Re: Can I touch it? The fascination with natural, African American hair

written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Relando Thompkins, MSW

“Your hair is so neat. Can I touch it?”

When I walked into work this morning, one of the students I worked with showed me an interesting article titled “Can I touch it? The Fascination with Natural, African-American Hair” that touched on an experience that can be all too common for some African-Americans who choose to wear their hair natural.

In the article, an experience had by [Love Isn't Enough co-editor] Tamara Winfrey Harris was recalled in which she narrowly escaped a random petting by a curious, middle-aged, white woman. “She missed by mere seconds, she was actually going to grab my hair as I walked past her,” Winfrey Harris recalled.

According to the CNN article, “It’s a common tale shared by women of color whose natural hair can attract stares, curiosity, comments and the occasional stranger who desires to reach out and touch. The reaction to such fondling can range from amusement to outrage over the invasion of personal space.”

One colleague of mine who, in sharing her frustrations after having had this experience several times, would just say: “No! This is not a petting zoo!”

After reading the article with me, this student, who identified as Indian, asked me if people, or even more specifically people who were white, have ever tried to touch my hair. It didn’t take me very long to say yes.

Sometimes, at least in my experience, the touching or attempted touching has been accompanied by questioning. I am an African American male who locks his hair and these are some examples of questions or comments I have received from people who are white about my appearance:

How long does it take to do it? I wish I had all that free time on my hands.

Hey, you wear your hair just like the black football players.

Are you from Jamaica?

Bob Marley!! You know, I just think that Bob Marley was such a revolutionary. I love his music.

It must be hard to get a job like that. Employers like that clean-cut look.

Lets face it, whether their hair is straightened or not, African Americans and other people of color face challenges in carving out standards of beauty for themselves in society. For those who decide to wear their hair natural, additional challenges can show up in their everyday lives.

This video produced in 2008 by Kiri Davis entitled “A Girl Like Me” hits on some of the struggles young African-American women can face in defining themselves and their realities against societal standards.

Color is more than skin deep for young African-American women struggling to define themselves.

In terms of beauty and appearance, I still encounter the conscious and unconscious assertion that lighter is better, whiter is better and the closer one is to that ideal, the greater the value they will have in society.

I am also aware of the perceived importance of having straight hair. From experiencing being teased as a child by other African American children for being of a darker complexion, to watching children that I grew up with lament over how “nappy” their hair was, to being told that I would not be able to get a job because of my decision to lock my own hair, I see the idea of this perceived inferiority to whiteness as being still prevalent.

We are taught misinformation about ourselves and others.

As you may have seen in the video, and as I see in my daily life, unfortunately, some people of color can internalize the negative messages they receive about themselves and act out that internalization in a variety of ways.

I’ve always liked having a lot of hair on my head. I can remember being in high school (when my locks formed just a small afro) and being approached by one of the sports coaches, who was African American.

“It’s a lot of girls out here. You should cut that off, boy. You ain’t gonna get any of these young girls around here with your head like that. And good luck getting a job.”

Just as I came to understand that my manhood is not defined by the amount of currency I have in the form of women and the number of them that I sexually “conquer,”despite the unwritten yet strongly-defined rules that many men are socialized to see as a mandatory in defining their personal value, I also came to understand that I had been taught a great deal of misinformation about my racial identity as well.

For me, having the opportunity to be exposed to what I saw as positive real live examples of people and situations which challenged that misinformation is what led me to challenge things myself.

However, some might see the coach’s words, particularly the part about me not being able to get a job, as being protective. Society does view of a certain kind of look as “right” and “professional.” Many people of color can find themselves outside of that defined standard. As a result fears of discrimination based on outward appearance–both real and perceived–some African American people may be led to think, say and do things that, while harmful to our self images, are meant to minimize the instances and impact of that discrimination.

American communities are still very segregated. We can sometimes be either unwilling or unable to interact with those who are different from our group. The level to which we can avoid or ignore one another without experiencing any consequences greatly depends on our level of privilege.

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Engaging in conversations with white people who have questions about my hair helps remind me of certain realities. It helps me to assume people are trying as best they can. But consistently being in situations among a very few persons of color, or being the ONLY person of color, and being looked upon to take advantage of “teachable moments,” is physically and emotionally draining. It puts an undue burden on the targeted person to be seen as a representative of their group.

Parts of our identities can place us in a position of privilege, while others can leave us vulnerable to discrimination. I believe that in areas in which we are privileged, there are ways we can seek out information about oppressed groups to increase our own understanding without putting a burden on the individual to speak for their own group.

One example of working against the misinformation around the idea that blackness and natural hair automatically spells doom and gloom in the work world can be found in the “Naturally Professional Series” on curlynikki.com. This series was “created to make a positive statement. Our intent is to disprove false and long-held beliefs that wearing one’s hair in a natural style — including locs, sisterlocs, and loose natural hair — makes a person somehow not professional enough for a corporate environment. Natural hair IS professional, beautiful, well taken care of, and welcome in any kind of workplace.”

People of color choose to wear their hair natural (or not) for a variety of reasons. It is imperative that young people of color, whether their hair is permed or otherwise, develop and maintain a positive sense of self into adulthood. We can help this happen by showing them counterexamples to the popular but negative messages they receive.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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