Monday, May 25, 2009

HAIR



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.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

So true.
Except that Afros do not now have that political meaning. It is now just a style.
-Kay

uglyblackjohn said...

Yeah... A light skinned brotha' with "good hair" often gets confused with being Mexican
(Okay, I'm 1/4 Mexican and 1/4 Native American - but still.)
But the good thing is; I rarely have to comb or brush it.
Just hop out of the shower and add a little gel - instant hair style.

thelady said...

How exactly do you know what "most black people know" or don't know? And who are these unseeing black Americans that are completely unaware of the variety of hair types white people have? Even if I hadn't been surrounded by white people my entire life (living in the USA and such) all I'd have to do is pick up a random magazine or turn on a random makeover show to have learned about the 4 main shades of white skin and wide variety of hair and just how individual each and every white person is. It is us minorities that are all alike, unknowable and exotic. I am inundated with white eurocentric standards of beauty everyday in all media so to imply that I've some how missed the onslaught and am completely unaware is nonsense.

KM said...

Being new to interracial discussions, I will say two things:

thank you for the informative post(was very interesting)
and,
i know a lot more about hair than I did about 10 minutes ago.

can't wait for course 201.

Siditty said...

Oh my, the floodgates will open on this topic. Black women can be very passionate about their hair. Just my background. I have never ever worn a weave or wig. I haven't had a relaxer since 1999. My husband was the one who questioned why I even bothered to relax my hair when he saw that relaxers were painful for me (even the kiddie perms). I can't imagine a relaxer in my hair now that I have gone natural. Whereas before I stopped relaxing I couldn't imagine my hair without a "perm".


If you listen you will learn all about hot irons, weaves, microbraids, Koreans, relaxer, wigs, all sorts of things.

As a result of growing up in white neighborhoods and my mother not discussing weaves or wigs, I thought that the black girls on TV with long hair, just all had "good hair". My husband is scared of my ceramic flat iron. He thinks it is the devil.


Hair in the black community is loaded with extra judgments.

You ain't never lied on this one. When I went natural, folks went crazy. My parents thought I was crazy and looked a hot mess.


“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.

I abhor these terms. It is to me a reflection of the deep seated self hate many a black folks have. Good hair should be considered healthy hair, not hair that is closer to anything non-black.


Less known across racial lines is the recently watered down expression behind dreadlocks.

Do you know in the natural world, they hate the term dreadlocks. They just call them locks or locs. Locks have been redesigned and re-engineered for the modern people. Sisterlocks look a bit more manicured compared to locks that are organic or freeform. This is racist, but when I see white folks with locks, I don't think it is very pretty. I think typically the white hair type doesn't foster a good environment for wearing them.

Siditty said...

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.

I think there is curly girl discrimination in the white world too. I hear white women with curly hair get frustrated when they choose to let their hair go curly instead of straightening it. It probably isn't on the level of black folks though, but I think they suffer as well.


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.

My perception is skewed, but I live with a white man who literally spends two minutes on his hair. Of course it is short. After a shower he puts some gel in it and combs through, with no tangles.

Siditty said...

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 agree with thelady. I think we are well more aware of white hair types vs. black ones. Go to your local superstore and see how many products you can find for "white hair" than products for "black" hair. We just got a black products section in our local wal mart last year. Target had one, but got rid of it. Even then, I can't even use half of the stuff in my head, it is geared towards folks with relaxers. I think most white people think black people all have the same hair type. They think when our hair is natural it grows in a fro and feels like a brillo pad. I still get white people who love to play in my hair, they didn't realize my hair was soft. People of both races are shocked I can't do an afro. I have tried trust me, I can't do it. I also get black folks feeling in my hair to make sure I am not sporting weave :) In terms of curly hair not indicating some sort of racial mixing, not always, but it can definitely happen. Not a lot of white folks willing to admit they may have some black ancestry here in America.

The media is white dominated, we see you guys hair all the time. In all textures, lengths, and colors.

Siditty said...

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.

You can be black and a natural red head too, but I think it is a bit different. When I think of red heads, I think of people like this. You can also be a blond. It isn't just folks who look mixed race either. I have a white friend who I actually swap hair products with (she has curly hair), who claims to be a red head. She looks like a blonde to me. I can't figure it out. I don't know if I have ever seen her real hair color though, she has started to grey, and she dyes it often now. My daddy is a red head and my brother was a blonde. Neither have ever dyed their hair. If I stay out in the sun long enough I can become a red head as well.


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.

