As I entered a sushi restaurant for dinner a few weeks back with a friend of mine, I was met by a hostess who, without a second thought – before the common pleasantries of hellos and seating arrangements – asked me, “Is your hair real?”
Pause. Let’s just pause right here for a moment.
Black women, how many times have you heard that question? The infamous, “Is your hair real?” or “Can I touch it?” or, the pinnacle of all, “Well, where’s your real hair then?”
The surveillance of black women’s hair in both black and non-black spaces has been a longstanding and terribly unaddressed ritual for quite some time now. The racial specificity behind these questions have a direct link to the social devaluing of black women’s aesthetic in mainstream society. It also provides another example of the entitlement wider society feels they have over black women – in this case, their aesthetics. An entitlement, I’d like to point out, they don’t have.
Hair, cross-culturally, has been constructed as something very central to the establishment of femininity. To put it bluntly, a woman without hair is not really a woman at all (that is, according to normative claims of femininity, or normative characteristics of what the feminine ought to be). In other words, hair has, for several women, become intrinsic to the construction of their feminine identity.
If we take this centrality of hair to a woman’s (aesthetic, at the very least) identity formation to be true, then I’m quite sure we can see the real problems implicit within those particular questions posed towards black women, and specifically the question, “Is your hair real?”
As I pointed out to my sushi dinner buddy, questions that inquire about the biological validity of one’s hair are extremely gendered and racialized. That is to say, non-black women and both black and non-black men are never asked the question, “Is your hair real?” and, thus, are never asked to validate the natural “ownership” of their hair. The sheer thought of me posing this question to a non-black female or any man, for that matter, had my date in tears of laughter at its supposed absurdity, despite the fact that men and non-black women can and often do wear extensions, hairpieces, toupes, and wigs.
But yet, the ease at which women and men alike, both black and non-black, stop me on the street, in subway cars, and at my job (at almost every shift) to ask if me if my hair is real is quite astounding. It is telling of the many ways black women are constantly asked to account for their aesthetic being.
I say this because those individuals who seek to freely question the “biological” realness of black women’s hair do not know that this questioning has rooted hostile implications. This question, “Is your hair real?” asks no other women but black women to essentially prove their feminine aesthetic identity – an identity that, as I have stated, becomes devalued every single time surveillance is enacted. Black women are forced to affirm or deny, at least once in their lifetime, the validity of their femininity and of their identity as woman. A problem? I think so.
Now, let’s get back to the incident that occurred at the sushi restaurant.
Unfortunately, I did answer the hostess, unwillingly of course. Will I share what my answer was? No, of course not. I did however tell my friend at dinner that I would no longer answer to the self-righteous inquiries of my identity as a woman.
But, obviously, I still get asked this question. Perhaps it is because of misguided and curious people who act as if they have never seen (black women’s) hair before and problematically feel that they have the right to ask about it (a right, I repeat, that they do not have). Or maybe it’s on account of my periodic teetering between two seasonal hairstyles throughout the year. My most beloved afro, which I affectionately call Tyrone (hence, “Tyrone Speaks”), and my dimed-out “Poetic Justice” braids. The latter, a hairstyle I admiringly stole from Janet Jackson in the movie Poetic Justice, consisting of super long and thick braids…like real long, like down to my waist, long.
Regardless of the reason, I will no longer be answering this hostile and unlawful question. Misguided and supposedly curious (but, really, more like ignorant) people who feel entitled to inquire have no reason at all to ask me, or any black woman for that matter, about the realness of my hair – ever, period. So stop.
Simply put, perhaps it’s time watchful society focuses their eyes on their own hair and not my own, you know? So I kindly ask, don’t fucking ask me if my hair is real.
Tyrone Speaks is a twice monthly column written by Christiana Collison on the subject of black feminism. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.