What Ethnic Box Would You Check For Your Hair?

Even with knowing most of the players in my family tree, I still don’t really know what genetic playground produced my hair.
Publish date:
September 19, 2014
hair, ethnicity

It has taken me years to figure out my hair identity. The only loose definition I can offer it is “cross-cultural hair.” Many categories have been projected onto me -- and my hair. Brazilian, Dominican, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish and North African are a few conclusions that are all wrong.

Despite what others may have theorized about me, growing up, I often felt like an outlier. Inside, I was seeking a hair tribe that I could identify with. Hair texture, ancestry and identity are somewhat indistinguishable.

Our level of awareness can go as deep as our perception of manageability based upon the varying degrees of our coarseness, thickness, flatness and curl create patterns of me, and you. My hair “type” -- an ethnic play on African, a couple of Native American tribes and about 11 European countries -- can be traced back to the 1700s. The result makes me like and unlike many: frizz-prone, fragile, dense, fine/thin, with soft spirals.

Even with knowing most of the players in my family tree, I still don’t really know what genetic playground produced my hair. My parents have only further confounded my hair identification.

When I was five, my dad, a black man, decided that getting a curly perm to add texture to his fine straight hair would help to solve any further questions about his ethnicity. My mom indulged him, and when he emerged from the bathroom, he didn't get the Denzel Washington effect he was going for -- he looked like Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from "American Hustle."

In eighth grade, my mother and I got stuck outside in a rainstorm. On that day I learned for the first time that her hair was similar to mine. She had always worn it straight with waves like Charlie’s Angel, Jaclyn Smith. I stood in wonder as her natural curls surfaced after getting wet. This moment not only revealed her extreme effort to maintain a style that was incongruent with her natural hair texture, but gave pause to a surprising vulnerability all because her curls had been exposed.

After ironing her hair on ironing boards in the 1960s, visiting Japanese salons in Hollywood for hair straightening in the 1970s, and receiving Italian perms in the 1990s, my mom had created a multi-cultural and multi-faceted approach to keeping her curls under wraps. For her, having her hair “done” was an important part of her look, as it was for most women of her generation.

When I was nine, my mom gave me bangs and straightened my hair with an at-home relaxer kit called Curl Free. The Curl Free box cover featured a woman who looked like the brown-eyed, very long-haired soft-rock singer Crystal Gayle. Even though my new straightened hair did battle with the San Francisco mist and fog that I faced each day, I continued with this look through high school.

In college, I started wearing my natural curls and got blowouts occasionally. I have rejected chemical straighteners ever since. Depending on the day, I will do what I want with my hair. Low-maintenance is key.

Underneath the layers of my hair and inside my spirals lies a story that most textured-haired women can relate to. We’ve been through experiments with hair tools, products and stylists that have offered a lifetime of wrongs and moments of right. I certainly would not classify my hair as being “good” (versus “bad”) even though others have made this diagnosis. It is just "me." A multitude of race mixing has given rise to blends of textures of hair patterns across continents.

Many of the locks of my African, Jewish, Latina and Asian sisters defy type-casting. When asked about how hair texture relates to ethnicity, the Lebanese self-proclaimed “curly hair expert” and stylist Ouidad says, “There is no ethnicity that correlates to a specific curl pattern. The reason is that races have been mixing since the beginning of time. For example people of Middle Eastern descent are a mix of Spanish and African type hair.”

Ultimately, the more we try to classify, the more limited we are.

As natural hair texture is seemingly becoming more embraced by women, this liberation is being expressed in the free flow of hair textures seen on the streets in New York City and on the pages of magazines. In showing our true essence, real beauty lies in accepting and owning what nature has given us and being comfortable with that. It is better to defy categorization than fall in line. Our root elements have created an outer texture and inner pattern that reflects terrific varieties of flavor.