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The Caucasian Guide To Black Women’s Hair

Welcome Back, white people!

After the recent spate of black girls suspended from school because of their hairstyles and the increasing number of employers forbidding certain hairstyles from the workplace, we thought it necessary for another episode in our educational series “The Caucasian Guides.”

 

Aside from our last primer to black barbershops, our previous guides have included:

But this might be the most important of them all.

To understand this guide, you should first know the importance of hair in the black community. It is how we judge everyone from Jesus  to Beyoncé (the only reason the Beyhive hasn’t argued that she is the returned Messiah is because she doesn’t have hair of wool, but–and I might be wrong here–I think there is something in Thessalonians–that mentions the savior’s edges as “snatched from the Gods”).

As a valued commodity, you need to understand how it affects the socioeconomics of Black America. It is how we survive. In fact, researchers say that underground hair economy is 22.7% of the black dollar. The women who do braids in kitchens and the men who cut low ceasers in dorm rooms are valuable members of society because they increase the Black Gross Domestic Product.

Somewhere in black America right now, there is a woman with hair tools spread across a table like a doctor about to remove a brain tumor from a patient’s heart, only she is more skilled than the greatest surgeon in the world. Her location varies, but her name is always Sheila. Sheila is in more demand than the lawyers whose commercials air during reruns of Maury and she makes more money than most of them. She can do a sew-in that’s indistinguishable from real hair. She can press & curl. Her box braids look like they were weaved with a loom. Her wraparounds are as if God himself twirled them with a light breeze. And she can do it all while standing in front of a dining room chair while rolling a blunt, listening to Solange and telling you the local gossip. Sheila is Michelangelo with a flat iron and the backbone of her community.

Sheila is only surpassed by Shay. While they may be nick-to-neck when it comes to skills, Shay has an official beauty salon. Shay is everything Sheila is, but Shay is an artist, a hustler, and an entrepreneur. You have to make an appointment to see Shay and you better hope it isn’t on Friday or Saturday because you’re going to sit for a long time. 

In the world of black hair, an appointment is just a suggestion, because you always have to wait on the person who was before you. You can make your appointment for 7 a.m. when Shay opens her doors, and if you walk in at 6:59, there will be someone in the chair. One time, I waited for Shay in the parking lot before she opened the doors. I walked in with her, and when Shay unlocked the door and turned on the lights, there was someone already sitting in the chair. Shay didn’t even flinch. She just turned to me and said, “I’ll get to you in a minute. I’m almost through with this one.

And don’t ever confuse Shay and Monday. Monday does hair. Shay is a beautician.

I assume that when white women get their hair done, they are getting a cut and a style. Even when I see Kim Kardashian or Sandra Bullock (don’t judge me for the random names. I only know, like three white actresses: Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep and that white girl who plays in that movie where people cry. Yeah…whoever you just said). I’ve never done a white woman’s hair, nor have I ever seen it done, but I assume I could watch a 43 minute YouTube tutorial and get my white people hair license, right?

One of the most incredible things I have ever seen in America is that white people will go to a little salon in Wal-Mart or in the back of JC Penny and let strangers do their hair! It is indicative of the incredible privilege of white trust. I’ve even seen hair salons and barber shops in the airport! Seriously! Black people think that is incredibly brazen! If you suggested that to a black person–after we caught our breath from our 15-minute belly-laugh–,our first response would be: “I don’t know those people!”

But then again, it is wondrous to us that y’all buy containers of potato salad from Target without knowing who made it. Until my Aunt Marvell gets a job in the deli at Foodmax, trusting store-bought potato salad is like worshiping with that dude on the corner in the aluminum foil hat who says, “hey, I wrote my own Bible” or believing a tiny-fingered Orange billionaire would actually care about poor white people.

Only a fool would do that.

Black hair is different. For anyone to work in our hair, they must be approved by a local sanctioning body. I think you can go to white people school and get the actual government qualifications, but until you get the stamp of approval from a tribunal of black women in the area, you won’t have any clients.

This is important because black women place a lot of importance on their hair. A woman can wear a $700 dress, a pair of $1,000 shoes, but she won’t feel right until she gets her hair done. To understand it fully, you must know the rules for black women’s hair.

DON’T TOUCH IT I know this is an overused trope, but it is the measuring stick by which I judge whiteness. When white women see a new hairdo they start salivating in the same way my dog does when I bring home a plate of barbecue ribs. Whenever white people tell me they have a black friend, but then ask a black woman if they can touch their hair, I know they are a liar.

Look, it’s not that black women don’t want white people touching them, it’s that they don’t want anything touching their hair (OK, it’s just a little bit that they don’t want white people touching their hair. Come on, you gotta understand–y’all will kiss your dogs in the mouth). 

If the hairstyle is that appealing, it probably means she just got it done, and all black men learned at a very young age to never fuck that up. A new hairstyle has a 48-hour window where a woman won’t have sex, exercise or do anything to mess up her do. I once dated a girl who could sleep all night with her head hovering 3 inches above the pillow after a visit to the beauty salon. I thought she was a witch until she told me how much she paid for her Remy extensions.

Also, she was a witch.

