The Change: I guess I am my hair! Teaching and learning about Culture

Blog Moe
India Arie professed to the world “I am not my hair”. But I think some people missed the memo. I change my hair pretty frequently. Lace front, half-wig, glue-in, sew-in, clip-in, box braids, twist or cornrows. You name it I’ve done it, with the exception of going natural1. So it is so intriguing to me how people who see me frequently can’t seem to wrap their minds around the changes. Shaved in the back and probably only about four or five inches long in the front, without the help of store bought hair, I rock a very short cut. So to me it’s fairly obvious that if I am natural (meaning without any hair extensions) on Monday the 1st that when you see me with hair down my back on Monday the 7th clearly it did not grow from my scalp. That part seems more common sense then cultural!
At one point in my life I did not like to change my hair. I anticipated the oohhs and aahhs I would receive, questions about the transformation and request to touch it. Again my college experience allowed me freedom to change as I saw fit. Attending a predominately Black college it wasn’t uncommon for a girl to have a long black Mohawk on Monday and autumn twist on Tuesday. That would be colors 1 and 30! Actually, this was so common most people really did not comment or call attention to the change unless you really admired the new style and gave your friend a “that’s cute on you” confirmation statement. Transitioning back into the real world over the years I’ve struggled with making “the change”. I’ve created these rules around changing my hair and I wonder why I found it necessarily to restrict my free flowing hair transformations.

Rule # 1 – Hair can only change over the weekend – The transformation is always so magical to people that I think it would be sensory overload for me to change during a week day.

Rule #2 – Give a warning – I find myself suddenly letting people know that my hair is going to change over the weekend and when they see me on Monday I will look a little different. It helps remove some of the shock factor.

Rule # 3 – Be ready – I give myself a pep talk in the car and run through in my head what I am going to say to the most common and highly predictable questions and comments.

Rule # 4 – Hit the catwalk – I try to see everyone early on Monday morning by walking around the office more or staying in common areas for longer than normal. This way people can get their comments out of the way and I am prepared with the tailor made response I rehearsed in the car. If I run into someone late in the afternoon I’m likely to be tired by that time, caught off guard and sometimes offended resulting in a not so professional exchange.

Rule # 5 – When all else fails, play the race card – Sometimes I’m just tired of having to educate people or even engaging in conversations about my hair. If this happens I’ve found the quickest way to end the conversation or interrogation is to call to that person’s attention how their comments are culturally insensitive or that they are showing people how ignorant they are about Black culture. Only resort to rule 5 in emergencies!

Why the rules? Are they for me or for them? I think at first I lied to myself and said that some of the rules are because I’m a professional in a professional setting and as the military (and several schools across the nation) have recently showed us, hair is a big deal and in some ways part of the uniform. My office is business casual and sometimes I feel my hair is urban chic. I only feel able to relax about my hair once I’ve seen everyone in my office, all the oohhs and aahhs are done, and I’ve completed my educational course on how it’s possible for me to go from last week’s style to this week’s style.
Every time I share a really uncomfortable or aggravating awkward hair moment with Dr. EW she immediately says “Everyone should watch Good Hair”2. And you know what, she’s right! I know a lot about the hair of my Caucasian friends and colleagues. You don’t have to educate me on why you wash your hair daily but I always seem to have to do a tutorial on why I don’t. Watch the movie! If you don’t have two hours You Tube can help you in five minutes or use everyone’s favorite educational tool, Google! Frankly, I feel that my hair is only the business of three people, me, the person I bought it from and the person that glued, sewed or braided it in. However, I’m okay with people knowing the truth. I’m not trying to hide the fact that this is not my natural hair but in ways I feel tired of this conversation and I want to quit this cultural teaching job. I can remember my first sleep over with my White friends and how I spent half the night explaining to them why I showered and didn’t wash my hair and why I have to sleep with that funny head scarf on. I’m in my 30’s now so I’ve been teaching for 3 decades, when do I get to retire? Younger Black women and I have conversations constantly about this topic. They struggle with having to “speak for the race” and answer any question that has to do with Black people, Black culture or Black history. They are frustrated with the fact that they know about Florence Allen one of the first female judges in this country but no one seems to have ever heard of Jane Bolin (I’ll wait while you Google).

As a psychologist, I am called to be aware of the culture of other people so I can treat my clients from their worldview. Seeing as though the majority of my clientele are Caucasian I’m probably a little past the learning curve. Which makes me wonder how some people have no knowledge about the culture of anyone who doesn’t identify as White American heterosexual Christians but treat these people in their practices. If a client comes to you about how she has been treated in her family since making the decision not to wear her hijab (go ahead, Google) how will you respond if you have no earthly idea what a hijab is and what it represents in Arab culture. I’m not even advocating for being an expert. I think being a jack of all trades is perfectly fine. At lease know a little bit about a lot instead of being an expert on your culture and knowing nothing about everyone else’s.
I don’t claim to know everything about every culture and I will admit that at times I am ashamed of how much I don’t know but I pride myself on having the desire to learn more. I’m extra proud of Dr. EW for immersing herself in books and articles that expand her knowledge about my culture. Often those who are in the majority don’t see the need to explore other cultures because they hardly interact with those outside their culture. When I got married Dr. EW asked me was I going to jump the broom (you all are wearing Google out. And the movie that just popped up is not about the tradition or history of jumping the broom). I was impressed that she knew anything about jumping the broom. Now, someone who will remain nameless asked me “What’s with the broom”. There is an obvious difference in the approach that makes me feel honored to share with Dr. EW and an internal desire to just use my beautiful broom to hit the nameless offender. However, I even educated the nameless offender. Maybe one day I will get to retire but for now Dr. MB will continue to educate (even the nameless offender)! But in the meantime do your homework!
Class is dismissed!!

1 Going Natural – When an African American women wears the natural texture of her hair instead of the straightened permed texture. A perm straightens the hair of African American women where it is a processed used to curl the hair of Caucasian women.


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