Non-black people don’t understand black hair.
I’m not saying that non-black people are racist. Please, don’t get me wrong. But if you don’t describe your hair texture using a number, odds are you have no idea how our hair is maintained. Case in point: this super awkward run-in between TMZ and pre-Starboy The Weeknd.
In the 60-second clip, one of the white TMZ crew members asks the singer how he takes care of his “crazy” hair. To which The Weeknd responds, “I’m black”. Unable to pick up on his irritation, the crew member keeps going. “How many times a week do you wash your hair?” he asks. The Weeknd replies, “Every day”. Cut to a room full of baffled TMZ reporters (or whatever you call them) who are absolutely stunned by this revelation. Multiple people in the room, including head honcho Harvey Levin, don’t believe a person with dreads washes their hair daily. It takes the lone black person in the room to clarify that locked hair can be washed as much as needed. He also proceeds to call them all “stupid white people” several times.
But we already knew non-black people didn’t understand dreads. For proof of this, look to the 2015 scandal in which Fashion Police commentator Giuliana Rancic joked about Zendaya’s dreads. More specifically, she said Zendaya’s hair probably smelled like weed and patchouli. Because only a Rastafarian with a blunt hanging from his mouth would dare to wear dreadlocks.
I can only imagine how The Weeknd and Zendaya felt in those moments. Though not as drastic, there have been several moments in my life where I’ve experienced a similar ignorance. Prior to starting my natural hair journey, I, like so many other black men in America, kept my hair cut low. Every two weeks, I visited the barbershop without fail—a routine instilled in me early in my life. And of course, if I wanted waves or simply wanted it to look neat, I needed to brush it. If I didn’t, both my parents were quick to point it out.
Classmates of mine didn’t notice though. Not only were they not able to identify when my short, kinky hair was a mess—they questioned why I brushed it in the first place. Because they didn’t understand it, they just dismissed my hair care regimen in a flippant manner. Every time this happened, I couldn’t place why it made me angry. I wrote it off as typical school-age teasing. We all got made fun of for something, right?
But it was bigger than that. The lack of awareness about my hair, and its subsequent care, exposed a bigger knowledge gap about black culture. There was an undertone that my cultural differences were less important because they weren’t shared by the masses. When people asked why I cut my hair or even joked about it, it was hurtful. Because they were making fun of a part of my identity. A part that I couldn’t change. A part that I took pride in. And sure, back then, I wasn’t well versed in white hair care. But I would never make fun of someone’s hair simply because I lacked the knowledge to understand it.
Like Zendaya, and the Weekend, and my younger self, our black hair is an inherent part of who we are. This is why people protested in Pretoria, South Africa when young female students wearing afros were asked to “fix” their hair. This is why people were outraged when Shea Moisture released a tone deaf ad that seemed to denounce natural hair and favor straighter, longer (i.e. whiter) hair. This is why people laugh (and consequently punch a hole in the wall) when Rachel Dolezal is invited to speak at a natural hair rally.
For decades, people within and beyond the black community have viewed natural hair as a bad thing. There’s a bias that still exists and is difficult to overcome in today’s society. It’s a bias I thought about long and hard before deciding to let my hair grow.
In The Perception Institute’s “Good Hair Study”, implicit bias against textured hair was measured in a survey of 4,000 people. Among them, white women showed the strongest bias against natural or textured hair, viewing it as less professional, less attractive, and less beautiful. These attitudes are further affirmed by decisions like the one handed down from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. Chastity Jones had been offered a position with Catastrophe Management Solutions. But her offer was rescinded when she refused to cut her dreadlocks. Along with the EEOC, Jones sued CMS—and lost. The Court upheld CMS’ right to cancel the job offer because of Jones’ hair. And it ruled that the practice was not discriminatory. A frustrating blow for those of us who want to excel in corporate environments and hold onto our identities.
Last May, I wrote an essay (and directed a documentary short) about black male natural hair. I questioned whether it was a woke trend, in response to the rise of Trump and the prevalence of police brutality against black men, or if it was here to stay. In the year since, I’ve spent that time growing out my hair, understanding its complexity, and embracing this part of my identity that I’ve always cut away. And in doing so, I understand what natural hair represents for so many black people.
I don’t fault other people for not understanding why we brush it or how often we wash it. Because, to an extent, I was just as ignorant at one point. But I want people to understand that black natural hair represents so much more than hair. It’s a rebellion against outdated beauty ideals. It’s an expression of pride in who you are. It’s not some mystical artifact or an obstacle to getting the job of our dreams or a point of ridicule to get YouTube views. Just like anyone else’s hair, ours should be respected. And given equal opportunity to shine.
Black natural hair is beautiful. Just let it be.