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Is Black Hair Still Off Limits?

Black hair has been at the center of work politics and even school disputes with

schools categorizing natural African hair as ‘untidy’ and requiring black learners to

do something about it. Banning the display of natural African hair at school & workplaces is nothing new, which is part of the problem. With the rise of a more

conscious generation and the spotlight on racial prejudices, amongst the rest, young

black women have been pushing back and refusing that their blackness is dimmed

down. With this in mind, the natural hair movement is in full steam and many

mothers are choosing to keep their baby’s hair natural until they’re old enough to

decide if they’re like it straightened. More and more prominent celebrities are

showing up on the red carpet with their natural curls and coils to make the clear

statement that their hair is regal and worth the representation.

Despite our intention and actions to normalize black hair, our non-black

counterparts are still absent from the party. Many non-black people seem to still

gaze at black hair with tourist eyes resulting in further detachment and mistrust.

Forbes’ Senior diversity & inclusion contributor, Janice Gassam, writes

“Understanding the history and patterns of treatment for many Black people around

the world can give more insight into why the request to touch a Black person’s hair

is so offensive.

In the early 1800s, an African woman named Sara Baartman was sold

into domestic servitude and became a European tourist attraction, where her naked

body was put on display. Baartman was put on display because of the European

fascination with her body.” In 1906, Ota Benga, a black African man, was also put on

display in the Bronx Zoo. “Benga became a spectacle because of his boyish

appearance. He was put on exhibit and placed in a monkey cage, where nearly a

quarter of a million people went to see him” explains Gassam.

A harrowing fact is, this type of ogling and othering of black people was common

practice as there are many more stories like Ota Benga's throughout history. It’s vital

to understand the historical context of gawking at black people and our features.

The fascination with black hair in itself implies inequalities. While black people do

not treat non-black hair as abnormal, humane behavior is not returned. By

treating black hair differently, you create an environment that recognizes black hair

as different, uncommon, and even unnatural.

So if you’re not black, the next time you want to touch a black person’s afro or braids,

because you think they’re so beautiful or interesting, don’t.

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