Everything You NEED To Know About Black Hair: A Basic Lesson

It's simple: Stop asking black people why we do what we do with our hair, and start asking why and how it came to be such a deciding factor in how we are treated.
Publish date:
September 12, 2013
hair, race, presentability, tiana parker

When Tiana Parker can barely get her first words out of the sentence, “They should let me keep my dreads,” my chest convulses. She doesn’t say I want, she doesn’t ask why, she says "let."

At 7 years old she feels like she needs permission to keep her hair the way she wants. I know what that feels like, I know what it’s like to have to be prepared to go to battle when you leave your house . It is not something you ever want for a baby, but it’s rooted in a struggle between self expression, history, aesthetics and survival that most folks know or choose to know nothing about.

There are lessons to be learned, and not by Tiana, so I’m breaking my rule on “teaching “ for her.

Here’s the lesson: Stop asking black people why we do what we do with our hair, and start asking why and how it came to be such a deciding factor in how we are treated.

The easy thing to say is, “THE SCHOOL WAS WRONG!!! THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT BABY’S HAIR!" More heartbreaking to know is that the school’s policy -- which is now under review following Tiana's experience -- is understandable. Hair and presentability have been the fuel behind some of the most racist depictions of African Americans and the more enduring stereotypes. From Topsy to Buckwheat to the New Yorker’s Obama Cover, “strange” black hair has been a symbol of comedy and terror, a reason to suppress and deny.

Sheryl Underwood on “The Talk” (with Aisha Tyler laughing along) asked why would you save nappy hair, as opposed to the long silky hair. A Glamour writer gives a seminar and decides to tell Black Women to avoid “political hairstyles.” Don Imus gets his giggles and chortles from calling Black female athletes "nappy-headed ho’s." From whether we should vote, be employed, or compete as athletes, folks seem to think we live and die on whether our hair pleases them.

The school reflects a common tactic of shifting the weight of that racism to the individual. “If you never are what they say about us, they will know it’s not true. That’s how you show you are worthy of basic respect.” Claiming to encourage a serious atmosphere of learning, the school is also imparting the lesson: “ This is how it will be in the real world. These hair styles make you not worthy of respect, and will deny you opportunities. Prepare now.”

There is an open and ongoing discussion about how we all understand policing and beauty standards . We get that it’s unfair, we may throw around words like "patriarchal" and "misogynistic." If people hit 102-level understanding, race and ability may make an appearance.

The part that takes at least grad-level understanding is how even being included in the conversation is a huge benefit. The difference between, “ You could be pretty if you lost weight/got bigger boobs/dressed like this/used this,” and “ You are ugly/alien/ a constant source of comedy oh my god why would ANYONE EVER FIND YOU ATTRACTIVE” doesn’t just affect your self esteem, which would be bad enough, but is used to deny you basic dignity, body autonomy and sometimes basic needs.

That difference is the world where far too many black women are told they reside (even Academy Award-nominated actresses) and where “Everyone is beautiful!!!!” pablum fails.

The natural hair of Black-identified women has a long history of being considered the property of public dissection. Everyone feels like they have some right to speak on it, and most often people who don’t have it themselves. Those of us who do are often having to explain, defend, or counsel the world on our hair choices.

Is it political? Aesthetic? Cultural? Self Care? Laziness? Can it be touched? What are the politics of touching? What do you do with it? I JUST WANT TO LEARN!!!! Public exhibitions are staged so people can get comfortable. But what about the right to not have it be anybody’s business?

The first time I cried about my hair I was the same age as Tiana Parker. Her family has been amazing in their vocal support of their baby and I envy it a little.

The worst time I cried was at 16. I was going off to college and my mother, an immigrant, was desperate to put me in the salon chair. I fought with all my might until she slayed me with this one: “ I had your hair, and it was so hard for me.” I cried that entire night. Not just because of the hair, but because of her face. She was terrified, even back home in our home country, she knew what came with this hair and wasn’t sure she wanted it for me.

I neglected that hair, and finally got MY hair back when I buzzed it off at 19. My mother went natural five years ago. The last time I cried was three months ago, from joy. I finally knew I loved my hair, enough to keep it to myself. No one has to “let“ me have it, but I need a world that lets me and Tiana have it in peace.

End of Lesson.