Back in the nineties, noughties, and even the 2010s, I talked about my hair like it was a burden.
“It’s frizzy; coarse; hard to control; takes ages to straighten.”
I was achingly jealous of friends with straight (or straightenable) hair who didn’t spend half a day washing theirs. This pain was exacerbated further by language used by hair care companies that promised “anti-frizz”, “effective on dry to damaged hair”, “for use on all hair types” – invariably meaning European silky-straight hair to loose European curls. When strangers in shops or on the street commented on my hair being like a pineapple, a wig, massive, or “it’s different, I’ll give you that”, it just confirmed my suspicions that my worries weren’t insecurities. They were facts.
Today, in 2021, the tide seems to have changed. Mainstream representation of afro hair is much wider thanks to social media, organisations like World Afro Day, and a generally more widespread understanding of hair diversity. But amidst the changing tide, we’re still stuck in many of the same currents.
Back in August, you may have watched Eamonn Holmes on This Morning describe his mixed-race colleague, Dr Zoe Williams’ hair.
“Your hair looks very alpaca-ish today,” he said of her blond afro after she introduced the programme’s next segment. “You just want to pet it.”
Dr Williams responded by laughing politely, saying, “Don’t touch my hair!”
It was calm, professional and measured, and probably learned from years of practice: years of being confronted by prejudice that’s framed as comedy. Or maybe it was a quiet battle cry? Evading the risk of having to tell a celebrated broadcaster about himself on live TV, perhaps Dr Williams referenced the canon of work under this title that speaks of the ongoing issue of hair discrimination. Emma Dabiri’s book about the history of afro hair and racism surrounding it; Solange’s song about the pride and power her hair evokes; Sharee Miller’s children’s novel about the prying hands of children curious to touch main character Aria’s hair wherever she goes…
Following criticism, Eamonn apologised.
“Hey everyone out there,” he tweeted later that day, “if my attempt at being humorous with my friend @DrZoeWilliams was misjudged I am mortified and humbly apologise to anyone who was offended.”
Note “if” anyone was offended. I still wonder whether he understood the problem. Equally I recognise that the fear (and force) of the social media mob is real. For those in the public eye, it’s probably easier to apologise quickly after an accusation – of course referencing your long-standing friendship with the victim – and hope that things move on. Plunging into the hate and prolonging your discomfort is a path few would take. To be honest, it’s hard to blame them.
The thing is, the discomfort and powerlessness that you feel after being accused of racism is, I imagine, not dissimilar to the discomfort and powerlessness that you feel as the victim of racism. Except, as the victim, it’s an ongoing discomfort: a background rumble like white noise that you’re constantly ready to react to if it surfaces. You’re armed with intellectual discourse to educate, but never humiliate. You learn to laugh before you blush so your perpetrator is comfortable. You become “sassy”, but in a funny way to limit the people that take you on, but ensure they assume you’re joking if they do. It’s a tricky tightrope to navigate and, to me, clear to see in Dr Williams’ response when she accepted Eamonn’s apology:
“[Eamonn] has done the right thing by apologising to me directly; and I have accepted his apology. What I want to say is that I’m aware that his remarks, though meant without malice, have offended people. And if that comment had been made to me by a stranger, then I too would likely have been offended. It was mis-judged and I think it’s fair to say that both Eamonn and I wish it hadn’t been said.”
This is paraphrased, but interesting to compare with Eamonn’s apology. It’s much longer than what Eamonn offered, and skillfully explains that while the comment was offensive, she wasn’t offended. At least, not in this instance.
It feels like whenever the word racism is added to the mix of debate, it skews everything in its wake. We panic: “I’m not racist!” “No, she’s my friend.” “I didn’t mean it like that…” “You’ve taken this the wrong way.” The fear of being branded a racist is so flustering that we forget what we’re arguing about like it’s a one way train to cancellation. “It was a joke!” “I meant it to be funny.” We put up an iron-clad defence and, as a last resort, get the victim to vouch for our character.
For a long time now, I’ve felt that us folk with afro hair are held to different beauty standards to those without it. The example of Eamonn Holmes and Dr Zoe Williams is just a drop in the ocean. Whilst the tide is certainly changing when it comes to tolerance of afro hair, we’re still asked to accept scraps as compliments. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve laughed off prejudice concerning my hair: it’s been likened to animals, touched, used as a sponge, had its volume joked about, called scruffy – and I’ve been expected to accept these as jokes.
Suffice to say, today at age 30, I still make an effort to wear my hair in an afro the first week of a new job. I do this not out of pride, but to avoid the barrage of questions and comments that come when I miss this initial window. It’s embarrassing being put on the spot. No one with straight hair is asked about their routine or told that they’re unrecognisable when they wear their hair in a ponytail instead of down. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a difference between paying someone a compliment, making a light-hearted joke and making a show of someone.
And when it comes to afro hair, these distinctions are too often indistinguishable.