My daddy rocks a mustache. Yes in the year 2009. He has rocked that thing ALL of my life, I can count on my fingers how many times he has shaved it off. My husband rocked a goatee (a sad one) for a long time. He looked like rainbow bright. My husband has dark hair on his head, but his facial hair comes in a variety of colors, blonde, red, and brown. Very interesting.

Siditty said...

Yeah... A light skinned brotha' with "good hair" often gets confused with being Mexican
(Okay, I'm 1/4 Mexican and 1/4 Native American - but still.)
But the good thing is; I rarely have to comb or brush it.
Just hop out of the shower and add a little gel - instant hair style.


You people with short hair kill me. Add some gel and go. Try detangling curly hair that is waist length when straightened. Then get back with me. It takes me three hours to flat iron my hair so it can actually look waist length. Then people think I gotta weave.


It also baffles me that even being as dark as I am, people assume I am mixed ALL of the time. Not just whites, hispanics, but black people. If you see me, I am not light skinned. I just have curly hair. I once dated a hispanic guy, all his friends thought I was dominican, they kept trying to talk to me in spanish, and my hair was relaxed back then. What is worse my best friend before I was married was a cuban guy. Every cuban we met thought I was cuban too. Then they would look confused when I spoke really bad spanglish :)

brohammas said...

maybe cultural ignorance is geographic (I use the maybe loosely) but I'm sticking with my statement (for now).
I spent a good two years in Atlanta having my hair butchered by barbers because I had no car and lived on the "wrong" side of the tracks. You would think barbers or stylists would know more than most about hair but I walk in and sit down and I'm emmediately a side show attraction. Everyone in the shop takes a turn feeling my head and being surprised that it is thick. None of them knew how to deal with a cowlick, and the guy sitting in the chair should not have to teach the one with the scissors what thinning shears are.
I have had many others become amazed when told that white people wash thier hair every day.

I have been through all these things multiple times in multiple places.
Again we, myslef included, don't always know as much as we assume we do.

Ellen said...

My sister knows a woman who helps place babies for adoption and is wary about putting black girls with white families because they don't understand the hair.

Claudia said...

I know I shouldn't laugh, but I had to - laugh at myself, that is. I have had discussions with my black friends about their hair - the braids, the natural afro, etc, and was amazed to find out that they didn't have to wash their hair everyday. Wow! I laughed because of the amount of time I spent this morning (after washing my hair) working on my "messy bun" - getting that "I didn't spend any time on this" look.

One thing I think you failed to mention was the white person "hair color" obsession. Highlights, lowlights, all-over color - most women have at least one of these, but would never, ever admit it.

Mr. Noface said...

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.

There is much truth in that statement. I rock the clean shaven look (no facial hair) from time to time and never understood why my black friends would question me about it. One dude even told me "We's free now!" in regards to my full shave. I still don't know what that means, but I do see that for most black men in the professional world, facial hair is the norm (usually a goatee instead of a full beard) while it's the opposite for white men.

Anonymous said...

As a white male who only has to throw on some gel and run fingers through it- not even a comb(probably 15 seconds tops) I'm sure haircare gets no more low-maintenance than that. I think at one time or another in my life I've tried every style imaginable: mohawk, mullet, flattop, ceasar, shaggy rocker, slicked back, and of course the shaved head. The reaction from people varied strongly from style to style based almost solely on appearance- my attitudes and behavior not undergoing any major makeover. We do love to judge one another based on appearances. Its so inconvenient to have to get to know someone when a snap judgement will suffice....
Along with the facial hair difference D mentioned I would submit that the perception of white guys with shaved heads by other white people is that they must belong to a biker-gang whereas a black man with a shaved head might be considered very distinguished(think Samuel L. Jackson or Michael Jordan. I think its also safe to say long hair on men of both races is frowned upon in the professional sector, be it dreads, braids, or whatever- right or wrong your resume probably wont even get a look.
I think it takes alot of getting used to for barbers as D mentioned. I lived in East Africa for a couple of years and the first few haircuts I looked like I had been mauled by an angry bobcat. Anyway its another difference we can choose to educate ourselves about or to let widen the gap of understanding between us. And regarding this comment:
Ellen said...
My sister knows a woman who helps place babies for adoption and is wary about putting black girls with white families because they don't understand the hair.

Thats really sad if thats a deciding factor in finding a family for a child. If you were asked to name the top ten things which would ensure a good match of parent/child would that really be one of them? How hard is it to get online, take a class, or talk to a neighbor? Of course it will be important to understand proper hair care and how to style it etc. but there are far more important issues in interracial adoption that should actually be carefully considered- think about it.
Derrick

Amanda said...

