Everything you wanted to know about black hair but were too afraid to ask part 2Posted: May 17, 2011
There’s a common theme in most of the feedback though.
The question that keeps coming up: how do you then compliment a black woman’s hair without inadvertently offending them?
The flip answer is you can’t. Lol. At least not for me. I’ve become bitter and jaded, resigned to my role as inexplicable angry black woman. I jest. (Or do I?)
The real answer is that it depends. Black women are not a monolith. What may offend me might not offend someone else. So keeping that in mind, here’s my two cents:
Sensitivity and thoughtfulness are crucial here. What tends to bother me about nonblack people’s hair comments, is the extent to which they act as if black hair is an aberration. “How does it do that? I wish I could wear my hair in crazy styles!” Underlying that compliment is the tacit understanding that ‘normal’ hair doesn’t do that. It stays down when brushed. It’s not crazy. But your hair is? Who are the arbiters of ‘normal’ hair?
Sometimes, as in the case of the hypothetical older white woman on the bus, compliments about black hair are flimsy attempts at overcompensation. It’s essentially another way of announcing to the world, “look at how cultured I am, I think a dark-skinned, short-haired black girl is beautiful.” My sister often tells the story of a middle-aged white guy who saw her walking down the street in his car and slowed down to tell her how beautiful she was. I’ve been in similar situations where some older white person has told me how beautiful I am. Or how articulate. Or how smart. The implication, to me, is that I should be especially flattered, because they get it. These are enlightened white people y’all, who think that black people are just so beautiful. Their skin is so nice; their hair is so interesting. It feels very objectifying. And there’s always this sense, that I should be especially grateful. It’s hard to explain, without sounding ungrateful, irrational, or hypersensitive. And maybe I’m all of those things.
At the end of the day though, I just want to be treated as an individual. If you think my hair is nice, please say so. But stop using me as a black person primer, as an object through which you learn new information to add to your encyclopedia of knowledge. So that you can say that in addition to knowing what kimchi is, you know how black girls get their hair did. So you can get those liberal brownie points.