June 18, 2024

Op: Don’t Touch My Hair

Makesha Mercedat '23

Before any school year starts, my hair must get done. No exceptions.  

In late August, I drove to the nearest African hair salon (which took some research in my new, white, suburban town) and plopped myself in the black leather chair facing a large mirror. I would be entering my third year of college in faux locs.  

The salon was empty, except for two other women here for the same reason. One lady was in the process of getting micro braids, and another girl, regular box braids. My attention focused on the girl, who did not look a day over seventeen. She reminded me of the first time I got box braids at fourteen; that was just before my first day of high school.  

Now and then, I look up from my phone to see her progress. A small smile creeps on my face every single time. She had so much hair, a different texture than mine, but it could hold the braids.  

Suddenly, two white girls entered the salon, and I became increasingly concerned. They were around her age, if not younger. Quickly, I identified them as her friends when they exchanged greetings. 

They, too, would look up occasionally from their phones to watch. Of course, I was minding my black-owned business, but could not help but overhear them asking her questions in their annoying, little voices.  

My blood pressure was rising as one of the girls approached the chair and began to look closely at her hair. I blinked furiously at the girl in the mirror as if to get her attention.  

Do not let her touch your hair.  

Eventually, the fire trapped in my bones found its cooling point as she simply circled her friend in the chair. She is only admiring it, I thought to myself. There is no need to get upset.  

Hair has been a massive part of black culture since the early days of civilization, and it continues to be why we spend hundreds on hair care products. Our hair is part of our identity.  

The cultural revolution of the African diaspora is nothing new. Its impact has shaped different institutions, from schools’ sports teams to the military. We can even look towards the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act, which was passed in 2019 and banned discrimination on the hair style or hair texture of black men and women. First passed in California, 7 other states have adopted this piece of legislation; none of which are Massachusetts. Media is slowly catching up to proper representation, but we are still left empty in other mediums such as comic books and video games.  

It is important—nay, crucial—to understand that black people are not a monolith. We all hail from diverse cultures and communities. With that, our hairstyles vary. Throughout history, black men and women have fostered a sense of self with their hairstyles; we either kept traditions going or become the architects of our own style. The texture of our hair has allowed us to be as creative as we want to. Yet the public remains widely uneducated about the history of our hair and what it means to us as a people.  

The continent of Africa is known to be the cradle of civilization, thriving with empires and kingdoms. Within these societies, political systems varied, and status existed. It was not, however, deemed the most important thing. Denizens of these tribes lived harmoniously. One of the big indicators of their status, however, was their hair. 

For different tribes, hairstyles had different meanings. The royal and wealthy were able to have elaborate hairstyles. Braiding hair also allowed women to hide seeds within them. African men simply grew their hair long as a sign of power and strength. To this day, many traditional tribal hairstyles are done, such as Bantu knots, dreadlocks, and Fulani braids.  

In the 16th century, African slaves were stripped of their identity. Their language, their religion, their status; it was all left on the African shore. 

Upon arrival, slave masters took it upon themselves to shave our heads. Our hair was deemed inferior or described as wool. There were even some instances of slaves’ hair being used as stuffing for furniture and pillows. 

Despite it all, African Americans and Africans throughout the entire diaspora still took to haircare. From Madame CJ Walker’s hair product empire to velvet durags and silk lined bonnets. History allows us to shed light on these issues; most of it is not taught in classrooms. 

Black women, my age or older, will often share memories of a time when they returned home with their hairstyles in shambles; a barrette missing, a braid undone, or sometimes a completely different hairstyle from that morning. Most of these stories will be humorous because we were young, and we did not know any better. As 

We do not understand why white people are so fascinated with our hair. We do not understand why you feel the need to call our hair “unprofessional,” “unclean” or “unkempt,” when, this is us embracing our culture in our places of work or learning. We do not understand why you think you can wear our hairstyles. We also do not understand why you feel the need to touch our hair.  

Do not touch my hair.  

Do not tell me that you wish you could do hair like mine. Do not ask me if it is my real hair. Do not give me advice on my hair. I am a human being, not a Barbie doll.  

Our culture is “ghetto”, until proven fashionable or palatable.  

At an institution like Gordon, where spaces are occupied by mostly white bodies, black students are vulnerable. We feel as though we need to be on alert more than usual. We may sometimes feel exposed. We may have been in white spaces before our college career, but now is the time to demand respect.  

Later in my appointment, I learned that the girl’s mother was white, as she had entered the salon. White (or non-black people of color) parents of mixed-race children have a duty to not only learn how to take care of their child’s hair but teach them to embrace it. Even if it means loads of research, it is a responsibility which will protect and cultivate the child’s identity. 

Our hair is our artwork. You are welcome to admire it. You are not welcome to touch it.  

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