Lock it up
September 21, 2010 10:28 AM   Subscribe

How, as a blondiepants white girl, can I successfully participate in discussions about Black hair?

First, I understand that there are many potential pitfalls and ways to seem like an ignorant, entitled asshole here. Asking or commenting, guilelessly though it may be, about an African or African Americans' hair texture or style, products or procedures, is tiresome, in my book, and to be considered uncool. I understand why.

However, given that there may be two groups of people: people likely to engage in chitchat about hair and people unlikely to, I fall in the former group, and sometimes find myself among black colleagues and awkwardly silent, or feeling like I should have remained so. Can you help me discern where the boundary line should be?

Here is an example exchange, where I am played by Doris Day.

scene: the office water cooler
Felicia Rashad: I miss my straight hair sometimes, does that mean I'm not committed to locking it?
Erykah Badu: No, just give it a chance, be patient, you can go back eventually. Trying new things is scary!
Felicia Rashad: It just looks so messy like this, short in an afro puff. I don't know if I can wait for it to lock.
Doris Day: Well, I don't think it looks messy at all! In fact I think it looks very flattering on you in a short style, Felicia!
All: *silence*

Is that painful whitegirl foot-in-mouth, or just whitegirl paranoia of such at work? I kind of felt like Felicia and Erykah decided to just ignore my remark rather than try to figure out it if was super crappy or nice. That's ok, I just want to understand better what's up with these encounters.

What am I permitted to talk about with regard to a hair type I know little to nothing of from experience, and the difference of which is deeply culturally fraught? Is asking questions in appropriate context, like "how do you plan to start your locks," or "you look nice with bangs" ruined by association with racist comments other white people have made in the past? Are these comments racist in a way I'm failing to grasp?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
(I'm also white, but I have black kids, so I have ventured a bit into black hair issues in my own way.) I guess I question your need to participate in this conversation. I think you can always say something like, "I think you look great!" But there's no need to go into details.

Let's say you are in a group of mostly women at a coffee shop, and a woman makes some comment about feeling crampy and bloated. You respond with sympathy. Then, the man with you says, "You don't look bloated!"

You might just raise your eyebrows and wonder why he felt the need to say anything. One thing I hear when I am involved in communities of color is that sometimes people there just wish we'd be quiet and listen.

I do not think you are being racist, by the way, and I'm someone who will definitely call racism where I see it. But, I think the thing to remember is this: it's not about you. It's about these women and a shared frustrated/cultural issue that's unrelated to your presence there.

For the record, I do sometimes compliment black women on their hair. This tends to be along the lines of, "Wow, your braids are great," or, "Hey, that's a great hairstyle." Something sorta neutral. If the conversation carries on, great. If not, let it go.

Sometimes we white folks do tend to be overly interested in black women's hair--and will even, for example, sometimes touch their hair without even asking! Many black women find this very uncomfortable, understandably. People we don't know do this to my kids all the time--it drives me bonkers when a stranger will go out of their way to touch my kids' head. Seriously, how weird is that? Their head is not for you to touch! So, my reaction to this, as a white person, is to go in the other direction and try to be as uninterested as possible.

Here's another compliment that might work, "Felicia, you are so gorgeous, it doesn't matter what your hair looks like."
posted by bluedaisy at 10:40 AM on September 21, 2010 [12 favorites]

OK, Chris Rock has made a documentary on the subject, which is called "Good Hair". Watch it and you shall receive an education in the subject.
posted by grizzled at 10:40 AM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

I would also question your premise that you should be involved in these conversations. Part of being a good participant in groups of which you are a minority member, of any sort, is realizing when you cannot participate even though you are present. This comes up most clearly in instances where participation is ritually pre- and proscribed, like religion. You've already acknowledged that there are reasons why your contributions might be awkward. I would define the line you are seeking much more by the quality and depth of your relationships with these women, rather than by the acceptable involvement in the particular topic.
posted by OmieWise at 10:51 AM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

In one of my classes, we recently read a case where a woman's status as a slave or free depended on whether she was descended from a black or Native American grandmother. The judge decided the case based on the the fact that the woman had straight hair; he quite literally based her freedom on her hair type. My professor commented something along the lines of "and people question why hair matters so much."

