by Nichole Shaw
Illustration by Mariah Cooper
When I was in the fourth grade, I was out at recess with the rest of my class. I was wearing a “tail” (ponytail piece), because my hair still hadn’t grown back from the botched cut a white European hairdresser made to my mixed hair when I was six. It was zigzagged in length, a chaotic mess of instability not because of the wildness of my curls, but because of the misshapen state it was in after those shears held by ignorant hands cut my foreign hair. My mother told me I always had to look presentable and my mimi told me that nappy hair was unacceptable. We had to uphold an image of respectability and class to battle those social images of the “ghetto” that people associated with our blackness in a white town.
Suppressing the wildness of your natural hair and portraying an image of conventional white beauty—straight and glossy—was just how black women saw hair culture should work in order to elevate ourselves within our already tight societal constraints. I learned that as a toddler, and I’m still expected by some family members to follow this unwritten rule today. It’s how black hair culture still functions today in a lot of ways.
What was more peculiar about that day at recess however, was that a white woman, who was supervising my class at the time, had the ignorant privilege and authority to walk up to me at the age of nine and ask:
“Is that your real hair?”
My momma always told me white people never needed to know anything about our hair, because it wasn’t theirs. So, I just said “yes.” Because it was my hair—I owned it. The woman didn’t say anything, but it was clear she didn’t believe me. Then she reached for my hair…
I was appalled and frightened, heart thumping in my ears. She was about to touch a piece of my being that me and so many other black girls and black women held sacred. She was going to violate the sanctity of autonomy we held over the one part of us we controlled.
When her hand made contact with my hair, she pulled off the tail in the middle of the elementary school playground, surrounded by children who just starred. And I, a little black girl, stood mortified and crying at the center.
I still think about that scene and have to remember it wasn’t just a political statement in a television show like “Dear White People” about the ignorance and bold entitlement of some white people. I have to remember that was something that actually happened to me. It still happens to me. In my classes, being swiped into the dining hall, studying in the library, working out at the gym—my hair isn’t safe anywhere.
“Can I touch your hair?” they say as
They touch my hair.
I used to give them excuses, convincing myself that their ignorance was alright because they were just trying to learn more about my culture or were curious about someone who didn’t look like them. Looking back on the experience now, as a young mixed woman, I confidently state that recess supervisor at my elementary school had no right to take that away from me. Not then, and not now.
In a world today where white people seem to be fascinated by black appearance, they take what aspects they like and want without considering the consequence of their actions, without considering how those actions affect the black community they’ve exploited. And then those white people reap the profits.
And black people are
left with nothing but the
broken pieces of
their identity and a small
semblance of the autonomy
they kid themselves into
believing they had.