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.