Black women are judged, even now, by their hair type and by how they care for and style their hair in a way that we white women cannot (I think) fully comprehend. Your comment feels sort of intrusive to me. As a white woman, I would probably just listen, unless someone actually asked my opinion or was talking directly to me.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Are these comments racist in a way I'm failing to grasp?

Assume you know this, but whether what you're saying is racially fraught or not, people sometimes just don't want to talk to other people about things, various things. Hair can be a touchy subject, but so are a lot of things. I don't think there's a hair-specific solution to this, though maybe other people can comment.

And the power dynamic, sometimes, in these situations is that the person from the apparently-privileged position feels that their opinion is wanted, valuable, and in fact necessary to the conversation. And it may not be. I feel that one of the markings of privilege [not pointing at your specifically] is feeling that it is really your right to be involved in whatever discussions you'd like to be involved in, and that people care what you think. I get that you were trying to give someone a compliment, but I also get that it may have come across like the guy in the office saying "that dress really flatters you" which may have been an sincere attempt at a compliment, but also may have been some "Hey, you need my approval on your looks" statement and there's a lot of context wrapped up in what you say in response and how you take it and whether it's a problem.

The corrolary of course is that some people may be jerks and there's really nothing you can do in some situations to fit in with people who have decided you're not going to fit in. And you're supecting this is a privilege/power situation and not a "some people are jerks" situation. And you'd like to fit in, and it's vexing to you that you don't. I'd suggest what other people are suggesting and just get used to listening for a while. And not because you're being racist or bad or whatever, but because if you're trying to figure out how to interact with people in what you perceive to be another culture, it's a better way to start.
posted by jessamyn at 11:09 AM on September 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Though it's hard to know how to advise you because I don't know you, these women, or your relationship with them, I disagree with OmieWise.

This sort of situation could go a lot better if you make some sort of remark that acknowledges your (for lack of a better word) whiteness in a light-hearted way, like "okay, I know I'm a white chick so maybe I shouldn't say something, but I totally love your hair." Those exact words might not work if they don't fit your personality, but you can definitely make this sort of situation work out. Just remember that the thought in a lot of folks' head is "what is this white girl talking about?" and just acknowledge that and get it in the open.

I wouldn't treat this as a third rail that you can't touch though.
posted by massysett at 11:13 AM on September 21, 2010

I'm guessing you're considered to have no standing to comment on such matters. Surely you're no racist, and you may be a good friend, but when it comes to such topics, you're still considered an outsider of sorts. Presumptuous.
I say this as an older white guy still learning a lot daily about inter-ethnic interaction, and one who wishes we could all just speak our minds openly to one another and, you know, just get along.
But it ain't that easy. There's a lot we white folks don't know, and can't know. Sometimes just listening is your wisest move. I'm also guessing, since you sound sophisticated, that you already know this.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:14 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

They weren't talking about how her hair looks, they were talking about it locking. Perhaps a better comment would have been to ask, "how long does that take?"
posted by rhizome at 11:15 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am not only a blondiepants white girl who'd like to chit-chat about hair with black women, but I have short, dry, very wavy hair, and thus have been using African-American styling products for years. And I am very freaking careful to not assume that this gives me any common ground in haircare.

I admire braids/locks/twists in passing with co-workers the same way I would any new haircut/style. (I don't mention that I'm jealous that their hair can do that.)

To jessamyn's point about privilege, if I'm going to comment on something that's edging a little closer to the travails of black hair, I will often insert a qualifier, like "I hope you don't mind me saying," or something similar.

For instance, I had a colleague who, for big meetings, would wear a cute little bob, but she normally wore her hair very short and natural. The first time I saw her in the office after she had switched out of meeting mode, I mentioned as an aside, "I just had to tell you, your hairstyle for the meeting was cute, but I really love your hair like this."
posted by desuetude at 11:17 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Skip my pontifications. Jessamyn said it better.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:18 AM on September 21, 2010

It's all about approaching any subject with knowledge and care. I approach sisters in a way, where my knowledge about their issues allows me to flow with their wants and desires. For example, take your conversation about the lady worried that her hair is not locking fast enough and she thinks it looks a mess. I would offer her a solution as to possibly tame the locks so they don't puff out and ask about any hair salons, particularly Jamaican that might get the locks under control. If after all those solutions don't work for her, then I offer "honestly you look fine and it will be temporary." 'Cause in my experience, people don't want to hear they look fine when something is bothering them. They want to fix whatever it is. Offering solutions to the problem shows that you have some understanding. For now, they just think you're a really nice white lady but ignorant, because to the black community, puffed locks looks horrible. If you have nothing to offer, don't patronize. Just sit back and observe.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2010

I refuse to be bullied by society into complimenting or not complimenting whomever I want to (so long as I'm not being sexually offensive or something, and as far as I know, I never have been). I, a super-duper white person, have complimented people of all kinds of skin colors and hair types on their hair, earrings, shoes, glasses, etc, and always to good effect.

