If you want the area where the worlds of black and white diverge the furthest, I vote hair.
Hair is big business in both of these worlds and a big part of most people’s personal life. It takes time to groom, money to style, is a form of expression, and a part of how we tend to judge others. With this in mind, let’s talk a little bit about how race and hair intersect… or rather how they don’t…or both.
Most white people in general know nothing of the world of African-American Hair. To give you a small idea of the place hair has in African-American culture I should mention that the first women to become a millionaire by her own merits was a black woman (C.J. Walker) who started a company producing hair care products for African American’s. This was around 1908, a time when black people were discriminated against and excluded from most anything that could lead to success. It’s a big deal.
Now if you are new to interracial discussion, even if you are not so new, I would suggest that on the subject of hair it is best for most of us white people to simply listen, ask occasional questions, but avoid like the plague any exclamations or declarations.
The things you find out may surprise you but shouting out something is crazy or stupid will very likely end in violence. Like I said, hair is a big deal.
If you listen you will learn all about hot irons, weaves, microbraids, Koreans, relaxer, wigs, all sorts of things. Many white people are completely unaware that microbraids are hardly ever someone’s real hair. White people are clueless that so many black women, even younger ones, wear wigs. Just today I listened to a group of black women argue loudly over whether or not Oprah’s hair was weave.
These are mostly issues of style and preference and are interesting or even mildly amusing. But it can be much more than that.
Hair in the black community is loaded with extra judgments. All of us are judged by our looks, no matter our color, but it is deeper than that for African-Americans. Believe me when I say white people do not realize this. There is no equivalent in the white community, some of the terms may be the same, but the depth is no where near.
“Good hair,” does not simply mean well behaved tresses but carries an implication of a person’s heritage and worthiness in society. “Bad hair”, or any description like it, can become a despising of blackness itself. Imus knew this well enough to in essence call the Rutgers women’s basketball team a bunch of N@#$$ without actually saying the word.
Hair can be an expression of not just your style but your politics. Afro’s or “naturals” connection to the Black Panthers and the black power movement is well recognized. Less known across racial lines is the recently watered down expression behind dreadlocks. Popularized by Rastafarians who were rejecting Europeanized standards of straight hair were letting their hair grow and matte itself naturally. Dreadlocks were a symbol of returning to one’s African roots, mimicking the roots of a tree. White kids listening to reggae and celebrating drug culture missed all this meaning and have gone to great lengths to grow a hairstyle foreign to their own heads, all the while missing the rich irony.
I should mention here that dreadlocks are usually lengths of hair twisted or rolled together till they begin to grow that way, not braided. If I hear one more sports commentator call cornrows “dreadlocks” when talking about NBA players I may just gouge my own eyes out.
Black people don’t realize how little they know about white people and hair either.
We say “good hair” too, but there are no deeper meanings. It is just a description of hair, that’s all. Many, many, white women spend hours, many hours, styling their hair. There is no standard of whether curly or straight is better, or rather I should say there is no persisting notion other than those fluctuations dictated by style magazines and the fashion world. Many women with straight hair spend fortunes on perms. When white people say “perm” they are talking about making hair curly, not the other way around.
Most white women don’t have weave, and if they do, they will never admit it. Publicly accusing a white woman of wearing weave would be a social knife to her back.
What may seem like just plain old hair to a black person is very likely an actual style that took hours to accomplish. White people take great care to look as if they don’t try but keep in mind that they have to try and try EVERY day. There is no such thing in the white world, even a perm, as a hairstyle that last weeks. Every morning white folks start from scratch.
Most black people are generally unaware of the many variations in Caucasian hair types. We come in all sorts of colors and textures. Our hair does not smell like wet dog when wet and having curly hair does not indicate some sort of racial mixing in one’s genealogy. Blonde vs. brunette issues are well known among all, and most blondes are not naturally blonde. I, a lifelong white person, have still yet been able to accurately describe a hair color I simply call “hair color”. I have heard it called “dishwater blonde” or “dirty blonde”, I think it looks sort of grey, that mid tone between yellow and brown. I don’t know why I add this, other than to communicate that there is enough variation that we haven’t named it among ourselves.
It may be unfortunate, but we white people generally tease redheads. Red hair is not automatically cool, usually quite the opposite (most black people don’t know this). Despite this many white people with brown or blonde hair will call themselves red heads. They are not completely delusional, as many people have reddish highlights when the light is just so, yet having some way to uniquely describe yourself is of high importance, even if it means declaring oneself a red-head.
Consider this intercultural hair 101. In course 201 we will discuss the social implications of facial hair between black and white. As homework, try to find a corporate professional white man with facial hair, then try to find a corporate professional black man without facial hair. You may find it interesting.