’t want it — he has white privilege which helped to alleviate the stigma of danger and lack of professionalism related to dreads.
- Dreads are becoming much more acceptable! Yay! I know so many black folks who navigate corporate environments and wear dreads. I also know others who have cut their hair before going through an interview cycle to increase their opportunities. There is progress but certain natural hair — like dreads and super fresh fros — are still seen as problematic or unprofessional in many work environments in which European standards of beauty still reign supreme.
- Please don’t ask women of color to touch their hair. Does anyone ever walk up to you and ask to touch your body? Please think about that next time you reach out to swipe someone on the street or you want to sink your hands into someone curly fro. People don’t need to be pet.
Recently I cut off about half my dreads. When I felt the first snip tears ran down my face. My hair means a lot to me. It has taught me patience. It has helped me form community and be recognized and greeted with respect and love in my beloved Crown Heights, the West Indian neighborhood where I lived in Brooklyn. My hair has helped me signal my blackness, through my aesthetic choice to wear a very historically black style. I believe in beauty, fashion and self-styling as a way of saying who you are to the world — your look is your first calling card. My dreads have grown with me until adulthood. Now I have an undercut and my first snip happened at my very first visit to the barber. I now have a barber and I get to sit in a barbershop, historically a very male space. In a very white city, it’s fun to have something in common with the young black men I see on the bus knowing we all sit in a barber chair.
Talking about hair is also a way to talk about privilege. This is a topic we all need to get more comfortable and more fluent talking about. Privilege doesn’t have to be a source of guilt. I think it can be a source of responsibility. I believe each of us has a responsibility to contribute to the world around us. This is not only in a ‘big heal the world, be conscious of your carbon footprint’ level but also on the level of interpersonal relationships. Own who you are. Seek to recognize your levels of privilege. Seek to use it to open doors for others and to be more aware of the barriers others face each day — sometimes based on something as seemingly simple as how their hair grows out of their head and how they choose to wear it.