A good compliment "bridge" that you might like to trot out is, "I love your hair, it really suits you." It says the hair looks nice, they look nice, but mostly because they themselves are nice.

The one time I ever felt awkward complimenting black hair was when I saw my dorm RH without her hijab for the first time (me and a couple other female students were in her apartment, and she took it off). She had those super-awesome skinny dreads, and beautifully styled, and they were hidden--hidden!--to everyone in the world. But I told her her hair was beautiful anyway. Because it was.

Part of the reason your comment to Felicia may have failed was because it didn't seem genuine. It kind of sounds like you complimented her hair just to have something to say. You should probably save the compliments only for times when you truly feel moved to say something, not just to fill space.
posted by phunniemee at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I vote for saying absolutely nothing because you are neither qualified nor invited to speak on this subject. You show your good intentions by not interjecting yourself. I know one can feel that making complimentary remarks would be a good thing but from the recipient's point of view, you can be seen as intruding and assuming white approval is in any way relevant to this discussion when it isn't.
posted by Anitanola at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

I have "black hair" but have mostly lived among white people.

I think you'll find a difference between women who embrace the blackness of their hair (I just don't even know how to talk about this without making generalizations and using words about race inappropriately, sorry) and those who try to make their hair more "white." I'm not making judgments at all about either group -- I concur that what black women decide to do with their hair is so complicated. But women who straighten their hair, etc, would probably be more open to your comments ("your bangs are cute" or "did you get a haircut") while women are talking about locking their hair or where their hair natural would not appreciate your comments.

It's not "racist." However, there is a touchy area where comments of yours, even (and maybe especially) when you show interest or curiosity or acknowledge your ignorance, could be (rightly or wrongly) interpreted as a sort of... exoticism fetish. It's hard to explain; it's like "oooh your hair is so different!, tell me all about it, wow it's so beautiful because it's so different from what's normal. Wow, I'm so interested in your culture." I'm not assuming that this is how you meant it, but this is how it can feel sometimes. It can feel uncomfortable to have someone point out how strange and foreign and difficult-to-figure-out my hair is. Sometimes I know it is well-meant, but it's still just... touchy.

And I can imagine that the feelings would be the same or stronger for women who grew up more among black people, and who maybe feel more different or more separated from white people. So in conclusion, you're better off keeping quiet unless asked directly, especially when you really don't have a reason to enter the conversation. (If two black women are talking about flat irons and you know a really good one, and you have frizzy hair, too, then maybe you can chime in about a great flat iron that you've used.) No one will think you're racist, or even be mad at you really, but it will probably just leave a little bit of a bad taste or feeling.

And on preview, phunniemee's attitude really infuriates me. There was a thread a while ago about whether/when it's appropriate or rude to ask people where they're from, what they're "background" (ie, race) is, etc. And there were plenty of people who came in to say "I can't or won't believe that this line of questioning could be offensive because I am interested and I like asking these questions." Most of these people, like phunniemee, were in positions of "privilege" or the majority -- that type of thinking is kind of a lesson in "Just because you're not racist doesn't mean you can't be totally insensitive."
posted by thebazilist at 11:40 AM on September 21, 2010 [18 favorites]

I'm black (which of course does not mean that I speak for our whole race) but maybe this will help you: You know how white women are about the weight thing? Always dieting even when you can visibly see ribs? Counting every single, solitary calorie that goes into their bodies? Black women are like that about hair. We obssess about hair. We talk about it all the time. If we wear it straight, we talk about going natural. If we wear it natural, we talk about all the concoctions we can use to make it shinier, softer, manageable. There are blogs dedicated to nothing but our hair.


