Hair: A story of mattering and marginality
Note: This story is cross-posted at A Sista's Journey, Natasha Robinson's amazing blog that frequently focuses on racial reconciliation. I encourage you to mosey on over there! Recently, my white friend David called me while I was en route to the hair salon. I politely told him that I was about to get my hair done and that I’d call him back in a few hours. He laughed and responded, “How come it seems like every time I talk to a black woman, she’s either on her way to get her hair done or on her way back from getting her hair done?” I couldn’t help but laugh too. Touché, David, touché.
I think I can speak for many black women when I say that my relationship with my hair is a dynamic one. On the one hand, it’s a joy to be a woman of African descent and to revel in the diversity of textures, colors and styles that black women display. I love my wavy hair. I love how it’s almost black in the winter months, but a reddish-brown in the summer. I love spending hours in my local black hair salon, catching up on the latest issue of Essence magazine, and talking about church, work and relationships with my black sisters.
On the other hand, my relationship with my hair is a bit dizzying and tiresome. I don’t love that the mainstream Western beauty standards exclude many black hair styles and that this has contributed to a bit of an identity-crisis for many black women. Comedian Chris Rock even made a documentary about it:
I also don’t love that most drugstores don’t carry hair products that work on my type of hair. And I am wary of the awkward conversations that curious onlookers strike up with me about my hair (“Why do you have to wear a cap at night?” “How often do you wash your hair?” “Is that really your hair?” “Can I touch your hair?”).
So, I have a complicated relationship with my hair. Is it the most important thing in the world to me? Nope. But to a degree, the way that me and my hair interact with the broader American society – the joys of taking pride in my unique look and enjoying solidarity with my black sisters, as well as the pain and inconvenience of not fitting in and being perceived as a specimen in a curiosity box – mirrors the way that I interact with American society as a black woman. Generally-speaking, I enjoy being a member of a minority ethnic group and all that it entails. But sometimes, I feel like my experience as a black woman is confined to the margins. At those times, it feels like not just the drugstores, but all of society neglects to stock black hair products. In multi-ethnic contexts in particular, I wonder whether I truly matter to those who don’t share my experience and identity as a black woman.
That’s why it warmed my heart when a woman who had no reason to care about me or the plight of my hair took an interest in both. For high school, I attended an elite boarding school in New Hampshire. When I first arrived at the school, I realized three unfortunate things very quickly: one, there were only about 30 black girls out of a student body of over 1000; two, none of the drugstores in the area carried black hair products; and three, there weren’t any black hair stylists in the area. Unfortunately, this is typical. Andre Robert Lee’s fascinating documentary “The Prep School Negro” chronicles the plight of exceptional students of color who are invited to attend elite schools and then not given the social support that they need in order to feel included. They are invited to participate in the life of the school, but only on the margins.
The other black girls and I commiserated over the fact that our hair looked a hot mess but took solace in the fact that the white students at the school probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway.
One day, a faculty member’s spouse overheard us complaining about our various hair dilemmas and invited us to come to her house to tell us more. We were surprised that anyone cared, much less someone who wasn’t at all impacted by our culturally-specific problem, but we decided to take her up on her offer anyway. After listening to us for hours, hearing our stories, and getting a sense of why our hair dilemma negatively affected our self-confidence and made us feel even more out of place in this WASP-y world, she decided to help us solve our problem.
It turned out that she was a pretty powerful person – a representative in the NH state legislature. Within a month, she had convinced the local Walgreens to start stocking black hair products. And within six months, she had obtained extramural grant funding as well as money from the school to build a modest, full-service hair salon on campus for the female students of color to use and maintain. In order to use the salon, we just had to check the key out from a faculty advisor and make sure we cleaned up after ourselves.
She advocated for us. She made us feel like we mattered. And that made a huge difference to us.
People of color often say that the difference between mattering and marginality in multi-ethnic contexts is not determined by blatant overtures and verbal words of welcome. It’s determined by the little things, like listening well, learning about the history, experiences and concerns of people whose lives bear little resemblance to your own and then caring about them as if they’re your own. People feel like they matter when they know that their successes are your successes, their problems are your problems too, and their story is intertwined with your story.
I think it’s poetic that Black History Month overlaps with the Lenten season that culminates at the cross. Advocacy and inclusivity are so central to the cross. But we can’t advocate for and include those who are different than us unless we know their story, the unique ways in which America fails to “stock their hair products” and what it would take to communicate to them that they matter.