A tale of the weird and unwarranted.
I wore my hair in a lot of styles while working in a congressional office for three years. When I started the gig I wore dark brown Senegalese twists in a neat updo, then alternated between kinky and wavy weaved styles, and eventually wore my afro when D.C.’s humidity became too much for my coif to bear. Anyway, no one really bothered me about it except one person. She was a pseudo-friendly woman who made irreparable scheduling mistakes, terrorized the interns, and made disparaging remarks to me about my hair in front of everyone. Aside from introducing everyone in earshot to the side of her that was (and likely still is) essentially a bad human, the statements she made also reminded the other four Black women in the office at the time that there is still a respectability war afoot when it comes to our hair, and some of the battles about it can unfortunately be between Black women.
The first time that I met our office scheduler (let’s call her “J”), I was wearing a long, straight weave parted down the middle. We shook hands, stated our respective roles, and went about our day. There was no friction between us or mention of hair at that point. Then, after two weeks of wearing straight hair, I began feeling fro-ish and decided to wear my bush to work. I’d shaved my head the year before after the death of a close relative, and it had since started the upward-outward growth pattern that short, tightly coiled hair often follows: the hair on the crown of my head reached for the sun when it was dry and retreated toward my scalp only at times that it drank its share of rain. The first time J saw it, she swooned.
She showered me with compliments, confessed that she liked my natural hair “a million times better” than my weave, and applauded me for “just being me.”
As if the other styles weren’t me “just being me.”
I moved on from it without comment for two reasons. First, much like the other coworkers who’d ignorantly said similar things to me in the past, I didn’t feel like she meant any harm with her remarks. Two, I was legitimately blindsided by the exchange because there was so much in it to unpack. For instance, was her approval something she assumed I was seeking? Did our age gap (she’s a bit older) lead her to assume that I’d was automatically her mentee, despite the fact that she wasn’t the person I reported to? I tried to shrug the thoughts off entirely, but compartmentalizing them so that I could finish my work was the best I could do. I also noted that she was someone I probably shouldn’t speak with at length.
Over lunch the next day, I couldn’t help but think about our exchange some more. It’s not that I particularly wanted to talk about it, but as my older sister told me before taking the gig, “The Hill has eyes… and ears.”
A coworker who’d overheard the exchange asked me if we knew each other outside of the office, and what it was all about but I didn’t exactly know how to answer her.
My best guess is that, as a woman of mixed ethnicity who self-identifies as Black (I know this because she told me so…without me asking), she likely grew up with a different set of experiences with her hair than I did. In truth, the adulation for loose curls and waves on a Black child’s head — even within their own household—can inform the child’s opinion on their hair for life. I’ve seen that phenomenon play out in my own family, and I’ve definitely seen it in the homes of friends with biracial children.
So perhaps for some Black women, enduring (enjoying?) a lifetime of being petted and prized because their hair is an outlier in Black spaces may mean that they come to adore their hair too. I get that, and that’s a non-issue because everyone is entitled to self-love. But maybe some women become at odds with their hair because people noticing that it is an outlier is also a double-edged sword that can brings prejudice and exclusion in Black spaces. I get that too. As a yellow girl with a strange last name, I quickly learned that schoolyards breed cruelty. But as for women who’ve been ostracized for their hair as much as they’ve been praised for it, I imagine that one way to cope with that exclusion is to create a defense mechanism in which they validate the beauty of hair textures different (read as: kinkier) than their own. I see no problem with that either. I’ll even reciprocate.
Let’s defeat colonized beauty standards one compliment at a time. I welcome that.
With that said, what J did was not that. Our interaction was an instance in which a woman I’d known less than a nanosecond projected her assumptions about how I perceive my hair onto me, then voiced those assumptions in the most inappropriate setting. It was patronizing.
The next week, I sashayed into that policy office with a voluminous sew-in of corkscrew curls. It was jumbo hair. An architectural marvel of hair. A veritable umbrella of hair suited for the office storm I’d unknowingly walked into that day. My coworkers, who were accustomed to me changing my hair frequently, offered their usual “hey…nice ‘do” and moved on. I heard nothing from J, and honestly? I was relieved.
