No, really, this isn’t a trap. It’s okay.
I got to thinking about this the other day at my bartending job when a customer made a comment on my hair.
She was an older white woman (we’ll call her Jane) sitting with her husband. Since we had all of ten customers in the bar at the time, I’d been shooting the breeze and answering questions from Jane and her husband, when Jane smiled and said, “Your hair is so gorgeous. How do you do it?”
Let’s begin with this: I have a lot of hair. Both the hair that grows out of my scalp and the hair that is only mine thanks to capitalism and the laws of possession.
Both of these pictures are me: the one on the left is me circa 2009 (oy vey) with my natural hair in twists to keep it under control, while the one on the right is me last year with my extensions in.
That in itself is confusing to a lot of you, I know. How do I do it? Is it heavy? Does it feel strange? Why don’t I just wear my hair as is?
I’m not ashamed to talk about my hair. My natural hair is so thick that growing up, my mom used to compare it to sheep’s wool after it rains. It’s wild, untamable through conventional means, and subdued only by chemicals, heat, or protective styles like the braids or extensions that I usually rock.
I understand the shock my non-Black friends must get when I switch hairstyles. After all, if I want my hair long, I don’t need to wait six months – I just need to spend six-eight hours on it. If I want bangs, I buy them. Between extensions, wigs, and my natural hair, if I can dream it and pay for it, I can cycle through a different hairstyle for every day of the week.
So, back to the bar: to my customer Jane, I responded flippantly, patronizingly, the way I usually do when I don’t want to go through the ins-and-outs of all of this with someone who doesn’t or won’t understand. “Oh, honey, it’s not mine.”
And as I whirled away to do some pressing but non-existent task behind the bar, I noticed the somewhat crestfallen expression on Jane’s face. She’d told me about her grandchildren – how one was getting married in a month, another was looking into BC Law, and how I should give her my contact information so she could pass it along. When she asked about my hair, she had been genuinely, honestly curious. And I had been genuinely, honestly rude.
So I turned back. And I explained, all the while watching for any signs of disinterest or disgust or disapproval. Jane’s curiosity kept me standing in one place for close to ten minutes.
“Is your real hair still under there?”
Yup, just braided very intricately to serve as a base for the extensions.
Well, how do you wash it?
The same as you do any other hair, just with a little more care not to snag it or pull it out.
Does it take an awful long time to do?
The longest. I have to basically have a whole day to do it, but I only have to redo it once a month, so it’s not too bad.
At the end, Jane thanked me for taking the time, and admitted, almost shyly, “I always see people with these lovely hairstyles and I always want to ask, but I don’t want to come across as…” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “…racist.”
And I realized that I was conflating the occurrences of people simply asking about my hair with the actual racism that happens across the world regarding Black hair.
Or the Army having to roll back the restrictions it made to its dress code about Black hair.
Or the judge I once shadowed who told me that I would need to “make my hair less ethnic” if I ever wanted to get a job as a lawyer.
All of these measures come from not understanding this seemingly trivial aspect of another person’s life. But your hair is something you deal with every day, something that people associate with your image and your persona. Which is why it hurts so much when someone tells you that the way you wear your hair – even if you’re merely wearing it the way it grows out of your head – is unappealing, unprofessional, unattractive, and basically, un-human.
If there’s one thing this presidential election has taught me, it’s that you can justify doing anything to another person if you can make them seem less human. If you can make them seem like an “other,” so distant from yourself and your situation, you can justify cutting funding for their health, or making mandates about their bodies, or rationalizing why they live in poverty or don’t have access to education or routinely get murdered by law enforcement. And how do you do that? You simply refuse to learn anything about them, their lives, their struggles. You stay determinedly, malignantly ignorant.
But ignorance isn’t always the dirty word we always make it out to be. It’s okay not to know about Black hair, especially if you aren’t Black. It’s okay not to know about other cultures’ traditions, or why people adhere to a certain style of dress or prayer or diet. It’s okay not to know things that you would have no reason to know about.
I remember going out to lunch with a white co-worker and explaining this encounter at the bar. She replied, mumbling into her grilled cheese, “Well, I definitely have some questions about being Black that I’ve wanted to ask you.”
“Okay, so like, your leg hair, when it grows, is it curly like the hair on your head, or is it prickly and pointy like mine?”
So ask me about me about my hair. Ask me about my culture. Ask me about what it’s like to live in my skin.
Because I really believe that we should all become accustomed to trying to correct our ignorance and educating those trying to correct their own, those asking questions from a place of kindness and curiosity. Only then can we truly move away from the cycles of hatred generated by this election and far before it and move into a place of understanding and acceptance.
Charlene is a 3L and has been with BC Law Impact since her time as a 1L. Check out her posts on cultural competence and things she wishes she knew as a 1L, from day one to the last exam. You can reach her here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.