I had know idea how in-depth this got. I am now certain I have offended someone, at some point, when speaking about black hair. It's just so different.

And if Kay says that Oprah is natural, I believe her. Cause Kay knows these things.

Amber said...

"we will discuss the social implications of facial hair between black and white"

Being this is a race-discussion blog, and not a gender/sex discussion blog, you must be excluding women on this topic. Hirsutism is one place where ALL still "just don't go there."

uglyblackjohn said...

"...None of them knew how to deal with a cowlick..."
Dude. I have two cowlicks so it gets crazy.

But I'm surprised that you didn't use the terms "Kitchen" or "BeBees" in this post.

brohammas said...

My kitchen is always kept clean UBJ and I thought this subject was touchy enough without me bringing up bebees.
Derrick, while taking a class or reading a book seem like "no brainers" I would guess that a potential parent who is unaware of hair issues, would also be unaware of other deeper issues. I get nervous when I see white parents adopt black kids along with the "we don't even see race" attitude. It would seem a person with this mind set will be in denial and unable to help a child when they do face race issues. Just because they don't see race doesnt mean EVERYONE who looks at the kid won't. My kids started to see race at 2 years old, asking why they have white cousins and black cousins.
Sure hair alone would be a ridiculous deciding factor but I would use it as a tip of the iceberg; indicating the need for a look below the surface.
Amber, you are right, we WILL NOT go there.
Amanda, you should reconsider that statement. Kay also said Oprah has golden flecked skin.

meredith.campbell said...

I just want to say that I love Kay's sassy Rihanna haircut. That is all.

Amber said...

So, I was thinking about the contention here - black people "knowing" about white people's hair and vice versa. I think TheLady had a point, but so do you...

I would pose there is a difference between knowledge of other hair types, and intimacy. Most of us have not run our fingers through each other's hair, let alone learned the nuances of maintenance through product or scissors. So, I would say you are both right. I believe we all have some awareness of "other" hair types, but intimacy is a level which most of us lack.

Corbie said...

I'm just here about the redheads. It is often not the redheads who initially classify themselves this way. I have worked in plenty of offices where someone will drop papers off and then call in later to say that they dropped of the paperwork to 'the redhead' (they mean me). So, I agree that being redheaded isn't considered 'cool' but I also don't think many of us are mis-classifying ourselves as such. It is some kind of redheaded classifying conspiracy and the smallest amount of red is enough to be labeled as such.

That's all - great post, though.

uglyblackjohn said...

@ Corbie - I think it depends on the Red Head.
Carrot Top and Ronald Mc Donald - NOT cool.
The Lady on Desperate Housewives, Lindsey Lohan and Jennifer Garner in a red wig on Alias - cool.
(I even think the freckles are cute.)

brohammas said...

Come on Corbie, you knew I wouldn't publish that post. Why are you taunting me?

Corbie said...

Because it was funny...I make a lot of decisions based on that one criterion. And actually, it only occurred to me after I hit 'publish' that you might not do just that.

Anonymous said...

to thelady, siddity, and other black women:

I grew up in Georgia,what some would consider the hood. white people never came to my n'hood, let alone lived in it.
I went to mainly all black schools and when I did end up at a mixed high school I wasn't interested in hanging out or learning much about other races.
Yes white is the dominant culture and that standard of beauty is everywhere. But did I know that white people washed their hair everyday???
Heck naw! Why would I. I didn't talk to them. Who even talks about that. I with all my friends thought their hair smelled like wet dog once it got wet. I thought for sure, white girls had it easy with their hair. I thought they just woke up and it was straight and manageable.
As i got older and went to college and interacted more with whites and flet more comfortable talking about all types of things I learned about these things.
Does my family know these things, not neccesarily. They don't talk to white people like that. And I know PLENTY of Black folks who don't talk to white folks like that who don't know a thing about white hair. Seeing it comes in different textures is not what we're talking about here.
Who disagrees? Where did you grow up?
-Kay

SjP said...

Most black people are generally unaware of the many variations in Caucasian hair types.Don't know about that...Walgreen's has a whole aisle just dedicated to the variations in Caucasian hair and one shelf for Black hair.

Most white women don’t have weave C'mon now! Where you been? and if they do, they will never admit it. Now on that we can agree.

Most white people in general know nothing of the world of African-American Hair. True! True! True! And as a result, commit the #1 cardinal sin of black hair - TOUCH IT!

Looking forward to course 201 - because, come to think of it, I know very few professional AA men who do not have facial hair. Interesting...

Anonymous said...

