By Rylie Slaughter
For as long as I can remember, I have hated it when people touch my hair. Before I dyed it six ways to Sunday and chopped it all off, I had long, velvety hair that was always in a braid. Having pretty hair that grew faster than rabbits can multiply was just how it had always been for me.
But somehow, in the minds of everyone around me, my hair looking nice was an invitation to touch it. People would comb through it with their fingers, maybe mess it up a little, and then remark about how they wished that their hair was as beautiful as mine. I never got used to it, but I can’t say that I didn’t like the praise. It felt nice to have something that people envied.
Years later, as I would recount these stories of annoyance to my cousin, to my surprise, she said that she had experienced the same thing. Her hair was always the subject of fascination, and people always wanted to touch it with no regard to her feelings. However, there was one key difference between our situations; my cousin is black.
While I had long light-brown hair that fit beauty standards to a T, my cousin had curly and textured hair that people would treat as an attraction for their amusement. While my experience was only a slight nuisance to me, my cousin’s experience reflected the long-standing and racist ways that people treat black women’s hair. And I don’t think it’s possible to just write this off; people gawked at my cousin’s hair as if it wasn’t just as beautiful as mine.
Nevertheless, people have attempted to claim that it’s “just hair,” and that my cousin is being too soft. But that’s wrong. It’s never “just hair.” In fact, I’d say that it starts with the hair. First, children learn from their parents to make fun of those who look different than them. Maybe then it’s “just hair.” But those children reach high school, and they start harassing others who look different than them––is it still “just hair”? And when those high schoolers become adults whose bigotry turns into violence, can you still write it off as being “just hair”?
It is impossible to pretend that there aren’t societal expectations for how someone’s hair should look. But as a collective, we must begin to dismantle these norms. I commission you to talk with your black family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Follow their lead. Research curly hair types and styles. And most importantly, remember that all hair is beautiful, and it is never “just hair.”
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