Should I tell my friend her comments about my hair were offensive?
June 30, 2016 12:39 AM   Subscribe

i'm really really really really really tired of being a black woman in America and dealing with ridiculous comments people make when I do something as simple as wear my hair the way nature designed it. Most of the time I'm happy with who I am, but simply being myself is like death by a thousand cuts and there are some days when things really add up and they get to me.

I've been wearing my hair natural for the past 7 years. Today I happened to wear it in an afro, not intentional, it's just when I comb my hair all the way out, it turns into an afro because that's the way my hair behaves by NATURE'S design. Anyhow, I was at my boating team's practice tonight and one of my friends (who is white) was gushing loudly about how much she *loves* my afro and how it's so *interesting* and yadayada. I didn't like my hair being called "interesting" because it's just NATURE'S design, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ not a big deal. I was thanking her and everything. Then she said, "you look just like Jimmy Hendrix." I frowned and said, "what, i look like a man?" And she quickly replied, "I didn't mean it in a bad way! It's just that Jimmy Hendrix is what comes to mind whenever I think of or see afros."

Since I've learned to pick my battles, I just smiled and played it cool. But inside, her comments were really bothering me. This same woman said a few years ago that the individual curls in my natural hair are like "little works of art", and she wanted to touch it and all that nonsense. I mean, seriously, woman? I like you and all, and consider you a friend, but my hair is not some elaborate artwork. It's just HAIR, the way nature designed it. It may be different from your hair, but I'm not trying to be a museum exhibit just by wearing my hair the way nature designed it!

So when she said I look just like Jimmy Hendrix, it was really annoying. I mean, there are plenty of white male actors and singers with longer hair. It would be like me going up to one of the white women on the team and tell them that they look just like Johnny Depp, because when I think of long brown hair, I think of Johnny Depp. Sounds absurd, right? Well that's the absurdity I've had to deal with regularly for all areas of my life (not just hair), for the past 30+ years and it's driving me nuts.

Anyhow, my question is, how can I let this stuff not bother me? Most days I'm fine but like I said, there are some days where the fact that merely wearing my hair the way nature intended it leads to people acting like I'm some exhibit in a museum. Am I out of line for letting this get under my skin? I've personally never said anything to anyone about their hair. I understand that hair comes in different flavors. Why is that so hard for some people to understand? Should I say something to her if she makes another comment about my hair? If so, what's the best way to tell her without hurting her feelings?
posted by starpoint to Human Relations (64 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure how you not let it bother you, but I found that dry, sarcastic comebacks usually stops people. If you smile and nod, it only encourages people.

You had a great line in there, use it: "I am not a museum exhibit". Roll eyes as if she was crazy. If they have any EQ at all, they would stop it pretty quickly.

My experience is that people tend to say "ni hao" to me as I am of East Asian origin. Like, piss off -- first, I am of East Asian origin, but I may not be Chinese, and even if I was, I may not know Mandarin, which is just one out of the many hundreds of dialects in China. Usually a blank stare and rolling of eyes puts and end to this. You can't stop people, but you can react to it in a way that makes them feel unwelcome or rude.
posted by moiraine at 1:12 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bordering on a fetish if you ask me. She is objectifying you! Although she probably thinks she's doing supportive grooming behaviour. Misguided much, you could remind her you aren't a doll.
posted by Coaticass at 1:20 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, she's exoticizing you. That sucks.

I'd suggest being direct: "Please do not comment on my hair" is simple. You could, if feeling generous, say "I know you mean well, but your comments about my hair make me uncomfortable and are inappropriate."

The worst part is, she probably means well. That makes me think that asking her to stop might work. She'll be embarrassed and might want to talk about it. You don't have to. This will all make her uncomfortable, but that's okay. She's been making you uncomfortable, and that's what needs to stop.

For what it's worth, white women often compliment each other's hair. I'm not suggesting this means her behavior is okay--I suspect she's overcompensating, complimenting you because she's not super comfortable about race and wants to make up for that by being very positive.

Or she could be an awkward complimenter. Either way, it's okay to ask her to knock it off.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:36 AM on June 30, 2016 [39 favorites]

I'm so sorry that this is A Thing you are expected to put up with, among other B.S.

Whether to say anything depends on many factors, including your level of friendship; how she is likely to respond; what result you want; how much you're willing to push back against this kind of thing; how much you're willing to risk as a result of pushback; etc.

I am so very un-glib, painfully shy, and super readable. My natural reaction to offensive comments is a sort of grimace with no comment, which is very obvious and can make for some unintentionally awkward moments. A lot of people catch it and backpedal. This may or may not be the result you want.
posted by moira at 1:36 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Should I say something to her if she makes another comment about my hair?

Yes. Yes you should.

If so, what's the best way to tell her without hurting her feelings?

"I'm flattered that you like my hair. But it's just hair! It feels weird that you think it is so special. I know it is different from yours but it's just the hair I was born with. You're a great friend so can we just forget about my hair? Thanks!
posted by Thella at 1:36 AM on June 30, 2016 [55 favorites]

Adding to the above: It's just an idea for a script - a general gist as conceived by a pale-skinned Australian woman with flat fine hair.
posted by Thella at 1:38 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd want to know if I was unintentionally offending my friend and making myself look like an idiot, especially if I could easily Stop Doing The Stupid Thing.
posted by samthemander at 1:58 AM on June 30, 2016 [62 favorites]

I would 100% say something. I recently read an article written by a woman with hair that, apparently, DAILY, people (strangers) would come up and touch. Her experiment was to reflect the (racially charged) inappropriate behavior (not limited to hair-touching) back. E.g. someone comes up, touches her hair and says "Omygosh it'ssooosoft" and she would touch their hair, "Wow, your hair is, uhh, oilier than I expected."

