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On being a white girl with "ethnic" hair
cap, captain miss america
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.

One thing I will never get over reading about is this "strangers/people in general touch my hair without asking". I just... who the hell thinks that's at all okay to do, is my question. I've SEEN people do it, and I have no idea what compels them to be so deeply rude.

This happens to me all the freaking time. If it is a little kid, I am more willing to let them touch it, just because that is how little kids learn. It happens to me even more in England or in the Midwest than it does to me in New York, but it still happens in New York fairly regularly.

I am currently in a relationship with a guy who has very long, very curly, red hair. Right now he has about half of it shaved off in an undercut, but everything you say about your hair pretty much rings true for him as well. He's developed a violent reflex towards unexpected touching just because strangers think it's ok to do all the things to his hair that happen to yours. It's kinda ridiculous sometimes what people think is okay to do to someone else just because something's "weird" about them.

I don't get violent about it and if I am in a place with very few people who look like me, I generally try to be patient about it. But the thing that frustrates me most about it is that touching makes my hair look terrible and it is really hard to explain to people that they can't separate strands or my hair will stick that way.

Being told that my hair is "unprofessional."

OMG. I have definitely heard of this before. Just plain horrible.

What I think people don't understand is that people with hair like mine don't choose to have hair like mine. For us to straighten our hair costs a lot of time and money, whereas they are thinking of straight as the status quo and curly or kinky or otherwise not-straight-white-people-hair to be something that actually takes work to "get that way."

I really, really hate the idea that hair that is not perfectly strait is 'unprofessional' - and even more, I hate how many people I know who buy into it.

Well, I think there is a lot about the kinds of social pressures that are put upon women in the workplace that are difficult. If you are already made to feel like you're not treated as an equal and people tell you to straighten your hair, you may not feel like you have a choice-- especially if you are not white. However, I feel like if more women in positions of power and recognition-- actresses and singers, especially-- wore their hair naturally curly when it is naturally curly-- we would start to see those stereotypes challenged a lot more.

Wow, I can't believe you've gotten so many comments like that over your life about your hair.

I have a bit of that but my hair is more the wavy curly you mentioned higher up. I used to get comments now and then about how 'big' my hair was or how it hid my face or that it was like a rats nest. I kept it long for a while but now its just so much easier short.

But yeah, nothing at extensive as your experience. And I can't imagine how anyone would think they could just come up out of the blue and touch someone else's hair. That's just creepy in my opinion.

Oh, I got rat's nest comments, too! The "big" hair thing, too. Which pisses me off. I don't get comments about it hiding my face, surprisingly enough.

The people wanting to touch my hair thing is so common that it doesn't actually bug me when people do it-- though it bothers me that people do it, if that makes sense?

UUUUUGH I fucking hate that "curly hair is unprofessional" bullshit (unless, of course, it's perfect glossy spiral ringlets straight out of gone with the fucking wind. THEN it's fine!). My hair, left to its own devices, is very similar to yours. It's hella kinky\curly, it defies the laws of physics with its sheer amount of volume, and no straightener would ever do anything but damage the shit out of it, despite every stylist and their dog claiming THEY ALONE had the magic touch to give me nice normal white people hair. The only thing now that even REMOTELY works is thermal reconditioning - which costs $500+ dollars to have done in a salon (or $25 bucks and a fake Sally's Pro card to get the damn not-sold-to-the-public chemical myself), and even THEN - it's supposed to be permanent until your hair grows out, and your hair is s'posed to be 100% pin straight with no additional straightening\blowdrying\etc. On my hair? It lasts a month if I'm lucky, and I still have to spend half an hour with a ceramic straightener beating it into submission.

The last time I went to get my hair cut, the stylist, out of NOWHERE, was just like "I don't mean to offend you or anything, but your hair feels kind of ethnic." I had no fucking clue how to even respond to that one (because apparently there's something inherently offensive about being a POC? WTF?) I get stylists asking if I'm part black all the time (which is significantly less ridiculous than the first statement but still WTF), and the few times I ended up putting my hair in a bunch of little braids just to get it out of my damn WAY, I got hassled for "trying to be black." The only thing I was trying to be was NOT LATE FOR CLASS due to spending an hour every morning fighting with my fucking hair.

dkjajkfakj srry for teh rant. This was just a huuuuge hassle and sore spot growing up for me as well. :\

I am shocked that you've gotten your hair straight with *anything.* At this point, I would never straighten my hair because I feel very strongly about the negative social pressure that people with hair like ours are made to feel and that women in general are made to feel about any physical feature they have that looks different from typical standards of white beauty. But I damn well tried when I was in high school, all the time!