Go lurk on some of those sites and get some info and then just jump in to those work discussions. Watch Chris Rock's movie as a last resort because it really does contain a lot of misinformation.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:41 AM on September 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Black women and our hair!! Hah! I'm black. I'm a woman. I have hair - so permit me to comment.
Hair tends to be a touchy subject for a lot of black women (not me personally). My experiences in Africa, UK and the US have made me aware that if you're black and you dont have "good hair" i.e hair that looks like Alicia Keys, then you're somewhat inferior. It's pretty much a vestige of slavery/colonialism I guess. In African countries that were colonized by the Europeans, you find that the black women with straight LONG hair like white women (read: relaxed) are seen to be "superior" to us nappy haired folks (i've been rocking afropuffs for the past 10 years or so).
Anyways, so when a white, presumably well-meaning lady, with "good hair", i.e. hair that doesn't break a comb "dares" to offer an opinion to a nappy haired lady, especially one who's on the fence about managing her naps, I can see how the whole "inferiority complex" issue might set in.
So no, it's not really about you. It's about them. I honestly can't tell you how to handle it. All i can say is that not all of us are like that. Hell, i love when people of other races point out my hair, or touch it or what have you...even if negatively...it makes me feel unique. Check out www.nappturality.com, http://wickednaps.blogspot.com, www.womenofcolor.net, www.curlynikki.com, www.keepmecurly.com, www.treasuredlocks.com for some more perspectives on black hair.
Note (i'm in no way affiliated with any of the sites, i just love researching natural black hair care.)
Also, i used a lot of "" in my post, to point that my observations are purely thus, no empirical evidence to back up my claims.

On preview, Anitanola, as a black woman i kinda take offense to that. One of my closest friends is white, and she's the first person i turn to for advice on my hair. People (of all color) should stop assuming that because a person is of a different skin tone, they'll have no beneficial input to give. Case in point: www.happygirlhair.com The author of this blog is white. I've gotten more hair tips from her than from my black stylist!!!!
posted by ramix at 11:43 AM on September 21, 2010 [9 favorites]

On preview, my comment is a generalization. I'm certainly not saying that all white women are obsessive about their weight or that all black women have hair issues.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:44 AM on September 21, 2010

Is that painful whitegirl foot-in-mouth, or just whitegirl paranoia of such at work?

Could be paranoia, or they could be annoyed by your comment, hard to tell since we are not in their brains. Individual mileage may vary and all that.

What am I permitted to talk about with regard to a hair type I know little to nothing of from experience, and the difference of which is deeply culturally fraught?

Well generally speaking, if you know "little to nothing" about a topic, how can you have anything intelligent to say?

Is asking questions in appropriate context, like "how do you plan to start your locks," or "you look nice with bangs" ruined by association with racist comments other white people have made in the past?

No I don't think they are racist comments / questions at all. I don't judge every white person I speak to based on previous encounters I have had with other white people - that would be prejudiced, horrifically tedious and migraine inducing. I have had some ridiculous comments made by white people and people of color, for that matter, about my hair and I don't carry them over to the next encounter.

I find the question "how do you start locks?" totally innocent and wouldn't be surprised or bothered by it (well maybe a little surprised since I don't have locks).

Are these comments racist in a way I'm failing to grasp?

posted by Julnyes at 11:45 AM on September 21, 2010

Unless you're very close with these women you are definitely better off keeping shtum. Non-Black people can pretty much never truly understand the practical, cultural, and even political issues involved with hair.

Although definitely watch Good Hair to get an idea. And the beauty shop scene in School Daze.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:51 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Black/Brown woman here...

Reading the dialogue above, I would have felt completely comfortable with what you said to me. I can only guess the silence was more like one of those pauses to see what might come next since, as everyone here as acknowledged, hair in the black community is a touchy subject. You did good. I think if you would have brought up texture, or reached out to touch.. or really ventured further into the topic it might have gotten... weird. You came across as another woman who just appreciates another woman's hairstyle.

