A few weeks ago, I went with my friend Stacey to pick up her daughter from school. As my friend’s daughter, Elizabeth, and two of her friends, Sarah and Lydia, piled into the backseat, Stacey told her daughter that the stuff they’d ordered for her hair had come in the mail. Elizabeth excitedly opened the box, inspecting the contents. “Mmm, this smells good,” she said as she passed the bottle of hair product around for everyone to take note of the fruity smell.
Elizabeth is Jewish with thick, curly locks and her hair woes were something I could relate to, so I’d suggested some hair products that might work for her thick curls. As we talked about hair—which turned to a conversation about race and hair—Lydia, Elizabeth’s 17-year-old friend, asked me, “Why can’t we touch your hair?”
It was an honest question. Lydia, Elizabeth and Sarah all peered at me with curiosity, telling me that they’d heard you were never supposed to touch a Black woman’s hair—but they wanted to know why.
As I pondered what to say to Lydia, I noted that it seemed to be the season for raising questions around Black hair. Just over a month ago, Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic apologized to Disney actor Zendaya for making comments about her hair. Specifically, Rancic landed herself in hot water for saying Zendaya’s dreadlocks smelled like “patchouli oil” or “weed.”
Around the same time, I found myself a bit perplexed when an acquaintance made a comment on my Facebook about my hair in reaction to a photo I shared. It was the day after taking out my twists, and my natural Afro was pulled back and clearly visible as an Afro puff on my head. I had some hesitation while taking the photo because I was becoming re-acquainted with my hair after having it bound in twists for months. As various comments poured in responding to the photo, this specific acquaintance—who is white—wrote, “It is not your hottest look but you will learn how to rock it.” While I was partially in shock I also was a little hurt by her lack of acceptance of my hair. While different from the Zendaya debacle, I had to look at the dynamics that race played in all of this. Would my reaction be different if this was a Black friend?
It seemed in the mix of my white friends and peers, I got loud verbal approval of my natural hair and extended commentary of what was most appreciated. I am not a stranger to this behavior, yet somehow it always takes on a different color depending on the person who is making the comment. Years ago, for example, I started using decorative head wraps that would find their way into the office or a company function accessorized with a suit or some type of sassy outfit. Some would call it chic and say it suited my style, while strangers who did not know me asked me where I was from (as in my country of origin).
My second husband (who was a mix of Irish and other things) also made unnerving comments about my hair. He made it a point to question my hair choices, wondering why I couldn’t just leave my hair in its natural state; I was strongly encouraged (more like forbidden) from putting any type of chemicals in my hair. Even as I explained to him that using texturizer saved me time and allowed me to have a wash-and-fro as opposed to time-consuming twist-outs, he never seemed to grasp the concept. In fact, the twist-outs involved twisting my hair up, then taking it out, putting in the right hair products to avoid shrinkage while bringing out my natural curls, then repeating the whole process two to three days later (and let’s face it, who has time for all of that?) Ironically with him, I never felt like I could be natural enough, while a previous boyfriend (who was Black American) lectured me on maintaining the straightening of my hair and strongly discouraged me from cutting it. With him, I did the weave (I only could do a full head of sewn-in weave twice) before realizing it just was not for me.
After my most recent hair transformation, I discussed with my browner female friends our multi-layered complications with hair. We flippantly talked about how our men (or the rest of the world) would put in requests or make comments about what they liked about our hair as we refused to bend our tresses to these desires. We also talked about how people will see the Afro and assume you are au naturale, or if you throw in a texturizer to loosen the curls you are faux-naturale. And perming or straightening might mean that you are assimilating into white society (and perhaps harboring some self-hate)—the list goes on.
As I engaged Lydia that day in the car to answer her question, I talked to her about the complexities of “touching the hair.” After some thought I said, “There are several layers. There is the history of it all in which you are talking about a group that has been previously enslaved and specifically Black women whose bodies belonged to the slave master. There is also the financial factor: Black women pay a lot to get their hair done, whether it is straightened, braided, etc., so to touch it would risk messing up the hair and wasting the hard-earned money spent on a hairstyle.”
I wanted to get across to Lydia that as women we all have our complex relationships with our hair, but those complications are further compounded when race enters the equation. You see, I went natural years ago so that I could get caught in a rainstorm or have a lover freely touch my hair without screaming, “don’t touch” due to a new perm or hair sculpture. And while it is never OK to just walk up and touch someone’s hair, I still have my own questions around my relationship with my hair within society—especially as it relates to the comments made that are pregnant with assumption. Should I be standing on my soapbox to give a lesson every time an unsolicited comment is made about my hair? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing’s for sure: The ignorant questions are a microcosm of the bigger problem—one that involves complexities around race, beauty standards and the ways we accept (or don’t accept) ourselves.
Photo of the author by Liz LaVorgna
Shanta L. Evans-Crowley is an artist and multi-faceted professional in areas of marketing, management, event planning, and other areas. As an artist, her endeavors include belly dance, writing prose/poetry/articles and photography. Shanta’s current projects includes a photography collaboration, Perfect Imperfection (storieswetellphotography.com), with photographer Liz LaVorgna (www.lizlavorgna.com) and organizing the Slow Living Summit.