Understanding Black* hair: a journey


One of my favourite movies is Something New, with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker (aka Patrick Jane from The Mentalist)—I could watch the movie every few days and not get sick of it. It’s not a new movie but if you like romantic movies it’s a must see—if you hate it the chances of us being best buddies is probably zero—sorry. The strong theme through the movie is interracial relationships and I swear the character played by Sanaa (“Kenya”) is me, or how I’d be if I was model-gorgeous and ambitious career-wise.

Anyway, there’s a funny scene in the movie where Simon Baker (“Brian”) asks Kenya about her hair: why she wears fake hair (aka a weave), and if she can take it off, even though it’s not a wig, and that reminded me of misconceptions about Black* hair (see below for my definition of Black hair) that I certainly had and that some people unfamiliar with Black hair also have, though thanks to Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair, people are more knowledgeable.

You may remember from my hairstory that I started relaxing my hair when I was 17 years old; prior to that my awesome mom braided my hair in cornrows—simple cornrows, with no added hair (extensions)—the only time I used extensions was once when I was 10. I got my first weave when I went to Nigeria in 2008 (and I took it out after a about a week—too hot underneath!). That same year I got my first Ghana weave which I loved—it’s now my go-to style when I braid my hair (which still only happens when I go home). Like many Nigerian women of a certain age, my mom has rocked Jheri curls, relaxer, braids with extensions, and wigs (though I don’t think she’s had a weave).

I washed my hair every other day (and sometimes daily) throughout university and beyond(!)—it’s a miracle I still have hair on my head since washing so often just dried out and damaged my hair. And oils! I avoided oil like the plague because I really wanted “touchable” hair—how could my boyfriend run his hands through my hair if he was going to need a napkin to wipe them on after doing so? Not cool and in retrospect I needn’t have bothered since I didn’t have a high school or university boyfriend!

My mom and sister and every hair dresser I’ve ever gone to are always encouraging me to oil my scalp, and when I go to my parents’ house my sister will ambush me in the bathroom and “oil bomb” my hair! I know my hair needs the oils and looks better with it, but I avoided oils because my skin is already oily and prone to breakouts and oil near my hairline caused more breakouts. The oils also didn’t smell as yummy as some of the shampoos and conditioners I was buying (you know, the ones that were full of sulfates and alcohols that were wrecking my hair!).

Understanding Black hair isn’t difficult: if something you’re doing isn’t giving you the results you want then you have to change. It took me a while to accept that my hair needed a different care regimen than what I was doing (copying from commercials and what I knew my friends did), even though my sister and mom were trying to get me on-board with better practices for my hair. But I’ve learned: I now wash my hair and oil my scalp once a week but scalp needs more moisture. A weird result of less frequent washing is washing my hair less frequently has made me self-conscious that someone coming up behind me might get a whiff of unwashed-for-a-week hair. I’ve never had someone grimace upon inadvertently sniffing my hair but I have very polite colleagues who wouldn’t say anything directly to me. My current course of action (be paranoid and squirm while a colleague stands behind me looking at my computer screen) is pretty lame so I need a better solution, like getting over myself and realizing that thinking my hair stinks is probably all in my head (pun intended!).

Some hair-related comments and questions I’ve received or heard:

Did you get a hair cut?
I get this question whenever my hair is freshly relaxed and looking as neat and tidy as it’ll look for the next 12 weeks (this is my big problem with relaxing my hair—the new growth shoots up so quickly, messing with the initial smoothness). People always think I had a hair cut when really it’s just how my hair looks when it’s been chemically treated into submission, forming a smooth bob. I usually do get a trim when I relax my hair but that’s not drastic enough to be called a cut.

You should wear an afro—they’re so cool!
Afros ARE cool, but it’s not clear to everyone that someone with relaxed hair can’t just rock an afro the next day without chopping off the chemically processed part of their hair—many think that washing relaxed hair will allow it to go back to afro status—maybe some have hair like this? Not I! I may go for an afro one day, but I’m not ready to part with my 18-year investment yet (hair that is barely neck length—bad investment?).

You decided to “go curly” today.
My mom hears this a lot from people who think her curly wig is her real hair that has been released from its go-to style of shoulder-length (Bob Marley) braids, which kind of makes sense since taking out braids that you’ve been wearing for a long time does make your hair wavy or curly. Most don’t believe her when she says it’s a wig because it looks so natural—oh wigs! I still haven’t tried one yet!

What’s the strangest hair-related question you’ve ever been asked?

*Black hair is how I refer to my hair which is the result of hundreds of years of Nigerians marrying Nigerians and making cute babies. I understand there is a huuuuuuugggeee variation in Black or African hair textures.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Black* hair: a journey

  1. Super interesting! I know we’ve been friends for a super long time but I never really asked about your hair. Wasn’t sure how to go about it or if it would be considered insulting in some maner (some peeps are sensitive!). I would totally love to be able to NOT wash my hair everyday. However, having very fine and thin hair makes it look greasy so quickly. I guess we always want what we don’t have (fuller, thicker hair!) but I think having hair to begin with is good enough :) I can’t say I get weird questions but I do get asked how I get my hair so flat and if I use red color. My hair is flat not by choice. I can’t keep a curl to save my life! As for the red, I’m still not sure why I get that because I do not and have not used red in a really long time and I’m a medium blond naturally.

    • You’re so cute, Rachie! Please feel free to ask questions about my hair and I will answer them to the best of my ability.

      You’re right about people wanting what they don’t have hairwise—I used to want straight and manageable hair like yours which is why I relax my hair, but I’m getting to the point where regular relaxers aren’t doing it for me so I’m considering my options. Good point—it takes a lot for my hair to look greasy and while you’d never add oil to your hair it’s practically a must for me!

      I’m one of the ones who always thinks you’ve got some red in your hair…could it be your awesome frames? That seems like a crazy reason…or maybe because you’re kind of fair in colouring like most redheads? Very curious!

  2. lol @ how could my boyfriend run his hands through my hair if he was going to need a napkin to wipe them on after doing so?
    I can see that these comments are from non-Black folks.
    you’re probably one of the few people I read about who use to wash their hair so often. This is strange since many Black women rarely wash their hair until THEY can start to smell it themselves. eww.
    I keep my hair natural because I didn’t like my hair when it was relaxed and I just hated the complaints I got from hair dressers about me having thick and full hair as if it was a curse. So i’m my own hair stylist (mane captain) now.

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