Black Hair – It’s Complicated

Sometimes, curiosity gets the best of you. You’re standing next to an African American female colleague engaged in a friendly conversation. She’s intelligent, well-dressed and on top of her game at work generating significant revenue for the company. Suddenly, you have this urge to ask her a question – can I touch your hair?

DON’T DO IT!

This year’s Oscar ceremony proved cracking jokes about a black woman’s hair or lack thereof is an extremely sensitive subject that can lead to physical violence as evidenced by the Will Smith/Chris Rock encounter.

African-American hair has cultural, political, and societal markers so entwined it can be tough to sort out. I won’t pretend to cover them all because that would be a lie. Culturally, African-American hairstyles have been a source of pride by creating art with our hair through braids, fades, and scalp designs. Traditionally, black hair is thicker and can nicely hold the braids in place with accessories such as beads, metallic threading, and tiny hair cuffs. These hairstyles were previously frowned upon until Bo Derek imitated African-American hairstyles with braids and beads in the popular 1979 movie “10.” The general feeling in the Black community is that until a white person does it and gains popularity, we don’t receive credit for our original creations.

Even today, there is a political battleground regarding black hair. The House of Representatives recently passed the Crown Act, which would ban hair-related discrimination in the work environment. Crown stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, and the act prohibits “discrimination based on an individual’s texture or style of hair.” The bill now goes to the Senate. The legislation states that “people of African descent are routinely deprived of educational and employment opportunities” for wearing their hair in natural or protective hairstyles such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, or Afros. Given employment laws favor “at-will” guidelines allowing corporations to separate employees for any reason – when you don’t fit into “mainstream” society, read between the lines.

Let’s not forget the social markers that impact personal relationships. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase good hair, bad hair, maybe not. In the African American community, black females regarded as having “good” hair usually consists of “bone straight” hairstyles due to salon chemicals or naturally soft, curly hair. In either case, the hair length is long. If you don’t have that, then females have “bad” hair and are sometimes seen as less desirable by their male counterparts. Some people still believe a woman’s hair is supposed to be her crowning glory. What happens if you have no hair due to alopecia, a common autoimmune deficiency disorder among Black women? Your hair simply falls out often in clumps the size and shape of a quarter. Jada Pinkett Smith chose to be bald while still looking and feeling glamorous. In my opinion, it looked sexy as hell. Plus, think of all the cancer survivors suffering from hair loss due to chemotherapy. Jada just gave them a “get out of jail” card to be free and to feel good, regardless of circumstances.  

To an outsider, it may have appeared to be a fashion choice to go bald. Hence, the “GI Jane” joke by Chris Rock. It was clear by Jada’s dagger-glaring looks the joke triggered something emotional that cut deep. While I do not condone violence, I do understand the desire to protect your family from being emotionally or physically hurt. After finishing his presenter duties, Chris Rock stood there with a dazed look on his face wondering what in the hell just happened after getting slapped on stage that was seen around the world. You too might find yourself in the same predicament any time you start to inquire or make assumptions about African American hair. Take my advice and unless you know the individual well or are close personal friends, resist the urge and don’t ask about Black hair – it’s complicated.

About Loretta Wetzel

Loretta Wetzel, aka "Mama Soul Wisdom", is a speaker and entrepreneur. She is a co-author of Women Gone Wild, President of The Wetzel Group, Inc., and founder of #iamlovemovement.

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