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Dear Curious People,

I know you have questions about my hair. It’s hair, but it’s different than yours or anyone elses that you know.  And you want to know what makes it different. Maybe you’re from a foreign country with a significantly limited ethnic population. Maybe your upbringing wasn’t as multicultural as some others, or maybe you’ve just been afraid because you don’t want to come off as rude or dun, dun, duuuuun, *whispers* racist.  It’s okay. I’m here to help.

I’m going to speak from the experience of an African American girl, because, well, I’m African American. (and a girl?) I can’t help you with other ethnicities  or nationalities, because I’m not them.

Okay let’s begin. We’ll start off with how to have the conversation. There are things that you should and should not do when approaching practically anyone about their hair, and there are ways to start the conversation with people, both strangers and friends.

Strangers

You don’t have any black friends. That’s okay, doesn’t make you a bad person, you just haven’t hit it off with any brown sistahs or brothas. It’s okay. So you see a Brown American on the bus or everyday at the office, but you don’t know them, and they have a unique doo or their hair length changes all the time and you wanna know, “What up with that?”

1. Do. Not. Touch.:

  • I know the Afro is huge, or the braids go all the way down to the waist. I know that tactile learning is a default setting embedded in us at birth as a means of investigating our environment. I understand. Do. NOT. Touch. You don’t know them, you’re not on an intimate level with them. Plus you can mess up their doo, and that is grounds for a physical altercation.

2. Catch more flies with honey, etc:

  • You want to know about our hair, try complimenting us on it first. It’s a pretty basic way to get a conversation going.

3. Don’t be rude:

  • This applies to strangers and friends. Something pretty basic, but it seems like people, even my friends don’t understand that asking the question, “Is it real?” is extremely rude. Yeah I know my hair was to my shoulders yesterday, and today it’s down my back. Are you blind that you can’t tell it’s not real? Your follow up question, “But it’s obvious it’s not real, how is me asking rude?” Here’s some context. You see a gentleman minding his own business, living his life, happy. He is obviously wearing a toupee, would you go up and ask him if it’s real? Also, it might be real, and you assuming it isn’t makes you seem like a *whispers* racist.

4. Questions okay to ask strangers:

  • Do you style your own hair/Who does your hair?
  • (In cases of intricate looking styles) How long did it take to do that?
  • I’m curious about your hair, do you mind if I ask you some questions?

5. Use good judgement:

  • Speaking just from my experience, hair is a sensitive subject for black women especially. Because of eurocentric beauty standards a lot of us have had emotional trauma (that word sounds too harsh, upheaval maybe?) as we’ve grown up because our hair wasn’t the norm, or wasn’t lustrous enough, or nappy ( I hate that word) In high school some assholes on the school bus put gum in my Afro cause they thought it would be funny. Luckily it wasn’t my hair, but it very easily could have been and I could have developed a serious self hatred for my natural locs.  So in the immortal words of Wil Wheaton, Don’t be a dick.

Friends

I don’t know how deep your bond is with your differently tressed friend, but if it’s close enough you can pretty much ask any question you want. Some advice though, don’t get it wet as a prank. You will die. Don’t touch it without permission, you will die. Do not tell or in any way announce that their hair is not real to other people no matter how obvious it is, you will die.

Helpful Facts

Here are some helpful facts that I am going to volunteer so that you can get at least a rudimentary understanding.

1. Natural Hair:

  • I work at a group home and we have some non-black and foreign employees that have to come and take care of our clients. That includes doing the hair of certain clients. So I find myself in the position every so often of having to teach someone how to care for permed hair, while explaining the difference between permed hair and natural hair. When we say, “natural”, we don’t mean real vs. fake. Natural hair is a term used to describe hair that is not processed with chemicals. Natural hair can be straight or curly or wavy, it can be intermixed with extensions, or blown out with a hair dryer. It’s still natural, as long as a perm hasn’t been used to permanently (get it, perm, permanently, see what they did there) alter its basic composition. When your hair is Natural water will always make it go back to it’s original state, no matter what you do to it. When it’s permed it will retain straightness wherever the perm has made contact.

 

2. Natural vs. Permed

  • It’s not a competition. Some people equate being natural with being a conscious African American plugged into the scene of Afrocentric culture, politics, and art; and some people just like the way dreads look on them. Some people think long straight hair is a sign of beauty and sophistication; and some people just don’t want to deal with the upkeep of natural hair so they perm it.  Whatever floats your boat. My hair is natural because I wanted it to grow and the perms were killing it, and I couldn’t (still can’t) afford to get them professionally done every 4 to 6 weeks.  It’s just preferences.

3. The nappy thing:

  • You might hear us use that word in jest or as an insult, but it’s a lot like the other n-word, don’t use it. Our hair is not nappy. It is curly. Take a moment to step into any shop that caters to ethnic hair and you’ll see various products with the words _____curly, or curly ____ written on it.