KNOW WHEN TO SAY SOMETHING If you work with a Black woman, her name is probably something like Tomika (and you “bet not” spell it “Tameka” or “Tomeka” or she will flip out on you), Tomika might come to work with bantu knots on Monday, blonde, flowing locks on Wednesday, and a candy-apple red Florida Evans fro on Friday. Don’t ask her why. It’s her prerogative. A black woman’s hair is part of her expression, and sometimes she needs her job, so she will make her hair scream “fuck these grimy Caucasian co-workers!!!” Don’t be jealous because your hair can’t perform the same versatile maneuvers.

But also, you better recognize.

If you are dating Tomika, and she gets a slight variation of her old hairstyle, you “bet not” act like you don’t know. If she chops two inches off the side, you better acknowledge that shit. If she changes her hairstyle from maroon, to dark burgundy, you better tell her you like the difference. I know you don’t know what the fuck is the difference, and  neither do I. But Tomika sat under a hot dryer for 291 hours to make the slight change, which brings us to one other thing:

YOU GOTTA BE TOUGH TO HAVE IT: If you knew what black women go through to get their hair done, you’ll understand how she endures as the backbone of our community. I think I’m tough but if I had to sit still while someone put chemicals in my hair that felt like ISIS terrorists have set a phosphorus fire on my scalp, I’d cry like a bitch. I used to torture my sisters before they got perms by heating the straightening comb up a little too hot.

They didn’t even flinch.

In fact, when white people saw this woman, I bet you thought she was brave:

But black people saw something totally different. We saw the pain she went through for that perm. The endurance it took for her to sit under the dryer. The discipline required for that gradual color. We saw her and knew:

Man, those police better not fuck with this black woman, she’s strong as fuck.

Did I mention straightening comb?  The flat-iron?  The 17 different sizes of curling irons? The 1202 different comb sizes including picks for afros and toothbrushes for baby hair? The pure silk scarf they use to wrap it up at night, and sometimes sleep on one arm to maintain the integrity of their hairdo? If you spread a Black woman hair utensils out on a table it either looks like a collection of medieval torture implements or someone stole the toolbelt of a 1920’s shoe cobbler. They sew it. They weave it. A Black woman’s french braid is stronger than steel cable. It smells like cornbread and flower petals. It feels like steel wool. It feels like cotton. It feels like pure silk. At the same damn time.  In fact, scientists say there are only two things in nature more versatile than a black woman’s hair:

  1. A black mama’s spit
  2. The blood of Jesus

LIKE LIFE, BLACK HAIR IS UNKNOWABLE Ask Shay. Ask Sheila. Ask Tomika. You can never know everything about a black woman’s hair. Black people know this, white people don’t. That’s how we know Rachel Dolezal was a fraud–because she tried to convince people that she knew everything about black hair. Bitch, you’ve only been around black people since ’98, what the fuck you know? She’s on camera trying to ingratiate herself with black folks by telling us her hair is a “4c,” like she knows what the fuck that means. I don’t know what it means and I’ve been in love with black women since the late 70’s! If Cultural Appropriation Barbie told me my hair was a 4c, I’d be like:

 

I bet when I mentioned Bantu knots a few paragraphs before, you didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about, did you? Here’s a secret: Neither did I! I heard Tomika tell Shay she wanted to some Bantu knots one time, and I thought it would sound cool in a sentence. They could’ve been talking about crystal meth or a sex toy, for all I know.

There are some things you’ll never know about black hair. I’ve been with black women all my life, lived with three sisters, a mother and a grandmother, and I still don’t know. Have you ever heard of an updo? Do you know where a woman’s kitchen is on her head? Do you know the diameter and circumference of the curl that separates nappy from peasy?

I often wonder why there aren’t more black women in Science Technology Engineering and Math, because if you look at any woman of color’s collection of hair products, they are all amateur chemical engineers. I’ve seen Sheila have to balance equations and figure out covalent bonds to find a way to give a woman a nice bouncy curl that agreed with her texture of hair and the hair color she wanted.

As a matter of fact, when Trump lets Putin and the alt right drop chemical weapons that only kill people with brown skin, we’re gonna need Sheila and Shay to team up and combine their chemical knowledge like the Power Rangers or the women in Hidden Figures and save the world.

 

IT EXPLAINS A LOT ABOUT BLACK WOMEN The reason Black people don’t swim has nothing to do with slave ships, water hoses, or the fact that slavemasters thought we might swim to freedom. It is just that black mothers weren’t going to get their hair wet teaching their kids how to swim.

Water is the enemy of black hair, as is wind and white people’s hands (we’ve covered that part already.)

Also sometimes, we men can be so trifling that women will break down crying.

Sometimes this world is so tough that it will make a woman weep.

They do not cry because they are weak. They cry because it is illegal to kill us
and they really want to do it
but if do, they will go to jail
and if they go to jail they be late to their hair appointment, and you know how Sheila can get.

So if you ever wondered how you’ve seen Trayvon’s mother on TV 1,000 times without shedding a tear.

If you wonder how Michelle Obama made it through 8 years without putting vaseline on her face, putting on a pair of Nikes, tying her hair in a ponytail and going over to Fox News to whip some ass.

If you wonder how Black woman work hard, take the gut punches, and carry this entire motherfucing world on their backs while sometimes smiling, laughing, dancing and  making everything look easy, do not delude yourselves that it is because black girls are “magic.” That diminishes everything they accomplish and endure.

Like their hair, they have something that you do not have. A thing that crowns them. It bends. It changes. It is simultaneously fragile and tough. Willowy and unyeilding. It does not define them. They define it. It is stronger than yours. It is more versatile.

It is not magic, though…

Just black.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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