Funmi Fetto, is a British Vogue Contributing Editor, Observer Magazine Beauty Director and Author of Palette, the Beauty bible for women of colour
“Years ago I had to attend a last minute, very important meeting in a very white, corporate, space. And I was incredibly nervous. Not because I doubted my knowledge or expertise. No, I was nervous about my hair. My hair, usually straight or slicked back had been left out in an Afro over the weekend and I didn’t have time to change it prior to this meeting. I was afraid I’d be marked as unprofessional or not ‘serious’. When I walked into that boardroom, I remember a few people around the table - both men and women shooting me odd looks. As the meeting ended and we all prepared to leave, one of the women looked at me slightly bemused and said ‘Wow, your hair….’ and then she trailed off. The ambiguity of her comments made me uncomfortable. It was almost as if she couldn’t believe that I came to the meeting like that. I found myself semi-joking, self-deprecatingly apologising and making excuses about 'the state of my hair…'
Why did I feel the need to justify my hair in order to placate those who are uncomfortable with it, simply because it doesn’t ascribe to the Eurocentric ideal of what hair should look like? Sadly, my reaction was an internalisation of the subtly negative comments - explicitly or tacitly - over many years in workspaces, in places of education, in life levied at my hair. I’ve been told that my hair when slicked back into a bun as opposed to me wearing it in braids ‘is so much chic-er’, I’ve been complimented by a boss on my back-length Senegalese twists only then to add ‘But they are not all yours are they?’ I’ve been told that my hair looks like ‘a lot of work’, questioned as to the ‘real’ length of my hair under my weave or met with a look of repulsion after explaining that t Black hair doesn’t need to be washed every single day ‘But doesn’t it get greasy?’. These comments have made me feel othered, excluded, inferior and ultimately an intense pressure to fit in. Back then I had no terminology for what seemed like a daily fight. Now I know. These are called microaggressions.
Microaggressions can be described as a ‘commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized group’. Unlike more blatant forms of racism, microaggressions are subtle and seemingly innocuous behaviour and in some cases the perpetrators are not aware of the negative impact of their comments and behaviour. Nevertheless, this doesn’t make it and less insidious, and the cumulative effect of microaggressions levied against hair texture can be traumatising. Here are three easy ways to combat the bias:
Knowledge is Key.
Black hair is not just hair. It has a rich cultural legacy and as a key signifier of Blackness has endured a long history of being oppressed and being discriminated against. Gaining an insight into this back story and the nuances of Black hair culture helps to humanise rather than ‘other’ Black hair. If you see Black hair as equal to yours, you are less likely to discriminate against it. A great place to start is Emma Dabiri’s excellent book Don’t Touch my Hair.
Think before you Touch.
One of the biggest microaggressions Black people face is white people touching their hair. Not only is this invasive, but it is also dehumanising, it perpetuates the idea of otherness and feeding into the idea that Black hair is abnormal. Complimenting Black hair - in a way that you would complement any other hair texture - is fine (your hair looks lovely will suffice), touching it is not.
Call it Out.
Those facing hair discrimination usually feel isolated and unsupported. So, if you are in a more ‘powerful’ position - be it by virtue of your white privilege or otherwise use it for change. Stand with them, support them and speak out - particularly when you notice grooming policies in your work or educational establishments that covertly side-line Black people. Be active in your allyship otherwise your silence surmounts to collusion.
For more, listen to Funmi’s weekly podcast, On Reflection, episode 17 will discuss more on hair discrimination, in conversation with Dr Wilkerson.