Please, please don't do as someone suggested, and make the situation possibly more uncomfortable by calling attention to your whiteness... or that you may not be qualified to speak *because* of it. If you do, you would force the conversation to go to the places that no one really wants it go. I think that by you not even acknowledging your privilege in this case, would work for me, and kept things light and friendly.
posted by lunachic at 11:51 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it might depend on your level of friendship with these women. I have a short pixie cut, and I often end up in hair conversations or compliment-matches with black women--our short hair being the common ground. Those conversations are one-on-one, though, so they're a little different. If I were on the margins of a conversation like the one you describe and I weren't particular friends with the women, I would probably stay quiet and just listen, since they seemed to be commiserating about a shared cultural experience that I am outside of, and by definition can't fully understand. With a very close friend, though, I've interjected more of my opinion--that short hair and natural hair and twists look great to me--and I've asked more questions when appropriate. That's because we're close, we attribute goodwill to each other, and we consider it a safe space.

I second the Good Hair recommendation.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 11:56 AM on September 21, 2010

How, as a blondiepants white girl, can I successfully participate in discussions about Black hair?

Only have those types of discussions with people who know you well enough that you can ask an awkward or insensitive question and they'll know you're just trying to understand. Because with an issue like this, there's always going to be some piece you're missing or misunderstanding, and it's not appropriate to expect your coworkers to educate you on their ethnic hair maintenance or any other race-related issue just because you're curious. There's too much history there.

Surely you have friends you can talk about anything with, right? They're Religion X and you hear that members of X don't believe in physics, and you can just blurt out, "Dude, do you really not believe in physics?" Whereas if your coworker were a member of X, you'd keep quiet. Right? Or, your friend is Ethnicity Y, and you can ask, "What's up with Y people hating Ireland?" Whereas if your coworker were a member of Y, you wouldn't try to ask them why they hate the Irish, right? Treat this like that. If you don't have close black friends, you don't get to participate in discussions about Black hair.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hate when my opinions about myself are contracticted. When I say "My hair is a mess today," I'm not fishing for compliments. When I say, "I'm fat", that is not an invitation for my friends to say, "Ohhh, no! You're so beautiful!" It's frustrating that I'm not "allowed" to have what is perceived as a negative opinion about my looks.

Perhaps this is part of the conversation dynamic you experienced - two people were trying to have one type of functional conversation ("My hair is a mess, how do I fix it?/how long will it look like this?") and you interjected with dialogue that serves a different function (reassurance/affirmation) when that's not what the other participants were looking for?
posted by muddgirl at 12:08 PM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Listen, if someone was talking about quantum physics or the country club they just joined and you don't know anything about quantum physics or country clubs, why do you so desperately want to be a part of the conversation?

They are having a conversation. If they wanted to include you, they would. I don't think that their discussing their hair is a touchy subject, but it's clear they don't want to talk to you about it because you have no clue what they're talking about and it's clear that in order to include you they would have to spend time educating you on the matters of their hair care.

Even if you watched Good Hair and talked about what you learned from it, I can guarantee you that you would not be welcome in the conversation. Being Indian, I often have to field questions about the caste system from people who learned about it in some liberal arts class and they want me to re-educate them about it or tell them about it. It's not a topic I want to talk about or expend energy talking to someone person about even if they have good intentions and want to learn about it.

You have no place in their conversation.
posted by anniecat at 12:14 PM on September 21, 2010

I think basically, certain topics or questions will make certain groups or people uncomfortable (or worse). You (collective you, not specifically the OP) certainly have "the right" to ask or say whatever you want, and you may have judgments about whether those people ought to feel uncomfortable. But a good rule of thumb, if you feel like being sensitive to others, is to weigh the importance of your curiosity, or desire to feel like part of the group, or need to pay a compliment, against what the other party could potentially feel as a result of your comment or question.
posted by thebazilist at 12:19 PM on September 21, 2010

You didn't exactly make things easy for them with that whole business about Sly, but I think you did just fine.

These days, you or someone just like you could well end being the mother of their little nieces and nephews, or for that matter their own child's aunt, and they would be wisest to take this opportunity to get to know you and learn how to relate to you, and to begin to teach you what you'll need to understand to deal with your child's or your niece's hair.

It's asking a lot of all parties concerned, but I think you are making an effort and taking risks we should all be looking for ways to emulate as best we can.
posted by jamjam at 12:54 PM on September 21, 2010

I'm generally of the mind that in a situation where it's possible that I might unintentionally offend someone, it's best just to not say anything. Even if there is no logical reason why you shouldn't be able to talk about hair style issues with someone of a different race, and even if any issues they have are without real merit because you're simply trying to be friendly, what do you have to gain by inserting your self into a (apparently based on the comments in this thread alone) minefield?

