White People, Black Hair

             With the expression of racial hatred on the rise, there seems to be no bottom to the incidents of assaults on black people – especially black children and young people – through their hair.

There was the referee for a wrestling match who insisted that a member of the team cut his dreadlocks (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2018/12/21/referee-high-school-wrestler-cut-your-dreadlocks-or-forfeit/). Then there was the “hair code”  – for black kids – that was implemented at a Decatur, Georgia elementary school (https://www.cbs46.com/news/parents-outraged-by-hair-policy-at-decatur-school/article_c6e5b270-b58f-11e9-aedb-7bdd52a22f48.html) , and in South Africa, natural black hairstyle by girls were banned, called “untidy” (https://qz.com/africa/768877/a-south-african-high-school-has-banned-girls-from-afros-and-natural-hairstyles-because-they-are-untidy/)

The most recent incident involving a black child and her hair turned out to be a hoax (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/us/dreadlocks-cut-girl-virginia-school.html), but it is not beyond the pale to imagine that some black child, somewhere, has been traumatized by a representative of white culture who has decided that black hair and black hairstyles are a problem.

The arrogance of whites determining what is good for black people and what is acceptable is not new; almost every black person has had a curious white person touch his or her hair and think nothing of it, backing away from the “experience” totally surprised that the hair they just touched is “soft.” It is insulting yet it happens far too often, even now.

But the reason I write this is because I experienced a black hair episode when I was in my 20s. I seldom talk about it, but I will never forget it. I was in my 20s and doing public relations in a posh firm charged with the development of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I loved the job and I was good at it.

But one day I decided I was tired of my hair. Back in the day, black women were obsessed with making our hair as “white” as possible, meaning we needed it to be straight so we would fit into the white world which totally rejected us. In spite of scalps burned by the application of chemical relaxers, we endured it. Every six to eight weeks, we would get a “touch up,” and in between applications, we would fret if our hair – especially the “edges,” did not remain straight. Relaxers were supposed to be a step up from the straightening comb, which also caused us much pain and discomfort, as either our mothers or beauticians worked as hard as they could to make curly hair …straight.

I don’t know what inspired me but I am a woman with a woman’s prerogative, and I was bored with my hair. So, I got it cornrowed. It wasn’t an elaborate style. Just braids cascading down my head toward my neck in neat little rows. Once braided, I didn’t have to “fool” with it; I could go to bed at night without going through all kinds of contortions to make it look straight enough for the white world’s standard of beauty.

I walked into my office that day and was sitting at my desk, doing my work as the other members of the team arrived. I remember the stares I got (I was the only black person in the firm; except for the receptionist, who looked to be Italian, the firm was filled with white men) as they said good morning to me but stared at my head. Only one, the architect, had the courage – or the arrogance – to say something. “What is wrong with your hair?” he asked derisively as he passed his office to get to his. I said nothing because anything I would have said would have gotten me fired.

It turns out I didn’t have to say anything to get fired. The president of the firm called me into his office two hours into the workday, asked me to sit down, and informed me I was being let go.

Fired.

I remember frowning and asking him why and he said something about me not being happy at the firm – which was a crock as I had never voiced any such sentiment. I had pressed him to get more African Americans involved in the planning of the Inner Harbor, but other than that, I was fine with my job. I figured that pressing for more African Americans in the workplace was the duty of every black person with a job.

He mumbled something about he was sorry …and by the sound of his voice, even as he kept his cowardly eyes lowered, I knew that the conversation was over. I went into my office and cleared it out and in an hour, I was on the street, taking my place among the unemployed.

I share this story because it is astounding to me that so many years later, white people are still consumed with black hair, doing and saying things that are offensive but more importantly probably a source of emotional pain for the younger children. It is part of the dehumanization of black people that whites who engage in this kind of racist behavior probably do not think – or care about – the trauma their insensitivity causes children.

Even as white people criticize black hair, they too often imitate the black hairstyles they seem to loathe. A visit to any Caribbean island is incomplete without seeing little white girls walking around with cornrowed hair with beads. I remember feeling some kind of way when Bo Derek was shown running down a beach with her hair in cornrows. And I stand in amazement at the number of white people I see with dreadlocks.

I do wish white people would “hear” me and leave our hair alone. And I especially wish they would leave their disgust of black life, culture, and hairstyles at home. Our children deserve to wear their hair the way they want, just like white kids dye their hair green and blue and pink and wear punk haircuts.

We leave your hair alone. I wish you’d leave ours alone as well.

A candid observation …

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