Don’t even think about it. And definitely don’t try it.
Black hair is magnificent.
It is trendsetting.
It is political. It is intriguing. It is provocative.
However our coils, kinks, and curls are also feared, policed, judged, fetishized, and discriminated against. According to The Crown Act*, Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair, and 80% of Black women believe that they have to change their hair from its natural state in order to fit in at the office.
Afro-textured hair is endlessly fascinating to those of you who don’t possess it. Fascination is good, and acceptable, albeit somewhat othering. But what most of you fail to recognize is that your fascination does not obligate us to entertain you with our hair—or educate you about it.
Despite that, in the spirit of fostering cross-cultural understanding, (and saving you from smoke you’re not ready for), I’m going to shed some light on one aspect of “The Black Hair Experience”: people randomly commenting on, and touching, our hair.
The times they are a-changin’. Black and brown women are rocking our natural hair, protective styles, locs, braids, baby hairs, TWAs, wigs, weaves, buzz cuts, and crochet installs even more unapologetically than ever. This, too, is part of the revolution.
So without any further ado: buckle up and get ready for some guidelines as to what is (and is not) acceptable to say and do when it comes to textured tresses.
WHAT YOU CAN SAY
It’s not that you can’t speak about our hair at all, it’s just that there are clear parameters that polite society should observe. I suggest keeping your commentary short and sweet:
“Wow, your hair looks great!”
Compliments are accepted, and even welcomed. That said: keep it light, keep it generic, and keep it moving.
“I love your hair like that!”
Admittedly, quite a few WOC change their hairstyles frequently. It’s a cultural thing. So it’s ok to positively acknowledge an obvious difference; just make sure it doesn’t devolve into an interrogation.
Of course, there is always the option–and it’s a good one–to say nothing. Just leaving that there for you to consider as well. Frankly, we don’t always want all the commentary, no matter how well-intentioned.
WHAT YOU CANNOT SAY
I keep hoping against hope that one day women of color will not have to educate others on what should be basic etiquette, but…here we are. These are my guidelines, ranked in ascending order of egregiousness, for phrases that should never ever leave your lips.
Entry-level insensitivity: “Everybody, come take a look at ——’s new hairstyle!”
We are not an exhibit. This is not show ‘n’ tell. Most WOC, especially if they are the sole minority in a business situation, do not enjoy being put on display in this way. You might intend it as a compliment, but she probably does not experience it as one. It is more likely that she feels that her “otherness” is being exaggerated. I guarantee you that though she might participate in the discussion, she doesn’t enjoy it. (She knows only too well that if she doesn’t smile and appear to be pleasant and participative, she can probably kiss that promotion goodbye.) So: a little sensitivity, please.
Low-level shade: “I LOVE your hair when it’s (insert a Caucasian-adjacent, usually straighter style).”
You think it’s a compliment, but it’s thinly-veiled racism. And we are not fooled. The subtext is: “Now that your hair is less “different” and looks more like caucasian hair, I feel more comfortable. I also don’t think that non-caucasian hair textures are beautiful. It’s “better” when you’re my kind of beautiful. Please wear your hair straight so that you fit in, and my fragility, self-concept, aesthetic preferences, and world view are not disturbed.”
Mid-level madness: “Is that all yours?”
First of all: YES. Whether it is store-bought or naturally grown, it’s all ours. Second of all: Like our mamas and grandmamas taught us, if you don’t have anything good to say, just don’t say anything. I have yet to meet a woman with textured hair that was not somewhat affronted—if not completely offended—by this question. Third of all: Stop believing the lie that Black women’s hair doesn’t grow.
But back to the question at hand: You will survive without asking this. Trust me, it is safe to keep your wonderings tucked away in your mind. Also consider whether you have ever asked this of Becky when she sashays into the office with below-the-waist extensions. The answer is probably no. Which leads us to:
Next-level disrespect: “Is that a wig/weave?”
This is related to the above, but it’s way, way worse. It is a MAJOR breach of etiquette, particularly since so many non-WOC walk around with store-bought strands down to their posteriors without anyone treating them with dishonor and disrespect. (There is also the issue of “weave” being looked down upon, but “extensions” being admired. But…that’s a topic for another article.) Please note that this is mainly, but not solely, a racial thing. This question is never, ever good across racial lines, but it can also be an attempt on one curly-haired diva’s part to diminish another. Not always, but often. That’s not appropriate either, ladies. Support each other, rather than trying to bring each other down. “Outing” a woman for wearing purchased hair does not increase your shine—or reduce hers.
The absolute worst: “Can I touch it?”
No. Nope. Non. Nein. Nyet. You absolutely canNOT, and please do not put us in the position of having to entertain this kind of non-versation. It’s tiresome, not to mention traumatic. As anti-racism writer Sharon Hurley Hall has stated:
“White people, resist the temptation to put your hands in our hair. You are awakening centuries of generational trauma caused by not having agency over our own bodies.”
And as a reminder: No means no.
Once we have indicated that you cannot touch our hair, let that be the end of the interaction. There should be no follow-up questions, attempts to persuade, or seething anger at having been “denied.” You have absolutely ZERO entitlement to our hair. So please keep calm and carry on. Don’t. Touch. Our. Hair.
Please leave these comments and questions out of your conversational arsenal as well. They are offensive, presumptuous, ignorant, impertinent, racist, and rude.
“Are you mixed?”
“Can you wash it?”
“How often do you wash it?”
“What’s under that headwrap?”
“I liked your hair better before.”
“It’ll look great once you comb it.”
“How did you get it to look like that?”
“You look like a boy with your hair that short.”
“With your hair like that you look exactly like… (insert name of celebrity that you look absolutely nothing like)”
In addition, you should avoid any phrases that include the words tribal, ethnic, amazon, exotic, or nubian queen. We’re saying no to fetishization, please and thank you very much.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As for what you can and cannot do, I’ll keep this brief. The person with whom you are interacting is at most an acquaintance, and more than likely a complete stranger. But even if they happen to be a friend of yours, you still have no rights to their person. You have no rights to their space, energy, or time. So please use this as a guide, and feel free to:
See a WOC living her life, and leave her to it.
We. Are. Busy. We’re building brands, businesses, apps, families, empires, educational legacies, and generational wealth. We are battling two pandemics, and trying to protect our families and ourselves. We do not have the time and energetic bandwidth to entertain breaches of etiquette, or breaches of personal space.
Quietly smile to yourself in appreciation of her #blackgirlmagic.
If you believe in quantum physics, and that the thoughts of one person can affect another, just send us your compliments and positive vibes mentally. We graciously receive them. Namaste.
Keep your hands to yourself.
No touchie-touchie. Put your hands in your pockets if you need to, but under no circumstances should you give in to your hegemonic urges and place your fingers in our follicles. I have personally been assaulted in this way several times–and make no mistake: it is assault–and the experiences still rankle to this day.
WHAT YOU CANNOT DO
You. Can. Not. Touch. Our. Hair.
That’s pretty much it. We are not animals, and we’re not in a petting zoo. Hands off!!
None have been identified. For any further questions, please reference all points above.
P.S. As a final reminder: No. You absolutely are not allowed to touch our hair. Thank you for attending my Ted Talk.
*The CROWN Act was created in 2019 to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools.
Unless otherwise identified, all text and images ⒸLisa Hurley/@happyhappyphoenix
Main image Ⓒ Shanna Allen