4. The water thing:

  • Something that may look to you to be a basic effortless style probably took half a day and an uncomfortable sleep on some night rollers to accomplish, so we don’t want it to get wet. For permed ladies who have new growth, which is newly grown hair that was not permed, getting their hair wet means that they will have two textures of hair that will simply not go together without some hair gel or a transitioning hair style. So they tend to avoid water outside of planned washing and styling adventures.  For the natural ladies, it varies. On a day where I just washed, detangled, and conditioned my hair; I don’t mind the rain. But if I took a flat iron or a blow dryer and suffered the agony of holding my arms above my head for an hour, oh you best believe I’m running for shelter at the first drip (not even waiting for the drop). Remember, water reveals all.

5. Length:

  • Remember up there somewhere when I said not to ask (unless you guys are totes cool bffs) if a person’s hair is real or not? Some of us can grow really long hair. Men typically have theirs dreaded, but some people are a bit more versatile in our choices. So assuming our hair is short is sort of rude. Sometimes you want to have a really cute short hairstyle so we braid our hair up and put some extensions or a wig on top. If you’re talking about a natural hair person, depending on if they have a tight curl pattern, their hair can shrink to a really short length when wet. If you clicked on the link, you see that her hair is long, but it’s even longer when she fully extends it. So never assume someone’s hair isn’t real just because it frequently changes lengths.

6. Care:

  • It varies. Some people find that washing their hair every day or two days makes it more manageable. Some people go by a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. Some just wing it. Whenever it needs to be washed, we wash it. Permed or natural, our hair (usually) doesn’t produce a lot of oils, which is why it doesn’t slide and flip and yada yada like those Garnier Fructis commercials, also why it tangles a lot easier and why we need to add oil to combat dryness and breakage. It also means it doesn’t get  gross and disgusting (sorry, that was rude, I meant oily and gnarly). With this advantage, or disadvantage depending on how you look at it, we have the luxury of choosing when to wash our hair. It does get dirty from sweat, products, and dandruff if you have a scalp condition. But because general upkeep of our hair usually involves combing and brushing, any buildup from sweat is routinely scrubbed off. Products, oils and such, are absorbed into the hair over time or into whatever headdress/pillow we wear to bed/sleep on, so oils don’t remain for long. Dandruff is handled by the oil, or if it’s a medical condition by special shampoo. People who wear protective styles, i.e. braids, updos, clean their scalps with alcohol or witch hazel,  wash the braids, or in the case of the truly lazy (like myself) wait till we take them down to wash the hair.

7. The hair pat thing:

  • You’ve probably seen this on t.v., usually on some black girl with an “attitude”. Because our hair doesn’t produce a lot of oils it’s a lot more delicate and easy to break. People wearing protective styles either with weave or without pat their heads to scratch it. Scratching it will separate the hair from the bulk and cause split ends and breakage at multiple locations. The same for people with permed highly styled hair, with the  added inconvenience of messing up the style.

Helpful Terminology

Doo or Do– Hairstyle, as in hairdo.

Doo Rag or Do Rag– A piece of cloth or satin, like a bandana or scarf, used to keep hair in place while sleeping or lounging.

Protective Style– Any form of style that keeps the ends of your hair from being loose and therefore able to split or break; A hairstyle that does not require daily manipulation.

Reversion, to Revert– Like the literal definition of the word it means to return to a state that once was. In hair terms it is the act of styled or permed hair coming into contact with water and assuming it’s natural texture and pattern.

Blow out– The process of turning ones curls into a full Afro.

Weave– A much faster way to say hair extensions; hair real or fake that is added into your hair to make it longer and/or fuller.

Dreadlocks vs. Twists– Dreadlocks are semi-permanent. They can be undone, but depending on the amount of time they’ve been in may need to be cut before detangling can begin. Twists are not permanent and depending general state can be undone by hand or with the aid of a comb. Scissors usually not needed with exception of weave twists.

Transitioning– The act of growing out your perm to be replaced with your natural curl pattern. A transitioning hair style is a style that masks the differences in texture, usually something involving braids or curls.

Big Chop– The point in time when someone decides to cut off their permed hair to be completely natural.

Perm– Like a perm that produces 70s style curly hair, only it makes hair straight. Once again it refers to permanently altering the state of hair chemically. I’m sure there are some technical terms that differentiate the processes, but I don’t know them cause I don’t have level 7 clearance.

Kitchen– the hair at the nape of the neck. I don’t know why it’s called a kitchen. My hypothesis is that when you get hot and sweaty right in that area the hair starts to shrivel up like bacon in a frying pan. (More knowledgeable people, am I right? Close??)

Tracks– Associated with a type of weave sewn onto a band to create strands of extensions to be sewn or glued in ones real hair.

Hope this was helpful to you.  There are countless videos on youtube that can be more thorough than I was and could probably answer your more complex questions. Even so, if you feel like asking me a question, or scientifically disproving the existence of fish, just leave a comment below….or to the side….or wherever the hell my comments bar is (I don’t play on my own freaking page, how sad is that?)

Naturally Yours,

J.R.H.

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