Miss Me With The ‘Good Hair’ Comments, Please: Embracing My Hair On My Own Terms

December 11, 2012  |  


During a recent trip to the hair salon, my new stylist, who happened to be white, asked about my ethnicity. When I told her I’m black and Italian, she said, “Your hair’s beautiful. You must get this from your Italian side.” Picture my face falling to the ground.

Last month, a white woman who shall remain nameless because I have to see her regularly commented that she liked my hair. That seemed innocent enough, until she said it was nice because it wasn’t “too kinky.” Excuse me?

A few weeks prior, a black man I met at a club said he knew I had “something besides black in me” because I’ve “got that good hair.” Black relatives and friends have proudly used the “good hair” phrase to describe their own hair as well as mine, apparently unaware they have bought into white supremacy in the process.

On the flip side, some people have suggested that I get a relaxer or a Keratin treatment, as if coiled hair is a disease that only harsh chemicals can cure. I stopped relaxing my hair when I was 16 and have no plans to relax it again. I like my hair in its natural state; I enjoy wearing it curly, blow-dried straight or twisted in rope-like strands depending on my mood and the occasion.

But just last week I spoke with a woman who, despite clear indications that I was happy sans chemicals, and despite the fact that I did not ask for her advice, insisted that relaxers have improved since I last used them and I could probably find a mild one that would work well on my hair. Work well to accomplish what? Help me conform to her warped standard of beauty?

Generally, I don’t think these people are trying to be malicious. I just think they’ve been mentally programmed to believe that whiteness – in all its manifestations — is superior, and these ideas are so deeply engrained in their psyche that they are no longer questioned or even acknowledged.

Many people don’t realize that when they use the term “good hair,” they’re essentially saying that black hair is bad. They don’t grasp that if beautiful hair “must come from my Italian side,” the implication is that my black ancestry could only produce ugliness. They don’t reflect on why they prefer hair that isn’t “too kinky” and why they can’t see coiled hair without suggesting some sort of chemical treatment to straighten it. They’ve simply become brainwashed by a society busy sending messages in both subtle and glaring terms that white is right.

The truth is that the story of my hair is much more complex than a spectrum skewed in favor of straight.

Growing up, I never disliked my hair, but I always wished it was slightly different — less frizzy, not so thick, the curls more uniform and easier to manage.

My mother tugged and pulled on my hair every morning to tame it, always with a giant bottle of Luster’s Pink Oil —“the pink stuff” as we called it — by her side. It was painful and strangely soothing at the same time, her running the brush through my hair, using elastics, barrettes and banana clips to create sleek new styles, both of us in silence during the transformation and feeling no need to speak.

I started getting relaxers when I was 8 at the suggestion of a relative who said my hair would be “more manageable” that way, and I stopped relaxing my hair at 16 at the suggestion of a friend who taught me how to manage my hair without chemicals.

There have been names, some of them amusing, others hurtful. My mom joked that my sister and I were “Don King’s daughters” because our hair stood straight up in the mornings; my uncle called me “Bunwina” during my late teens because he’s known for coming up with goofy nicknames, and because I often wore my hair in a bun, unsure of what else to do with it; an ex-boyfriend called me “Sideshow Bob” when I finally felt confident enough to wear my hair out. It’s probably obvious why he’s my ex-boyfriend.

All of these experiences are part of a larger journey of personal growth, understanding and self-acceptance. They’re far more complicated than simplistic value judgments of “good” and “bad.” They transcend aesthetics and embrace identity. My hair has always had a mind of its own, and only recently have I started to appreciate that.

I want people to understand my story, and the broader implications of the judgments we all form about black hair. But it’s not always possible to have profound and meaningful conversations about hair and race with acquaintances, drunk men at nightclubs and hairdressers holding 400-degree styling tools. So I engage when it’s appropriate. And I stay silent when it’s not. I take note of the attitudes surrounding black hair that I’m saddened but not entirely surprised still persist. I pick and choose my battles. And I remain thankful that my relationship with my hair no longer counts as one of them.

Lauren Carter is a Boston-based wordsmith who writes about music, culture and race. Connect with her on Twitter @ByLaurenCarter or check out her blog at www.bylaurencarter.com.

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  • Betsy

    I’ve never had a relaxer and have been teased and tortured by black women all my life about my hair. And you know what, it bothered me as a young girl, but I am grown and I LOVE LOVE LOVE my hair!!! It is manageable, always has been. Its just that most black women don’t understand why anyone would not want to have a precious relaxer. Without a relaxer I have had more versatility and I have not had any issues with my hair falling out from daily heat styling. I work out etc. Currently I have gone with a short nia long hair style and my coworker who is the queen of relaxed fried and damaged looking hair tells me that I need to slap some perm on the back of my head because she doesn’t like the waves that I have. What she is saying is that she doesn’t like my natural hair. But what she is really saying like HER natural hair. She makes a comment daily about my hair and I am just convinced that she is jealous. Her hair is fried. Needs a trim constantly because she says it is growing but it never gets past that same length. I laugh as mine grows and needs a trim every two to three weeks, she is still stuck on stupid, aka a relaxer!

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  • roo08

    People love to project their issues onto your natural hair. I don’t have time for it, i’m not Dr. Phil, don’t throw your issues on me please.

  • Sunshine Harris

    Wow we need to work together to deflate these condescending racial myths. One person at a time. This blog is phenomenal.

  • CandyD

    I’m transitioning and even now people comment about myhair. Whether it’s in a weave (need to deal with the differing textures without the straitening iron) or loose someone is going to say somethng. As if i asked their opinion. My SIL went natural first this time and it’s grown out nicely. We don’t have the same cul apttern, but it’s really helping me stay on track and not give into peer pressure. or family pressure as it was. I’m not going to lie, i do fire up my curling iron sometimes.The hair just looks strange with a bunch of straight hair hanging from a mass of curls aftert i wash it.

    • pretty1908

      I went natural last november and my co worker said jen its time for a perm… i wanted to say its time for to drop 30lbs but i smiled and said naah it isn’t. Its funny because women have mixed reviews on my natural…while the men looooove it

      • rita

        I’m relaxed but I find from my friends who have gone natural that it can change the type of men who go for you. Oddly non-black guys seem to be more into natural hair (we live in a predominately white city, but of course we seek out each other so we tend to have BM options) – oddly because you would think straight hair would be more familiar to them.

  • I started locs in June. Someone told me I had “good hair” and asked why was I locking it. O_o

  • MLS2698

    IDK. My mother expressed that she was upset some years ago when I was natural for about 5 years, but complained that it was too much hair to comb, and went back to relaxers. Here’s the thing: I didn’t know that I should NOT have been combing my hair everyday; but only when wet! African American women have spent so many years fighting the stigma ( whites planted it) of OUR hair that, we don’t know how to take care of our natural tresses. I have been natural for 19 months ( yes, it’s like my baby, so I use months) and will never go back! I LOVE MY HAIR! I treat my hair like a fabric, and as you know, every fabric does not work for every occasion, but I don’t alter it with heat; I don’t even blow dry. I’m not exactly #team natural, though because I think it’s a personal decision that each person should make, so I don’t harass people about chemicals. It could be all in my head, but I could swear I see people taking double-takes at my hair, and in any case, it makes me feel beautiful, so I know it’s ALL GOOD.