Why you don’t ask to touch a black person’s afro

Let me start by saying that this is not a lesson on the history of afro hair. For that I would recommend you start your learning journey by visiting the Mamasia website.

This post is about the importance of recognising social boundaries, individuality, and exercising general respect and common sense.

At the start of each term there is one thing that can be pretty much guaranteed: the hair style that a black girl ended last term with, may not be the same style she starts the new term with.

Natural afro hair is not the most straightforward when it comes to maintaining its healthy appearance. Wash day for some, depending on the length of the hair can take hours when you include the time needed for deep conditioning, drying and plaiting.

Some girls choose to wear their natural afro on a day-to-day basis and in order to retain the soft texture and ensure ease of styling each morning, hair must be plaited or twisted each night and then released in the morning, combed out and styled accordingly. It all takes time and effort and for many students (for many adults), these are two things that they may not have in abundance. Therefore, in a bid to make things easier, they will opt for protective hair styles.

A protective style is one that that will ‘protect’ the natural hair. This protection may come in the form of braids, extensions, wigs or weaves. The benefit of the latter is that these can be changed to match your mood or your outfit. In the case of the former, extensions may be added to braids for length or the wearer my opt for twists or dreadlocs. The possibilities are endless.

However, whatever option is chosen, it has been chosen to suit the needs of the wearer and not anyone else.

Some school uniform policies dictate the style of hair that is acceptable. Some will insist that bright colours are not appropriate, or that hair accessories must be school colours and others will dictate that hair should be of a certain length.

The latter is not something that can be dictated for a black student (male or female) who decides to wear their afro out, because most afro hair does not naturally grow downwards, it grows outwards and the wearer has no control over this.

When a black students afro is out, they take just as much pride in ensuring it looks the part as their white counterparts do. They want their hair to be on fleek (is that still a thing, or am I really showing my age), just as much as they want their eyebrows and glow-up to be.

When a black student comes in to school with a different hairstyle, irrespective of whether that change is on a weekly, half termly or termly basis, they don’t want to hear an adult commenting that they have ‘another’ new hair style. It may sound like a compliment…but it’s not. Telling a student that their hair looks nice, or that you like the style – now that’s a compliment.

Maintaining hair when it’s in a protective style also takes effort. Amongst other things you have to make sure your edges remain flat, that the little bits of natural hair that always grow at the back of your neck, remain hidden or at least don’t look, what is called ‘pickey’ and that the hair looks as fresh as it can. I’ll tell you from experience, that when your hair stops looking fresh….it’s not a good look and this is when a change of hair style comes about.

Now, as any female of any ethnicity will tell you, looking after your hair is not cheap. Even without the products that you use to make sure your hair stays healthy. But when you have to go back to the hairdressers on a regular basis to get fresh braids done, or when you have to get a new wig fitted, it all adds up. Some students don’t have the funds to be doing this as regularly as they may want to, so they have the added task of trying keeping their hair looking fresh on a budget. It’s not easy. It can mean many hours spent in front of the mirror trying to work how you can freshen up your braids or your wig, so that you don’t look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge.

Then we have the issue of people touching afro hair.

Let me put a question to you. If you saw someone whose make-up looked utterly flawless, like a china dolls, would you go up to them and stroke their face, telling them how smooth it was? Or ask them if you could touch their face to see whether it was as smooth as it looked? No…I think not. This would be an invasion of their personal space, potentially mess the up the makeup and would generally just be a really weird thing to do.

Yet many still think it’s acceptable to ask a black person if they can touch their hair or worse still, touch it without permission. You just don’t do it.

The reason some (I can’t speak for all) black students get upset when this is done is because it demonstrates a complete lack of acknowledgement that the hair is personal property and the choice as to what happens is taken out of their hands. Some students may not say anything, especially if it’s a member of staff asking questions about their hair, but you can be sure they’re thinking it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having an enquiring mind as to the texture of a black person’s hair as it is very different from that of a non-black persons. But this does not mean anyone has the right to reach out their hand and try to feel it.

What is needed is an appreciation of the fact that every black person’s hair is different, requires different levels of care and attention and in many cases is an extension of who they are as an individual.

As such a black person’s hair should not be treated like a piece of clothing on the rail in a department store, available for anyone to touch, whenever they please. A black person’s hair belongs to a person, and that person should be respected the same as anyone else.

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