“Is that as long as it gets?”
Growing up in the leafy, predominantly white suburbs of London, I was amongst only a handful of girls at my school who had afro hair. With a Caucasian mum who had virtually no knowledge of how to look after or manage her daughters’ wild, foreign hair, I had been left looking like Michael Jackson during his Jackson 5 days, for the first fifteen years of my life. Safe to say, coconut oil, relaxer, texturiser and weave remained a safe distance away from my curly tresses until I was adult enough to start spending my own money at the hairdressers.
White standards of beauty have been paraded in front of me my whole life. I still think that, had I grown up in a more multicultural community, I would have been confronted on a daily basis with the same ideals. Now, it upsets me that I used to shout at my dad for passing down his afro hair, for giving me genes which made me look different. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that I used to spend evenings moaning and crying to my parents, demanding that they make my hair straighter. It’s taken me a good while to recognise, and I guess the advantage of hindsight has helped, the everyday racism experienced during my adolescence. It can become hard, in fact almost impossible, to detangle yourself from the social structures and norms which seem to dominate and sometimes govern your existence.
The anxieties and insecurities which affect all teenagers is magnified, into a DuBois-esque form of double consciousness for a teenage mixed race girl, a girl who is surrounded by those with skin lighter than her own. We form our sense of self in relation to the ‘Other’, and having dark skin and black hair automatically made me ‘Other’ to the girls around me. Being unable to share those butterfly hairclips, scrunchies or colourful plastic headbands (it was the 90s) with my friends throughout my school life made me feel left out and angry. Angry because I was the one who couldn’t join in the conversations, angry because I was the one who got told I looked like Macy Gray on the bus even though, bar my afro I bear no resemblance to her at all, angry because I was the one who people shoved pencils into my hair when they sat behind me in French lessons.
“Can’t you tie it up?”
Shock stories of women being told to change their natural African hair for work are no longer so shocking in today’s society. Every once in a while, the tabloids whip up a workplace discrimination frenzy over a lady being told to relax her hair, or straighten it for some “professional” purpose. Afro hair has been policed throughout history, and sadly it still is today.
Being told to “calm” my hair down for a school assembly or asked to pull it into an insanely tight bun for ballet (not advisory) are just some of the examples of the way my own hair and, by extension my identity has been contained and stifled. Why did I never object or have the courage to challenge and ask why? Comments surrounding my hairstyle, and its appropriateness have become so entrenched within the language around my hair type that it becomes normalised and accepted to ask such confrontational, personal questions. When you tell someone how to wear their hair, at work or at school or elsewhere, you engage in a strange kind of power dynamics that goes way beyond the words you utter.
“Why don’t you wear a weave?”
The black hair industry is a multi billion pound industry. Thousands of girls with afro hair spend hours upon hours styling, conditioning and changing their hairstyle. Like shaving, wearing make up or donning PVC boots, the decision to wear weave is your own. Don’t ask why I personally don’t have it; don’t ask why some people do. It is a choice by the individual female and should remain hers. You wouldn’t ask me why I decide to wear glasses instead of contacts, so why ask me why I never wear weave?
“Can I touch it?”
I first heard Solange’s single ‘Don’t touch my hair’, way back in October, as I was sitting at my desk in sunny Brighton, attempting to finish an afternoon’s work. Since then, I’ve been listening to the number one album ‘A Seat at the Table’ which it is featured on, pretty much on repeat, just as a lot of other people I know have too. Labelled by some as an album that documents the “struggle” of the black woman, and as a hard-hitting response to the current racial situation in America, it received excellent ratings and rave reviews, and has since been shelved as a defining album of 2016.
But, as the hype around the album died down, I was unwittingly drawn time and time again to the lyrics “don’t touch my hair, when it’s the feelings I wear” as it is these lyrics that so powerfully pull me to a distinct time and place in my life. The words would come to swirl around my head, to form and dissolve at unexpected moments in an almost haunting way.
In those lyrics, Solange draws on the performative nature of identity; the way it can be “worn” and constructed, especially in today’s society. In a frank and open way, she confronts the indignities that situate the black woman. In writing about her own experience, Solange manages to turn the mirror onto her listeners, forcing us to consider how we are viewed, and how we live.
The invisible line which separates self from Other is constantly probed, pushed and broken when individuals begin to single out difference. By requesting to touch my hair effectively means you are squashing my black space, squeezing me into a corner where there is no room for me to be myself.
Solange’s lyrics crystallise, in a subtle and succinct way, the many complex problems with people asking to touch my hair. A crossing of personal boundaries and a direct attack on difference, asking to touch my hair is the ultimate invasion of my personal girlhood space. It alienates me, angers me, automatically makes me on edge.
So no, you cannot touch my hair, thanks for asking.
Words: Alice Finney
Images: Dynamo Dandridge