There's a whole mess of racial and cultural baggage at play which yes, isn't fair because none of it is your personal responsibility or fault, but it is what it is and you've very little to gain and plenty to lose by attempting to 'solve it' in this particular way.
posted by modernnomad at 12:56 PM on September 21, 2010

I have a short pixie cut, and I often end up in hair conversations or compliment-matches with black women--our short hair being the common ground. Those conversations are one-on-one, though, so they're a little different.

Yeah, I guess I tend to have more interesting/satisfying chats along these lines when it's one-on-one, even if it's one-on-one with some random lady in the supermarket.

Only have those types of discussions with people who know you well enough that you can ask an awkward or insensitive question and they'll know you're just trying to understand. Because with an issue like this, there's always going to be some piece you're missing or misunderstanding, and it's not appropriate to expect your coworkers to educate you on their ethnic hair maintenance or any other race-related issue just because you're curious. There's too much history there.

Whoa, this is now how I saw the question at all. I think there's a big difference between turning a casual group conversation into Black Hair 101 vs. navigating the extra cultural context when black women are chatting about hair.
posted by desuetude at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2010

...not how...
posted by desuetude at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2010

To clarify--I didn't mean that the OP is expecting Black Hair 101, just that joining in that type of conversation can shift the conversation in that direction. My main point in that comment was the part about a white woman (like me) always missing, misunderstanding, or just not being fully mindful of at least some of the baggage underlying a conversation between black women about their hair. If I try to join in that type of conversation, I put the others in a position to choose between being offended by my ignorance or becoming my educators. And I think that's fine if the women are my dear friends, not so much if they're my coworkers and I can catch up with them later when the topic turns to, I don't know, the office football pool.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:22 PM on September 21, 2010

Please don't comment on people's appearance unless they specifically invite you to (or you are related to them). And by people, I mean humans, regardless of what their race or age or gender is.
posted by halogen at 1:28 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

You have no place in their conversation.

A lot of the answers are going in this direction, and I think that might be a little harsh based on the OP's question. To me, it doesn't sound like she's looking for her colleagues to educate her about Black hair or wants to touch it or anything, she realizes (as I do) that this is very fraught territory. Her comment was basically the nicest thing she could have said at the time. Do we really have to make it all about her privilege and presumed lack of cultural sensitivity?

Compliments and chit-chat and sympathizing about fashion and make-up and diet and hair is a huge part of socializing with other women you don't know so well, and she's looking for a non-offensive way in. There has to be a way for an "outsider" to phrase a simple "Hey, nice hair." without causing a crosscultural incident. I do it all the time! I used to dye my hair a shade of burgundy that was a popular choice for Black ladies, and I can't tell you the number of friendly, unfraught conversations I've had with people with all kinds of hair textures about what a bitch it is to maintain. Maybe the secret is to focus on how we all suffer for beauty, rather than the cultural specificities of the torture rituals.
posted by Freyja at 1:34 PM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

In your example, it seemed like they were talking about a particularly sensitive subject: the choice to "go natural" versus straightening their hair -- and how it's a huge source of anxiety. She wasn't worried about how it looks, but was feeling nervous about being adequately "committed to locking it."

I wouldn't want to comment on that. Besides, she wasn't worried about how it looks, so saying "It looks great!" seems like missing the point a little. Like if a woman said, "I'm worried if I gain weight my boyfriend won't love me anymore." and someone replied, "But I think you look great!"

Maybe this is just one situation, and others were different -- but this is just my two cents. Personally I'd avoid commenting unless someone was clearly inviting it by saying something like, "Hey everyone! Check out my new haircut, it feels sooo short!"
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:59 PM on September 21, 2010

I think that if you're trying to bond with these colleagues, then getting involved in this topic of conversation isn't going to help you bond (it's a little bit like trying to bond with a pregnant colleague about pregnancy when you've never been pregnant, or a menopausal colleague when you're nowhere near that age).

But if you've already bonded because of your shared love of shoes / baking / 18th century art / work stuff, then don't feel scared about asking questions or giving genuine compliments, if that's how the conversation is going. But be aware that if the conversation is going along the "advice" lines and you come in with "reassurance", then that's going to be a conversation stopper in any situation, not just this one.

