tea berry-blue (teaberryblue) wrote,
tea berry-blue

On being a white girl with "ethnic" hair

I have been thinking about writing this since, well, probably since before IBARW but then I decided that it is not so much about race, especially since I am white, even if some of the same issues usually apply to people of other races. Usually I try to take a step back and read and consider what other people have to say during IBARW and I felt like writing about this then might come across as "here's a white girl who is trying to play at being oppressed."

But it has come up a lot lately. In the past 24 hours I have seen two different instances on LiveJournal of people making incredibly insensitive comments about the appearance of Jewish people, and I have been stopped by two different strangers on the street who commented on my hair. Two friends have hit me up and specifically discussed my hair.

I am, like I said above, white. I am fairly slender and of above-average but not extraordinary height. I am very rarely subject to any kind of discomfort based on my appearance, with two exceptions. One is my boobs. I am a 32F. We'll talk about the boobage some other time. The other, and the one that is probably the source of the most discomfort for me, is also my most noticeable and most unique. That's my hair.

I have dark red hair. It looks brown in low light but very russet in sunlight. It is about shoulder length. It is also very kinky and very curly. Without significant amounts of conditioner every day, my hair looks something like a brillo pad. If I do not wet it and detangle it every day, it begins to naturally form into dreadlocks. It is not made up of free-flowing strands, but of a sort of poufy mass. You know how you can move your big toe without moving any of your other toes, and maybe the one next to it, but the last three usually don't move independently and all sort of move in tandem? Straight, typical white-people hair is like the big toes. My hair, and a lot of people with ethnically curly hair, is like the little ones. When you have typical straight or wavy white-people hair, touching it can show it off to its advantage, loosen snarls, and so on. When you have hair like mine, touching it can damage it.

I got sick of people asking where I got my hair from when I was about four. My parents, neither of whom have very curly hair (my mother's "went curly" in her fifties), thought it was cute when I told people that I got it in aisle four at Waldbaums. I didn't realize until I was significantly older, probably a teenager, that a lot of people were asking so that they could put me in a specific box. Sometimes they would ask where my parents were from. Other times they would ask what my parents looked like, or if either of them had curly hair. Sometimes, they would be more obvious and say outright that they had never seen a white person with hair like mine. Kids would tie it in knots or scrunch it or "boing" it when I wasn't looking. In one particularly horrid case, a girl named Sonja from Arkansas (who also happened to demand that my teacher give her credit in our 'homophone' lesson for matching 'sore' with 'saw' because 'that's how we say it in Arkansas') spit in it.

"Nice" people thought it was funny to sing "The Sun'll Come Out, Tamara," at me, because my hair was red and curly. Other people called me Bozo the Clown, or made very loud comments about my hygiene. I still remember when I was in seventh grade, on a camping field trip, and a girl named Julie (who, by the way, had her hair permed into perfect spirally curls) was shocked to find out that I actually showered more than most people, just to keep my hair from turning into a poufball. People always made assumptions about the type of person I was or my behavior or personality before I ever opened my mouth. According to these people, who apparently know me better by my hair than I do by living with myself, I am:

--A Party Girl

Every single hairstylist I have ever gone to has asked me if they could straighten or relax my hair. Every time I tell a hairstylist that that does not work, they insist that it is only because "no one has ever done it right." A few times, I have let them try. It has never worked, even with the people who were most insistent that they could do it better than anyone else. A couple times, it has irreparably damaged my hair. They still ask; I just stopped telling them okay when I stopped being a self-conscious teenager who was sick of people constantly commenting on her hair and sick of never being able to wear her hair in any of the "cool" styles other girls were wearing. Senior year of high school-- the summer before senior year, actually-- I finally just let my hair do its thing and dread up like it was always trying to do, and my picture on my first learner's permit has dreadlocks. Then I started getting rasta and stoner comments instead. And of course, there has always been the experience of having other people-- strangers-- feel that they should be allowed to comment on my hair, ask me why it looks like it does, and touch it.

There are some things that I do not dig. While it is very nice to know that people think my hair is awesome, there is a difference between giving an earnest compliment and creating an uncomfortable situation.

What is okay:
Anyone telling me "hey, you have really cool/nice/pretty hair" or "I like your hair!"

What is not okay:
Anyone telling me "hey, you have really (fill in ethnic stereotype) hair!" or "I like your hair, you must be really (ethnic stereotype)!"
Anyone walking up to me and asking me how my hair got this way/if I have ever straightened it/what ethnicity I am.

What is okay:
Good friends (like people I have known for a while) asking out of earnest curiosity in a conversation that deals with a hair-related subject, if they may see what my hair feels like.

What is not okay:
People I don't know asking if they can touch my hair.
Anyone touching my hair without asking.
Anyone touching my hair and then pretending they were picking fuzz out of it to cover.
Anyone "boinging" my hair, ever.

What is okay:
People of any ethnicity with similar hair asking what products I use or recommending a product that they use.

What is not okay:
Random men coming up to me on the street and telling me I would be prettier if I straightened my hair.
Being told that my hair is "unprofessional."

Got it? Good.

All that being said, I love my hair. At this point in my life, I have moved beyond acceptance and like it quite a lot. Sometimes, I think it looks awful, but no one else seems to notice when I think it looks awful, because it is still so far out of their realm of experience or something like that. Most people don't have that luxury. It always looks different and it always sets me apart. And, for better or for worse, because it sets me apart, it is a defining part of who I am. But I also cannot help my hair. I always feel a bit silly when people compliment me on it even when it is not an uncomfortable situation because I do nothing to make my hair look this way. It just is this way.
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