by: MSC Communications Intern, Hiwot Adilow
There are a quite a few reasons why the phrase “it’s just hair” doesn’t really apply to Black hair. There’s literature and research surrounding the politics of Black hair. The mere necessity of the phrase “Black Hair politics” insinuates the matter’s weight in society and how it often impacts the way Black people are seen while moving through the world.
When considering matters surrounding my own hair story–I’m most known for rockin’ an afro–I worry I may be being too sensitive. Why be upset by a person’s intrigue? I’ve had people politely ask to touch my hair. I’ve also had awkward requests. I’ve had non-consensual afro groping, and I’ve had things put in my hair by foolish classmates. Needless to say, my defensiveness regarding my hair stems from a defensiveness of myself. Just like I would not want a stranger to grab at and caress my arm, just as that scenario conjures discomfort, the sensation of an unknown hand playing in my hair is frightening (on a good day it’s “just” uncomfortable.) At that point it is too late to say “yes” or “no.” The number of times I’ve dealt with this and the various reactions I’ve had can’t be counted. My hair is an extension of me and I treat it with that regard and love. Having my hair touched is also something that is intimate, private, something left to only the most trusted of hairdressers. It is exclusive to my family and friends. When a stranger asks to touch my hair (before asking my name) I feel as if they’re asking permission for a closeness they have not earned.
In NYC, there was an exhibit where natural haired Black women carried signs saying, “You Can Touch My Hair,” giving passersby permission to endulge their curiosities. A couple days later, women in opposition to the exhibit came with their own signs. The one that stuck out to me the most was one reading, “I am not your Sarah Baartman.” Saarjite “Sarah” Baartman was a South African woman kidnapped to Europe in the 1800s and put on exhibit for her “intriguing,” “grotesque,” and “exotic” features. After her death her remnants were kept in Europe on display. Her story is one of the many examples of Black women’s bodies being on display and for consumption.
It’s dismissive to say that “it’s just hair” when talking about the micro-aggressions surrounding our natural hair but in a lot of ways “it’s just hair” can also be very appropriate. Often, our hair choices are made into political statements; I am considered inherently Revolutionary and Radical because of my fro. And when I opt for a straight hairstyle I’m met with people’s “reassurance.” It’s their assumption that a straight hairstyle means anything other than “Oh, that’s a cute hairstyle I want to try out.” It’s important to note that the acceptance of natural hair should not be the vilification of straightened hair. Erykah Badu said it best, “I’d rather see a person with a natural mind and processed head, than a processed mind and natural head.”
I quickly shake off this notion that I am being overly critical when I think of the history and read about young girls today being told their hair is “faddish” or “unacceptable.” Young, Black girls being threatened with expulsion for being bullied about their “distracting” afro styles is an unfortunate reality. These are only a few of the reasons why Black hair is so significant to me, why it is a BIG deal when people touch my hair, or use certain triggering words to describe it but for all the ill feelings that surround the topic, there is a lot of empowerment and love.