House21 Editor, Mel Owen explains the reasons behind why you should not ask certain questions on afro hair and how offensive this can be.
As a mixed-race woman, one of the biggest indicators of my heritage is my hair. Wearing it natural comes with no-end of questions, comments and unbidden touching (smh). Whilst mixed-race hair is more palatable to the Western beauty standard demons in comparison to those with Type 4 Afro hair, the attitudes of white people towards my tresses remains not one of acceptance, but of ridicule, sometimes horror, and often disbelief.
I would pretend that this will be the last time I preach about the racism entwined in attitudes towards Afro hair, but come on…we all know I’ve got a lot more to say on it. However, for now, please enjoy and take note of these seven things never to say to someone with Afro hair:
Can I touch it?
Unless you’re my hairdresser, there are just three answers to this question: No, no and no!
Is it always that big?
I didn’t wake up this morning, look in the mirror and scream “WHAT THE HELL HAS HAPPENED?!”…because yes, it is always this big. I was actually asked this by a salon owner once. Needless to say I did not employ her services.
It’s like pubes
Please do not reduce a symbol of my ethnicity and heritage, steeped in cultural significance, to a comparison with hair in your nether regions. Also, I don’t need to know anything about your pubes hun.
It makes you look really unprofessional
To ‘white is right’ racists, maybe. But everyone else will appreciate that no hair look could be more professional that wearing it in its natural style. Remember, the word ‘traditional’ is not a synonym for white culture.
I have curly hair so I know just what you’re going through
Being white with curly hair may come with its own challenges, but it certainly is not the same as having Afro hair. Aside from differences in textures and care requirements, Caucasian curls do not bear the same cultural significance as Afro hair. To put it plainly, nobody looking at your hair will think “oh, she’s white”, but somebody looking at Afro hair thinks “oh, she’s black / mixed-race”.
Afro hair is political. If we wear it natural, it sends a message. If we straighten it, it sends a message. If we braid or lock it, it sends a message. It really shouldn’t be this way, but it is. Caucasian curls can be worn without politics coming into it.
Why don’t you just relax it?
Because why should I have to conform to white beauty ideals? It’s taken me twenty-five years to learn not to hate my hair, and believe me there are a few wobbly days where I still feel like just dousing it in relaxer and being done with it. So a comment such as this one really is not helpful to one’s confidence.
I’m going to get some braids too
Unless you are a child under 10 who has just come home from a summer holiday in Disney Florida, then please do not. If you are Caucasian and find yourself saying you’re going to get braids, please educate yourself on cultural appropriation then reword the above phrase to instead say: “I understand the cultural significance of braids / locks and have decided that whilst I admire the hairstyle, it would not be appropriate for me to wear my own hair like that”.
Locks (or dreadlocks as you might know them…I’ll go into why ‘locks’ is a more correct name at a later date, I’ve already preached enough for one listicle) are not to be worn simply because you’re a skater, a stoner, you listen to reggae or you live off grid and are ‘at one with the universe bro’. If you are Caucasian, then absolutely none of these qualify as justifications for having locks. Locks bear a really important historical significance in Jamaican culture as they were worn as a means of defiance for ex-slaves who sought to rebel against the Euro-centrism imposed on them. I learned only recently that the style is also seen in the oldest scriptures of Hinduism and some evidence shows the style as originating from ancient Egypt. But do you know where it did not originate? Europe. Therefore, if you love the style please do admire it, but respect that – power dynamics and white dominance considered – it would not be appropriate to don it yourself.
Melanie is a House21 editor and host who can usually be found running her marketing business, horse riding, playing piano or reading. Find out more on House21.co.uk
It’s never to late to listen to us! I joined Mel back in November as a guest on the House21 podcast – Listen here to all the chat & laughter!