It also bugs me when people say "ethnic" when you know they mean "black." I used ethnic here because I am specifically talking about white ethnicities and wanted to be clear that I don't equate the treatment I get for having curly hair with the treatment black people get on a regular basis for much more than having curly hair, but in that case it sounds like the person considered "black" to be a swear word.

I, for one, love my wavy/curly red hair. Though (judging from pictures I've seen of you), mine is nowhere near as curly as yours.

Comments I've received are nowhere near to the extent of yours, though I've gotten a few over the years, usually asking where I got my hair (response: "My mother?") or asking me if I was Irish to the extent of insisting I must be even if I corrected them. In the last year I've had completely random strangers ask me if it was my natural color.

I actually have a pretty serious aversion to people touching my hair now because of people touching or playing with my hair when I was younger. I completely understand what you're talking about there.

Oh, yes, I have people ask if it's my natural color all the time, too! That bothers me less because it's not as racialized, if that makes any sense? A lot of people of all races and ethnicities dye their hair so it's not quite the same as people projecting racially-based and ethnicity-based stereotypes onto you.

Edited at 2009-08-14 02:28 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
Oh, I get called "Red" by complete strangers all the time. And a couple people I do know. Including one much older man (he's my parents' age) who thinks it is really clever and tells everyone about how he calls me "Red." That creeps me out.

I also get called "big hair" and "crazy hair" by random people I don't know on a fairly regular basis. In a lot of ways, this bothers me more than being called "Red." To me, there isn't a judgment in "Red," just an observation. There can be a judgment, but assuming there is a judgment means assuming the worst of people and I try not to do that. Although in my experience, there usually is a judgment in it. I once had a street vendor person call me "crazy hair" repeatedly to get my attention. I ignored him the first time, which is usually what I do, but then he shouted "HEY CRAZY HAIR!" down the street, so I bitched him the fuck out.


Strangers walking up and -TOUCHING- you?


Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew!

What IS it with people that makes them think that doing that to a complete stranger (let alone walking up and telling them what would make them 'more attractive') is even remotely okay?

The fact that you have not been brought up on assault charges speaks, I think, to the decency of your character. 'Cause... wow. I think I'd go nuts.

Well, I have bitched a few people the fuck out in my day. Which probably does not help when they are assuming I'm crazy because of my hair, but they deserve it. If you see a real crazy person, you would be a dumbfuck to provoke them.

I've heard of the "red heads are crazy/nymphos" before, but I always filed that under stupid stereotypes about women. I feel like I've been living in a cave all my life because, while reading the rest of your post, I just kept thinking "WTF?! People actually do these things?" I've only ever been harassed about skinny as a child and being pale :P

This isn't about being harassed or teased for things in general-- this is about my experience with ethnically-based prejudice based on the one trait I have that is obviously "ethnic." I say ethnic rather than non-white because I am very much white. However, people's attitudes about kinky-curly hair are reflective of their attitudes toward people of the ethnicities where kinky-curly hair is predominant. Which means that people frequently judge me based on their attitudes about certain ethnic groups.

Wow, I was going to ask if someone had really told you your hair was "unprofessional", but judging by the comments, it's not that uncommon! WTF? I have never heard that before. Perhaps because I'm still a student and have only worked retail? That is just insane.

My hair's sort of the same in that it poufs and if I touch it, it gets worse. Which is unfortunate, because I'm always playing with or adjusting my hair, and that just makes it more frizzy. I gave up on straightening it in high school. If I just let it air dry with some curling product in, and can manage to not touch it much, I get some nice defined curls, but touching it makes them all just tangle into a big mess. And my hair's not even as curly as yours! It's a little looser, I don't have such tight, spirally curls.

The weird part is that as a kid, my hair was pin straight and smooth. It only got curly after I hit puberty.

I know a few people who have had their hair change texture when their body chemistry changed. That is not unheard of!

