An Open Letter: Stop Asking Black Women If Their Hair is Real

Dear (Almost) Everyone,

I was ten years old the first time my mother took me to get braided hair extensions. And later at home, when those magical, ebony, Nigerian beauticians were done parting and gelling and twisting my coiled strands alongside the synthetic ones - no doubt imported from some place in Southeast Asia - my mother had something to say. She said it in the same tone she used to tell me, “Maryam, never get into a stranger’s car,” or “Maryam, stay where I can see you.”

“Maryam, when someone asks about your hair, tell em’ it’s real.”

I was ten years old, and already I had been taught that my truth as a black girl was nothing to be proud of; instead, it was considered shameful and embarrassing. And evidently, people outside of my community felt the same way.

Many times, what was supposed to be witty banter between kids would quickly turn hurtful as those I considered close friends (of ALL colors, let’s be clear.) would suddenly jab, “Well at least my hair is real!”

Back then, my cheeks would beam bright red, and I’d think, “Oooookay, and that is being thrown in my face because…why exactly?” I certainly had never said I had a problem with it, and yet they assumed I should. I realize now, more than ever, that is was because they had the problem. On the other hand, there are also people who maintain the same issue in less blatant ways.

I was 17 years old, and had just gotten to the homecoming dance when a classmate told me, “Oh wow, you got your hair done! So, is that your real hair?” To which, I had the raging impulse to reply, “Oh wow, your boobs look so great! Are they real?

I understand that many people mean no harm when they ask, and I personally have no problem answering for honesty’s sake. At the same time, we still need to take into account the fact that when the question is posed, 95 percent of the time, a black women is on the receiving end of it. Now, why is that?

And try to refrain from telling me we are just curious people. In my opinion, no one is “just curious” about anything. People ask yes or no questions because they need to either confirm or disprove an idea they already developed in their head prior to asking.

So maybe the better question is: What are these prior impressions that we have? When you ask me if my hair is real, what you are really trying to say?

Black women don’t usually grow nice, long hair. It must be fake”?

Black women always wear weaves, but maybe she’s the exception”?

Fake hair never looks that good on black women, it has to be real”?

Could what is intended as harmless snooping actually be a subconscious, racially-bound microagression that continues to perpetuate the same sorry stereotypes America holds against women of color?

Hey, I’m “just asking.”

And it doesn’t stop there. What about the women telling plus-sized girls, “Wow, you look great! Have you lost weight?” Or the men telling darker-skinned women, “You are too beautiful. Are you mixed?” As if that somehow magically validates a woman’s attractiveness.

Here is the bottom line. Beauty and belly fat are not mutually exclusive, in the same way that beauty and African ancestry are not mutually exclusive, or beauty and processed hair on a black woman are not mutually exclusive. None of those physical attributes should be valued as lesser than another other physical attribute And if we as a general people really believed that, I fail to think that any of these questions would be asked as regularly as they are.   

If you must know, what is “real” are the eight glorious hours a black woman spends in the hair salon (or her big sister’s kitchen), bonding; having her hair braided, surrounded by gossip and family and music as she goes to dip those newly plaited strands into a bowl of boiling water so she can seal their ends.  

What is “real” is that first and foremost, fake hair and what the black community refers to as protective styling, many times can go hand in hand. And therefore braids, weaves, wigs, clips, etc. are all low-manipulative ways that help keep black hair - which is generally prone to breakage - out of its own way so it has the opportunity to actually grow undisturbed by heat or harsh chemicals.

What is “real” is that I personally just like the act of flipping my hair, so while mine is in the process of growing out, this is what I’m going to do.

What is “real” is that the natural hair movement is more alive than it has ever been. We  as black women have spent way too long hating our hair, and have come way too far in our natural hair journeys to have  our choices questioned left and right. No one should be made to feel as though  they have to be the defense attorneys of their own fixed trials.

I’m not saying that every person who has ever asked a black woman if her hair is real is implementing the idea that packaged hair should be viewed as a symptom of insecurity, or that the combination of black women and packaged hair in particular is inferior to the westernized and male-constructed ideals of our society. I mean, if my friend had locs all the way down her back one day, then showed up with a bob the next day, I would have some questions, too.    

However, there are surely enough of those “bad eggs” to go around. And we as a collective population need to understand that hair in general is so intimately intertwined in the culture of brown girl womanhood at this point. When you make these kinds of remarks, no matter how subtle, no matter how politely said, your intentions do not matter. Regardless, you have criticized the home that black women have built for themselves from the ground up: in our beauty shops, barbershops and every other shop in between.

So the next time you think about asking that chick with 22-inch 1B/2-colored Marley twists swaying from the crown of her head what her hair is, try asking why her hair is. Believe me, it’s a far more interesting story, anyway.