When Your Natural Hair Becomes a Game of 21 Questions

Solange Knowles CFDA Awards

Solange Knowles, forever my greatest hairspiration. Image: WENN

I thought that by choosing to stop relaxing my hair, my life would be easier. No more worrying about chemicals burning my scalp, no more breaking and shedding. Little did I know that by not processing my tresses, things would get even more complicated for my hair.

The other night, I was invited to attend a small get-together at a friend’s house and out of nowhere it seemed, the main topic of discussion quickly turned to my hair. The fact that I was wearing it out and in curls was a source of such curiosity to my white peers, all of whom had seen me with my hair like this before. But one bold young man in a particularly inquisitive mood took it upon himself to barrage me with questions about my ‘do — questions he’d asked before, mind you — opening up a Pandora’s box of a real life #AskJihanAnything session.

I have no problem explaining what I do with my hair — when it’s appropriate. I am something of a product junkie and I stalk natural-hair girls on Instagram, seeking out reviews on different products and images of hairstyles I can try out. I guess for some people, seeing someone with curly hair and then straight hair can be jarring. Hairstyles, so confusing! Still, I couldn’t help but feel like some kind of alien with all the questions they were asking me.

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“So…is it curly, or is it straight?” the same guy asked, looking at the obviously curly hair springing from my head. With due shade, I explained that black hair tends to be curly and coily. “Did you do something to it?” another asked. “Is it yours?” “Wait, wasn’t your hair different from last time I saw you?” a friend of mine who recently saw me inquired. It was — I had it in a bun before. What was so difficult to understand? “My hair works, grows and can be manipulated like how your hair can — just in a different way,” I said, as my exasperation crept up in my chest until it became a sigh.

Zendaya with locs

Image: WENN

I wondered why I was getting so frustrated, and I realized it was because none of my white friends, the same ones who were grilling me in the first place, ever get these kind of inquiries when they change their hairstyles. I pointed out that no one asked my white friend how her hair could possibly be straight when it’s naturally curly. Do I ever ask them what sorcery allows their hair to go from a ponytail to hanging loose? Do they react in the same bafflement when curly-haired celebrities like Shakira ditch their ringlets for bone-straight locks? Obviously not. Sometimes I straighten my hair. Sometimes I wear it curly. Sometimes I wear it kinky. Why was that so confusing for everyone?

I took a road trip back from Michigan after going there for a friend’s wedding three years ago. At the time, I had box braids down to my waist. As we were driving back to New York, we made a stop at an Ohio diner. In the bathroom, I was approached by two older white women who, with my brain still in city mode, I paid little mind to. That is until they, totally unprompted, asked: “Is that hair all yours?” I didn’t even have the energy to throw shade at such an ignorant question. “Yes,” I replied with the fakest smile I could muster. “I bought it, so it’s mine.” At least they didn’t touch it.

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I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is it any time black women do anything with their hair — whether they choose to wear it curly, straight, in a weave, in locs, in cornrows — do some people see that as an invitation to ask a thousand and one questions about it? I didn’t ask those old ladies if all the teeth in their mouth were real or if they wore dentures. Why? Because it’s fricking rude, and also none of my business. 

I often see comments from white people on blog posts discussing black hair politics, wondering why black people make such a big deal about our hair when it’s just hair. Besides the historical implications, none of which I care to explain here because a thing called Google exists, maybe black hair would be “just” hair if black people weren’t subject to a million questions about it every time we wear it in its natural state. When you act like my hair is some kind of perplexing phenomena, some enigmatic extension of my body that’s clearly unnerving to you, you’re making it more than just hair. You’re turning it into a platform for you to project your feelings that my blackness is something exotic, mysterious, frightening, curious, alien or not quite human to you. And that shit is wack. 

My head is not a jumping off point for your exploration of my perceived otherness. I shouldn’t have to explain my existence. If you’re really that interested in the extremely diverse nature of black hair, there are more than enough YouTube tutorials to help you with that. Maybe if you don’t make my hair a big deal, it won’t be.