The wet dog thing just baffles me. I had no idea anyone thought that about anyone else, race aside, and it totally makes me laugh! Also, Marlee's hair still baffles me. Stick straight! Crazy! Also, I think Josh should win the ease of hair care contest, he runs the clippers all the way round it about once a week (or longer if it's winter), and voila, he can hop out of the shower and go, no gel required, even. I'm totally jealous.

linz

Anonymous said...

Well Kay, I grew up in Missouri. I went to all black schools until High school. I actually never cared that much about hair unless it was my own. The one thing I did hear about white peoples hair was that they washed it everyday. I also used to hear about them smelling like wet dogs after washing it. It didn't sound right even then. Plus when I learned to swim I was around wet white folks all the time and never smelled anything like dog around. Race relations here are not all that great but I don't allow myself to not get to know people and learn about them because of it. I do know that working with alot of white women that they fuss over their hair just like black women do. I think women in general have way more in common than we don't. Especially when it comes to beauty. We all want to look as beautiful as possible. Don't we? Even if it's for ourselves.

BTW Kay, You have beautiful hairstyles,judging from the pics of you and your gorgeous family. YOur little girls are dolls.

SIMONE

Anonymous said...

"Again we, myslef included, don't always know as much as we assume we do."
Isn't that the truth, glad you notice too! The average white has the mental equivalency of a brick. A white man talking about black hair??? Hmmf!

Siditty said...


Does my family know these things, not neccesarily. They don't talk to white people like that. And I know PLENTY of Black folks who don't talk to white folks like that who don't know a thing about white hair. Seeing it comes in different textures is not what we're talking about here.
Who disagrees? Where did you grow up?
-Kay


I grew up in all white neighborhoods. My first time noticing hair was when I went to summer camp. My mother attempted to give me cornrows with beads on the end so no one would have to comb it for a week, but by day one in the pool all that was moot. Our cabin mother had to attempt to do my hair and she had no idea what to do. It was tangled from the pool. I looked homeless for the whole week. She tried really hard though. I was about 8 at the time. i remember noticing the white girls hair when it dried looked way different than mine, even without aid of flat irons, mousse or gels. They washed their hair everyday and some told me it was gross for me not to wash my hair the week I was there. I didn't know I was supposed to wash it everyday, I'm not, but I didn't know any better.

In terms of adoptions, I have a little sister who is adopted. She spent many a time in white foster homes. When she got here, her hair was a mess. Some had attempted to relax it, some have attempted to leave it natural. Those who did relax it didn't understand that it is a process that had to be repeated every six to eight weeks. The sad thing is though, my mother had a tough time figuring out what to do with her hair because it was so damaged. I always found that white people think our hair is weird, but I have found some white women with adopted black children that can do black hair better than I could ever think too. Yarn braids and all. They basically just put forth the effort to learn, but to be honest most black women don't know how to do their own hair either.

Lita said...

a lot of this is male/female too. there's only so much a man will understand about hair because they are not socialised to have it as part of their realm.

Lita said...

and i do think that afros are still a statement- depends on where you live.

redcatbiker said...

I am probably too late for this conversation, but I shall jump in anyway, because it is an interesting one.

brohammas said:

I spent a good two years in Atlanta having my hair butchered by barbers because I had no car and lived on the "wrong" side of the tracks. You would think barbers or stylists would know more than most about hair but I walk in and sit down and I'm immediately a side show attraction. Everyone in the shop takes a turn feeling my head and being surprised that it is thick. None of them knew how to deal with a cowlick, and the guy sitting in the chair should not have to teach the one with the scissors what thinning shears are.

I'm a black woman with so-called kinky hair, and I used to get my "natural" hair cut by a white Hispanic man. There was a [somewhat] upscale salon that I went to, when I lived in NYC, that specialized in styling hair for blacks who wore their hair in its natural state. Their only cutter, for those who wore their hair closely cropped or in [then, short] afros was a white Puerto Rican. Let me tell you, he was so good with "black" hair that the salon needed no other cutter/barber. One would need to book an appointment about a month in advance to get in to see him, for he was quite popular and very good.

Funny thing about you and your haircuts in Atlanta: In New York State, in order to get a cosmetologist/barber license, the training that one does is only on "white" hair. Consequently, there are very few black cosmetologists/barbers who do not know how to cut white folks' hair. Quite a few times, whilst in a barber shop (in NYC) whose main clientele was blacks, I have seen white men (Hispanic and non-Hispanic) come into the shop to get a haircut. Now in no way am I discounting your experience just because mine is different, but never did I see a black barber who cut this white man's hair not know how to cut it, and cut it well. Probably it is because, as I said, 100% of the training for a haircare license in NY state is done on dummies with "white" hair.