Updated/edit disclaimer: The content of this blog was not edited or changed from its original publication on Feb. 14. This blog was edited only to remove links for the purpose of not having those links attached to the discussion that may pursue. ~ w3sternjo ~
“What are y’all rockin’?” was the first question of The Mystery behind Black Hair in America discussion. Of the four members on the discussion panel, the variety of hair was natural, braids, dread locks, and waves. Student Leadership and Activities (SLA) sponsored the Mystery behind Black Hair in America discussion panel on Feb. 13, 2014. Roughly, thirty people showed for the discussion. It was a lighthearted, but stern conversation. There was a sense of honor, appreciation, and respect throughout the entire event.
Much of the audience asked to clarify the mysteries of hair. For example, the discussion of the differences between the titles “dreads” and “locks” was quite educational. Overall, the discussion concluded that it’s a personal preference as to what someone calls them. One of the panel members shared her knowledge about how the word “dreads” originally came from when people would describe a slave’s hairstyle as, “that dreaded hairstyle.” Sources of this knowledge are unknown, but it brought an interesting perspective to the knowledge of the audience members, and, hopefully, they are intrigued enough to research it and further educate themselves.
Education was key throughout the entire discussion. The panel members shared their individual process of caring for their hair. It was quite interesting to hear that one panel member had to have her hair product shipped from Texas because she couldn’t find it in Oregon. As far as the panel members knew, Portland and Salem are the only places in Oregon to buy products for African American hair, but the products are still difficult to find. Other hair care products that the panel members used were Shea Butter, Beeswax, and Pomades (also difficult to find in Oregon).
Another important topic was about strangers touching their hair. The panel members shared their experiences of strangers coming up to them and touching their hair. Conversation continued about the texture, style, and mystery of African American hair. All of the panel members were at an agreement that it’s rude to do this without asking first. One panel member said he felt like he was on display at a petting zoo when strangers came up to him to touch his hair. It’s disrespectful. Another panel member said it took away from her humanity. Everyone did agree, however, that if people just asked to touch their hair before actually doing so, it wouldn’t be a problem. It really comes down to personal space and respecting that space before intruding on it.
Equally important was the discussion about cleanliness and personal care of hair. The phrase, “regular shampoo” was said multiple times. There was no distinction between what was “regular” and what wasn’t, but this raised more conversation toward washing and nighttime ritual. Washing dreadlocks, according to one of the panel members, is tricky because when the dreadlocks are wet they tend to get “poofy and heavy.” According to another panel member, he uses a dew rag, which is something he uses to train his hair while he sleeps. Expanding on this, another panel member explained how she uses a silk scarf over her braids because cotton pulls on her hair, causing the braids to detach from her natural hair.
During the end of the discussion, one of the audience members asked about how the panel members felt about how the media portrays African American hair. This question raised the discussion about profiling, social norms, and even the documentary “Good Hair.” The panel members shared their opinions about being automatically stereotyped based on their hairstyle, when really, their hairstyle does not determine their identity. For some people, yes, their hairstyles are an identifying marker as to who they are as an individual but not because of what the media has portrayed. For example, one panel member was sent home from work quite a few years ago because of his hairstyle – an Afro. Another panel member, after sharing her story, said she had to, (using air quotes) “look presentable.”
What does looking presentable even mean, really? According to whose standards? Have those standards changed? This was a topic I wish we explored more because it’s these social norms and stereotypes of African American hairstyles that need to be discussed in depth so more people are aware of how it makes other people feel. One panel member expressed how the movie Good Hair was a good conversation starter, but it could have gone into more depth. Just like the stereotypes, media influence, and social normality, the movie is superficial and doesn’t address the real issue – which is respect for other people regardless of what style hair they choose to wear.
In closing, I will re-share a story (the best I can) that one of the panel members shared. We were discussing how the panel members felt about the fact we’re still having these conversations in 2014. Well, because we are still segregated. Even though we have come far as a nation, many people don’t understand African American hair. It’s a perspective that many American’s never consider. Some people even question why it is still a conversation topic. One panel member shared the analogy of a burning forest and a humming bird (please visit this website to get the story).
The analogy, when taken into context of African American hair and the importance of the discussion, was quite rewarding for me. The meaning of the analogy was to not give up hope. We are all little humming birds trying to put out a huge flame. The huge flame is the stereotypes, media influence, and ignorance of other people. We, the humming birds, are the people who are willing, able, and passionate about sharing stories to educate others. We fight the fight worth fighting. We bring back as much water as possible to put out the raging flame of American society that judges, disrespects, and even condemns people for how they style their hair. As one of the panel members said, “I am me.”
India Arie, “I am not my hair.”
By Jo Bruno