After wearing my hair natural for nearly two years now, I’ve basically perfected the timing of my wash days: During a normal week, I’ll dedicate two hours to washing, detangling, conditioning, and styling on Sunday. If I’ve got a presentation on a Friday, I’ll do my hair the day before. Hot date Saturday night? Hair gets done the morning of. I have the timing down, and I stick to it. But when my white, blue-eyed, straight-haired friend showed up one Friday night for a surprise visit, it not only upended my routine, but it forced me to confront some deep-seated anxieties surrounding my own hair.
Ashley* arrived unexpectedly on a Friday, a day I happened to be dealing with some less-than-great hair. I had loaded my flat, dehydrated curls with extra conditioner that morning, mentally preparing to wash my hair later that night. But suddenly she was there, ready for a fun night out, while my six-day-old hair sat half done. Logically, this shouldn’t have been an issue—I would just wash and style my hair while she hung out. But it wasn’t that simple. Because despite how close Ashley and I were, I had never actually done my hair in front of her or any other white person in my entire adult life.
When it comes to hair (and, honestly, a lot of other experiences involving people of color), I tend to keep it separate from my white friends, and for good reason. In third grade, when I won the Wacky Hair Day contest at school, a classmate claimed the results were rigged since my hair “always looked crazy.” In fifth grade, when I was cast in the school play Annie, the hairstylist barely touched my hair, claiming my frizzy curls already fit the wardrobe requirements. In high school, the white cheerleaders would routinely beg me, the only Black girl on the squad, to finish my hair faster, yet would say nothing when others spent longer on their makeup.
Even as an adult, surrounded by other intelligent adults, I’ve received confused stares when I’ve explained why it’s disrespectful to touch a Black woman’s hair, or why Black women don’t all wear weaves to suppress the culture, or why my hair might be long one day and short the next day due to a magical thing called ~*shrinkage*~. Over time, these experiences slowly solidified an acute instinct in me to avoid all hair-related conversations and encounters with white people, even—as I realized that Friday night—with my closest friends.
Like most relationships, Ashley and I initially bonded over shared likes. We both have a deep love for travel and culture; we both enjoy cooking and sweating it out in a group fitness class; we both come from big families, with siblings we hold close. But, just like discussing religion at the dinner table or wage gaps among your coworkers, hair simply seemed off-limits in our conversations. It was never directly decided that this wouldn’t be a topic of interest—it was just an unspoken territory both of us knowingly didn’t cross. And I wasn’t exactly eager to take the first step, either.
The fact is, when you don’t feel seen or welcomed over and over again, you start to avoid situations or conversations that could call attention to your discomfort. You become convinced that history will repeat itself if you give your insecurities—or, in my case, my hair—space and visibility. As long as you minimize and hide, you can’t get hurt, right? It’s the reason why I show up to my white friends’ houses with my hair already done, instead of fully getting ready with everyone else. It’s the reason why I don’t secretly hope for my white friends to try to talk shop with me about my hair. And it’s the reason why I panicked when I first saw Ashley at my door.
While she caught me up on her life, my brain waged an internal battle. Washing and styling my hair in front of Ashley would require a vulnerable unmasking—an undoing of a lifetime’s worth of walls. But giving in to my fears and going out with my undone hair would feel even worse, as if I were dishonoring my crown. So as she finished telling me about her new boyfriend, I anxiously admitted that I would need to do my hair before we go out, explaining that it would take a lot of time, and that she could Netflix a movie while she waited, or nap if she was tired from the plane. I found myself stalling—a tactic I wasn’t even aware I had picked up—out of fear of what she’d eventually say.
But, to my surprise, she declined both offers, saying she’d rather just sit in the bathroom while I did my hair. “Plus, I’ve never really seen your hair natural!” she added. As she watched me work, her excitement grew and my anxieties calmed. She wondered why I needed a detangler, curl pudding, conditioner, and olive-oil treatment. She asked me why I combed my hair from roots to ends instead of using a brush. And when I twirled each curl around my finger before rolling it up, she wondered why I needed each extra step.
For the first time in years, I felt totally and utterly seen by a white person. Throughout the process, Ashley was curious, eager, and completely devoid of the judgment I had so feared. By letting her into “my world,” even just for a few hours in my apartment bathroom, it felt as though I had finally bridged the awkward, silent, race-based gap that had always existed between us, and what started off as an alarming “surprise” ended up becoming really thrilling and satisfying. By the time we left for the night, I think we both felt connected on a deeper level we didn’t know could exist.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists, talks about the danger of a “single story” in one of her many TED talks. A single story is based on the dangerous idea that if you “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they will become,” she says. My belief in this single story—that all white people pass judgment and don’t understand you—had disabled other narratives to enter my mind, and it produced the default position I held towards Ashley as a white person. Throughout my life, I had experienced so much hair discrimination from white people that they had become one thing in my mind: judgmental.
But that night with Ashley inspired new levels of connection in our friendship, and new narratives around old biases. I wouldn’t say I’m fully comfortable doing my hair in front of all white people now, but the experience definitely helped balance my thoughts towards white people and the future of my interracial friendships. I didn’t think it was possible for a white girl with straight hair to understand or celebrate my curly textured hair, but, as Adichie notes, that’s the problem with stereotypes: They’re often incomplete.
*Name has been changed.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io