I did notice that she’d been side-eyeing me all morning, but her commenting on my hair was the last thing on my mind. The actual reason I’d been steering clear of her that day was because she kept asking me to do things that weren’t my job…like bringing her coffee.
Sidebar: Even the congresswoman got her own coffee and never burdened anyone in the front office with it. In fact, everyone got their own coffee.
When I returned from lunch that day, she came over to my workstation and announced (not leaned in and whispered) that she was “disappointed in me” because she “loved the way my natural hair and thought that I should love my natural hair too.”
I cringed and it was contagious.
It was the cringe that reverberated throughout the front office, like a loud sound in a vast cavern. Upon hearing her words, one coworker headed for the break room at lightning speed, and one shy yet capable intern murmured that she was about to go on lunch. As for me? That moment with J felt like something out of an anime. You know the part when the animators strip everything away except for a narrow, landscape strip of each opponent's eyes as they glare at each other while climatic music plays? It was like that. We were locked in a tense stare down, but we were also — still — very much in a congressional office with constituents and members walking by.
I took a breath and tried to wrangle my emotions.
“Here’s the thing. I love my hair in all its forms and I’m a style chameleon.”
That’s what I said to her. That’s the best I could do in a moment when everyone in earshot was listening but pretending not to be. I felt strange about it immediately after because I should have said more. I should have told her that her suggesting that my choice to wear weave or not was somehow an indictment of how proud or ashamed I am of myself as a Black woman is ridiculous.
I should have asked her to put on an afro wig and let me know if she felt any differently about who she was inside while wearing it. Knowing her, she likely would’ve snidely answered that she would indeed feel more connected to her blackness if she was able to wear kinkier hair. But if she had said that, I would’ve pointed out that if that were true, then her assessment of blackness is in fact, reductive.
I’m an expert at thinking about all the clever things I could’ve said in an argument to prove a point. Hindsight 20/20; razor sharp.
As I rode that train home from work that day I thought about how my grandmother’s pale skin and wavy hair texture didn’t exempt her from the staunch racism she experienced when she lived in rural Virginia. That is not to say that complexion and hair aren’t qualifiers for where one is placed on a spectrum of how close they are to whiteness, thus solidifying certain privileges for them from proponents of divisive phenotype politics and social constructs. Because unfortunately it is.
I also thought about my other biracial coworker on that train ride home. I thought about how she’d shot me an empathetic glance as I hammered away at my keyboard in frustration after J walked away from my desk, and how I’d appreciated it in that moment because she’d reminded me that J’s hangup on my hair wasn’t a ‘mixed girl thing’ or even a ‘me’ thing; it was about something she had internalized long ago and needed to unpack on her own.
But mostly, that simple nonverbal communication from my coworker grounded me in something else that I definitively know about myself: I don’t care to widen the divide between Black women — especially not for something as trivial as hair texture or complexion. There’s already enough on our plates. With that said, I do feel that we can challenge each other to have more conversations about the damage done to us, and the damage that we inadvertently do to each other.
The practice of condemning black women’s hair has become an increasingly polarizing issue even within our communities, especially when one considers the fallacy of looking to one’s hair as a sole indicator of their appreciation for their history and lineage. It’s simply more complicated than that — and if it isn’t, it should be.
I’ll continue to love the many ways I can manipulate my hair. Further, I love that the strength and texture of my natural hair gives me the freedom to be inventive with braids and extensions. Also, why does my desire to seek loose curls, different lengths and colors, or a simple blowout have to be tied to deep-seated self-hatred, when women of other racial or ethnic backgrounds seldom suffer the same social repercussions for changes they make to alter their appearances? Sometimes I wear straight styles despite the fact that my hair is not naturally straight, but I find it no different than people with straight hair using mousse, Styrofoam contraptions, and other methods to make their hair look fuller. Or sitting under a dryer with a thousand rollers to get their unnatural curls.
Does anyone ask them if they hate their natural hair?
The bottom line is, let’s all slay our respective textures and styles and keep our microaggressions to ourselves at work.