Also, just be aware. If you've got generally easy hair then saying "oh, my hair is such a mess today" when it's actually just a little less than perfect, is the equivalent of saying "oh I'm so fat" to someone who is overweight.
posted by finding.perdita at 2:34 PM on September 21, 2010

I could have sworn this collection by Lisa Jones was called something with "hair" in the title, but in any case, it has some great essays that really express the depth, personal and political, of black vs white hair... I know you said you're aware that it's "culturally fraught" so am not suggesting this as if it would be news. It's just a cool book with some possibly useful insights...
posted by mdn at 2:34 PM on September 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers so far. I knew this would be contentious and yield many types of input. Such is the nature of ascertaining shifting cultural "boundaries."

- Yeah, I don't want or need Black hair 101, certainly not in a chatty workplace setting, but the disconnect here is partly related to the confusion about whether as white, I would be so daft as to do so. There is no conversation that could give me the experience of having my hair derided as nappy, combed or relaxed at a young age.

- My colleagues are a mix of professors, grad students and staff at an urban university, and probably some of the complex and pertinent hair issues between F and E are the cultural differences between the educated liberal yuppie academic class and the local working class cultures, and the wearing of natural hair.

- The tip to avoid the possible self-deprecation as white is a good one. That is something I've done before, and it's good to remember that nobody wishes to be reminded of anyone's hyperawareness regarding race.

- I still have a hard time accepting that, in a circle of three women standing in proximity in a chat, there would be a conversation ongoing in which one of the women was not welcome to participate, without this being a situation which is awkward for etiquette, not cultural difference, reasons. Likewise, having well "started" to comprehend Black culture, there yet remains to be navigated the continual encounters of new people of difference to myself. Being myself, friendly, curious and gregarious, is hard to unlearn as it is generally considered by me to be useful to this project. Feeling forbidden from certain topics based on physical appearance of the participants is hard to take as part of a progressive, open attitude.

It sounds like the approach to this problem would be to seek ways to ensure that Black colleagues do NOT feel put on display, contradicted in their self-assessments, or as though they are speaking with someone who just fell off the cracker truck. Of course, that's an inherently inconclusive project, but it's cumulative.

I asked "Felicia" out to lunch.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:37 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Remix and Ambrosia are right in that often people are friends across what used to be boundaries and I applaud that. For courtesy's sake, however, it is usually better not to comment on other people's conversations unless implicitly or explicitly included, or unless, as remix also pointed out, one has some expertise to add. The fact that the conversation stopped also indicated at the very least, the invitation was not extended. I do think this is merely awkward. Friends can make awkward mistakes and go to lunch and laugh about it.
posted by Anitanola at 5:13 PM on September 21, 2010

IMVHO - you're not being racist with you say to these ladies about their hair unless it's hateful and comes from a bad, bad place. It's tough, it's a fraught subject, you're sensitive, everyone's sensitive, it's cool, we can all hang, and let's just be nice.

If your heart is right, you're all right, and we can all learn and be good to each other.
posted by tristeza at 7:02 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

> Feeling forbidden from certain topics based on physical appearance of the participants is hard to take as part of a progressive, open attitude.

I totally empathise with this, but I think being in a position of privilege can often blind us to the nuances of that privilege.

An analogous example would be how, in this thread on the Blue about women wearing make-up, the men who claim to prefer the appearance of clean-faced, make-up free ladies are getting jumped all over by the women in the thread. On the face of it, why shouldn't the men be able to express their preference? Isn't that just conversational participation? Aren't they expressing solidarity with women in their own way? Well, yes and no. Men, of course, don't have to wear make-up in our culture, and they aren't themselves being judged, every day and by people of both genders, on whether and how they're wearing it. They are commenting from the point of view of a privileged observer.

So, in this situation, you are the man interrupting the women's conversation about whether to wear make-up to say, "Hey, I think you look great without make-up!". On it's face, it's a compliment. But to the other participants your comment is unwelcome, unhelpful, and possibly patronising.

Like I say, I empathise; I'm sure I've said this sort of thing before, myself. I also suspect these sorts of conversations go much better with close friends rather than work colleagues.
posted by hot soup girl at 3:56 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

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