Thembi’s Guide To Bringing Black Hair To Work
Editor’s Note: Since I started this series the feedback has been fascinating. Some people insist that black hair is not important enough to discuss at all (which is funny because it’s important enough for them to take their time to tell me that they think that, but anyway…), while others are glad to have a safe space to discuss it all. I write for the latter, and the edited version of this post from 2008, “Thembi’s Guide To Bringing Black Hair To Work,” focuses on some of the issues that simply declaring “I am not my hair! We are all people!” cannot remedy. I hope to delve further into these issues with fresh eyes, but for now sit back and enjoy this WWTD classic. As always, I’d appreciate your feedback in the comments!
It happens to most black women. Whether you have relaxed or natural hair, a weave, or braids. I’m talking about white people asking questions and making nutty comments about your hair.
If you spend any time in an environment where blacks are in the minority (i.e. if you have a job), then there has to be someone who wants to touch your ‘fro, another who asks how long your braids took, and another who innocently inquires about your new weave. The effects of humidity and heat styling on Negro hair are lost to most people, and the difference between a “perm” and a “curly perm” has still not been clarified for the masses. Meanwhile, black women are limited in almost every area of society but the one thing that we can do is blatantly wear fake hair and get away with it. Just think: what if some white man threw on a bowl-cut wig to try something new? Or an Asian lady got a weave to rock a Farrah Fawcett look? They’d both be mocked to the edge of the Earth or suspected of mental illness. But black women can pull it off, and since wearing weaves or braids is usually not an option for the majority they have no idea how any of it works. As a result, a lot of white people (and Asians and some Latinos) are absolutely clueless about black hair, which leads to off-the-wall comments, which leads to the pressure of having to explain our very existence, which leads to an isolated feeling for black women, which certainly goes a long way toward making us “angry” and “bitter.” But there are six effective techniques I use to deal with the constant barrage of off-putting hair questions and comments without losing my mind.
Technique #1: Default to Predictability. I didn’t bother changing my hair for years because I didn’t want to deal with people at work noticing the change and asking annoying questions about my new ‘do. During this time, I’d seldom even dare throw a clip into my Afro or try a new brand of hair gel. Once, another black female came into the office for an interview. When one coworker asked another what the latest candidate looked like, she was described as having “Thembi hair” (of course no one used the adjective “black” to describe her but that’s a whole ‘nother essay). In plain terms, the new candidate was just like about a million of us who rock “teeny-weeny Afro.” This young lady didn’t take the job, but if she had I would have been a trailblazer for her. Apparently no one in my office had ever seen a head like mine, so my hair had become an anthropological observation now branded as ‘Thembi Hair’. After so many years of the same thing, ‘Thembi Hair’ was familiar enough territory for my co-workers that the teeny weeny Afro and black hair in its natural state was no longer the craziest thing in the world.
Technique #2: Rinse and Repeat. When I can’t be bothered to blow dry my hair it looks 75% shorter and curlier, so if it’s humid or I get lazy with the heat-styling one of my co-workers always says “wow, you cut your hair!” I routinely put on a stolid expression and say the exact same thing to him: “No, I never, ever, cut my hair.” For two years I have consistently repeated that I definitely DID NOT put a scissor to my head, so lately my coworker just keeps his observations to himself out of embarrassment. Quite simply, he knows that if he says anything about a haircut I’ll shut him right on down. The exact mechanism by which my hair can suddenly look shorter or longer is unknown to him, but like Pavlov’s dogs he knows precisely what he’ll get if he says anything so he keeps his trap closed. All he knows is that there’s something he doesn’t know, and by now he’s fine with that. He has been trained.
Technique #3: The “Cry For Help Hairpiece.” Depending on your social circle, having fake hair need not be a secret. I believe that openness between black women is a beautiful thing when it comes to fake hair! So, one way to hip white folks to the game is by throwing in a ponytail piece that is so obviously fake that any mention of it would result in embarrassment for all. If your hair is black get a reddish piece. If your hair is relaxed, throw in a bushy puff. No matter how you do it, make sure that both hair textures are showing, that the two colors don’t quite match, and that you’re confident with it all. Everyone will realize that you’re wearing fake hair and therefore won’t say a word when you whip off the piece and come in the next day baldheaded because, in their culture, wearing fake hair is embarrassing and they certainly don’t intend to embarrass you. From that point on your co-workers will realize that they just can’t keep up, and anything is possible when it comes to your crowning glory.
Technique #4: The Canned Analogy. Why do people try to touch our hair? It’s rarely called for and the last thing I need on my hair is a moist, human hand. Instances like these are best avoided by quick neck reflexes, but if you ever need to explain yourself an analogy may be in order. Usually, people touch your hair because they’re curious and wouldn’t mind if you touched theirs in return. What they need to understand is that it’s not the same thing. If I’m speaking to a white man, I always say “it’s not the same. Think about it: I could pinch your nipple but if you did the same to me it’d be a problem, right?” To other women, I say “what kind of mentally enslaved freak would I be if I wanted to touch your straight hair as a novelty?” If these analogies don’t work or the offender is another black woman eager to feel a handful of naps, a simple “What am I, a stuffed animal?” usually conjures enough shame in the toucher that they wouldn’t dare try it again.
Technique #5: The Evil Eye. There is a sinking feeling that comes with the comment “Oooo, you got your hair done,” when you come to work the day after getting a simple touch up. On one hand yes, my hair has just been done, but on the other hand it’s exactly the same as it used to be, just touched up. The idea that it looks different enough now to draw comments must mean that more frequent touch-ups are in order, an interpretation that is lost to most people who aren’t hollerin’ at that every-eight-week no-lye relaxer. As a black woman I don’t mind using the misperception that I have a short temper to my advantage. When it comes to hair, I have a handful of coworkers who are too scared to say much more than “I like your hair,” because they know that I just may give them that evil eye, implying that any further statement or question would be insulting. Definitely use this technique sparingly, because the evil eye can also get you out of grunt-work office assignments or those after-work happy hours when needed. We don’t want to cry wolf on our stankness, now do we?
Technique #6: Straighten Them Out. A friend of mine wore her hair in a straight, chin-length bob and then got shoulder-length kinky twists. A colleague said “Wow, your hair is so long when you braid it like that.” Another friend gets intricate cornrows and has one coworker who consistently asks “how long did that take?” a question that gets really old after the third time. One way to brave this storm is to simply answer with the truth. Tell white people what extensions are and that you have them, let them know, with a “can you believe it?” that your braids took six hours. This way, at least one person out of the clueless millions out there will understand how much preparation goes into what we’re working with and come one step closer to “getting it.” Frankly, if I didn’t have my own batch I’d be confused by Negro hair, too, so sometimes a little education is in order.
Do you have any hair-at-work stories or special strategies for bringing black hair to work? Please discuss in the comments.