There's also definitely a threshold of curliness where this happens. There are "appropriate" curls and "inappropriate" curls, and it definitely has to do with how "white" your curls are or how "black" your curls are. If they would be described in a beauty magazine as "soft and romantic" as opposed to "funky and wild," then people will consider them appropriate.

I am appalled at other people's manners when it comes to commenting on natural body parts and appearance. I have been growing my hair for a while, and since it descended past waist length I've had to start wearing it up or risk getting all sorts of comments from strangers. And I have white person hair, so I can't imagine the personal space violation that you've experienced over the years.


I think it is awesome that you accept your hair. I wish I could learn to do the same, thank you for sharing.

I think of acceptance as being like tolerance in that it is not really all that good-- it means living with something you don't really like, that you can't embrace it but can merely accept it. So I choose to embrace my hair. But it took me a long long time to get there.

I mentioned this to abhor upthread a bit, but what I was trying to get at by talking about it isn't so much the severity as the idea of racially/ethnically/culturally-motivated objectification and projection. I think women in general have a lot of hair issues where they feel pressured to have the "right" hair. When you are born with hair that looks a certain way and there is a set "personality" that goes with that hair type, color, texture, etc., then you have a choice to either tolerate the fact that people are going to view you that way, or succumb to the social pressure to change what you look like naturally. The personal space violation is just symptomatic of the larger issue.

I am so glad I might be allowed to touch your hair if we ever meet in person.


For one with very thin, very stringy and very, prematurely graying hair, hair like this sounds so wonderfully exotic.

Hehe I think we just defined Jochy/Elaine's hair relationship, didn't we?

Also, it might be fun to note that actually some very swedish people in sweden DO have that type of hair. A friend of a friend called Joel the Punk has these awesome, light golden brown dreadlocks to his waist, and my friend Ola had reputedly the hugest, curliest blond afro when he was a kid. Of course I've only ever seen him completely shaved since he's loosing hair, but... the stories makes me smile.

So maybe it's your norse heritage coming out?

It is probably a reflection of the fact that my mother is Italian and my father is Jewish (and possibly Norse). I've got parents on both sides who don't have curly hair but who come from ethnic backgrounds where curly hair is common.

I know we sort of discussed this over IM, but yeah, with Elaine, I sort of wanted to try playing someone who looked really different from everyone else in her family/community and how that would affect the way she viewed herself compared to Si, who grew up around people who looked like her.

You hair feels awesome! :D I feel privileged to have been allowed to touch it *glomps* XDDDD


Well, that is what I am talking about. We were having a discussion specifically about social pressure and ethnicity and hair. So it made sense. Also, you are not some freaky dude on the street.

I feel you, Tea. I do. When I was a baby, I had very straight hair. It turned into pretty spiral curls when I was about 2. Then it grew out to my knees and was super straight. I got it cut to mid-back when I was about 8, and then it was very similar to yours, though I doubt it was quite as thick.

I would have it french braided or pulled back into a pony tail every single day. Why? Well, one day on the bus, after a particular boy got off at his stop, another kid told me that that boy had been sitting behind me picking through my hair. He had even put some of it in his mouth!

Another day in the fifth grade, when I had dressed up nice and worked up the confidence to try wearing my hair down, I was in line coming through the classroom door when my teacher (of all people) said from behind me "Joanna, do you think that hair will fit through the door???" That devastated me and I didn't wear my hair down for a very long time after that.

And another time, a friend made a comment about my "nappy" hair. I didn't even know what that meant at the time but she said it in a way that made me understand that she meant it as a negative thing.

I started using a clothes iron to make my hair straight. I would have had it chemically relaxed if my parents would have allowed it. I still have burn scars on my upper arms from that iron.

When I was about 12, my hair kind of relaxed into looser curls on its own but I am still super, super sensitive about it.

I used a clothes iron on my hair a couple times!

Part of the reason I wrote this is because I think it is interesting to look at the experience of white girls/women dealing with these issues because I think our white privilege insulates us enough that we don't quite understand why at first. We don't really realize until later that people are attributing ethnic stereotypes to us, while people of other races or ethnicities are all too aware of it much earlier on. I am not sure exactly what that means. But I think it is like one more little facet of perspective that can be added to the discussion to help create a complete picture.