I realized that I have done this to people with thickncurly hair (also people with shaved heads...sorry guys), and the thought of people regularly coming up and touching my hair and obsessing over it, sounds like my personal nightmare. Please, no. please. If she's anything like me, she has an inkling that there is something not right about this, but ignores it because AAA!SOEXCITINGFORSOMEREASON.

Fuck her feelings, we need to deal these supposedly innocuous daily-happenings shit as a people. If she is so goddammed hurt, then she has issues she needs to work on. It doesn't need to be a big deal. "Hey, when you give so much attention to the state of my natural hair, it makes me really uncomfortable. I've been dealing with attention like this my whole life and it's exhausting. It's cool you like my hair, and an occasional comment when I'm looking good is cool, too. But you'd be saving me some sanity if you just left it at that in the future. Thanks for listening, that feels great to say, now lets get some tacos."
posted by hannahelastic at 2:19 AM on June 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm a white girl. I think if you want to stay friends with her, you should tell her when stuff she says bothers you. It doesn't have to be a big lecture on race (unless you want it to be), you can just look shocked and say something like, "wow, I know you think you are complimenting me, and thank you for that, but it's just human hair and your comments make me feel like XYZ."

I let a lot of anti-woman microagressions role off my back, from strangers and people who have power over me, but if she's really your friend then you should be safe enough to be emotionally vulnerable and honest with her. If you don't feel safe with her, then maybe you can mentally move her to an acquaintance category and her thoughtless racist comments will just be a known part of her character.
posted by muddgirl at 3:02 AM on June 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

Just to validate this:

Most days I'm fine but like I said, there are some days where the fact that merely wearing my hair the way nature intended it leads to people acting like I'm some exhibit in a museum. Am I out of line for letting this get under my skin?

No, no you are not. 1) you have the right to feel however you feel about it, and 2) it is perfectly acceptable to be fed up with dealing with something like this over and over and over again.

I'm sorry I don't have an answer for any of your other questions. I definitely wanted to validate you on your reaction.
posted by RogueTech at 3:10 AM on June 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

Sometimes, when I encounter someone who is clearly "interested" in something that has to do with my ethnic background but who is so ignorant about the matter that they come of as offensive, I refer them to some educational source. In this woman's case, I would email her (or FB message, or whatever is a normal communication method for you) and write something like "Oh hey, you seem to be really into the topic of black hair. There are some really good documentaries, articles, people to follow on Twitter if you want to learn about that, I recommend x, y, and z."

You would be entirely justified in telling her to her face that she's very rude and this is why and cut it the hell out. I'm just mentioning a less confrontational way because when you confront about stuff like this every time, it's freaking exhausting:(
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:34 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm white and nearly every time I see my mum she makes some comment about my hair, she touches it and pull on my ringlets (my hair was straight as a child and now its curly - my sister has the same thing, don't know why but it seems my mum just can't get over it) and it is super annoying so I don't think you're at all out of line for being bothered by it - this is something that happens a couple of times a year to me and obviously doesn't have the undercurrent of casual racism for me so yeah, its totally reasonable to be annoyed.

Is it possible she's overcompensating? I'm not expert on the subject but it seems like it being acceptable or considered beautiful for black women to wear their hair "natural" is a fairly recent phenomenon - maybe she's trying really hard to be supportive and not realizing that she's being insensitive and overdoing it.

You absolutely should say something. If you're close enough you should explain exactly how her comments make you feel and maybe give her some background why its not just as simple as one person making one comment about your hair. If you're not close enough to have that kind of discussion, I'd just go with the eye roll "its just hair, get over it" kind of response - really downplay it whenever she starts gushing about your hair.
posted by missmagenta at 3:40 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ok, I thought maybe she was just clueless, but it is possible saying that you look like Jimi Hendrix may be passive aggressive bullying on her part. Do you think she might feel any rivalry towards you? What does she say the people she doesn't like? Consider the possibility she needs to meet a wider cross-section of society and you need better friends.

Or you could make a witty come-back. What male celebrity does her hair remind you of? Donald Trump? Brad Pitt in A River runs through it?
posted by Coaticass at 3:40 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is totally A THING, and it sucks. I have no idea how to respond, but knowing that you are not alone might help! I think this is spot on about these kind of comments.
posted by EtTuHealy at 3:46 AM on June 30, 2016

I'm a mutt, but I am part latina and have curves in the places that my latin relatives do. I have a "friend" who keeps bringing up my "booty" and how it's so "fabulous" "awesome" "bootilicious" and "round" and then after mentioning my backside will go into how I supposedly "look just like J-Lo" (I look absolutely NOTHING like Jennifer Lopez- not in face nor in body). No one has ever mentioned me and her in the same sentence) will constantly say that I should "show it off" and "pop that booty" by wearing booty tights and booty shorts rather than my regular attire. First of all- I've been in the corporate sector my whole life so I'm a bit on the conservative side by nature. I'm currently a well respected corporate head and employer. Why the HELL would I suddenly throw out all my regular corporate attire and suits and go around wearing so called "booty" shorts? I don't even use language like that, nor have I ever been around people who do. It's like she assumes that because I'm part latina that I should suddenly understand and relate to this type of language and attire! Second of all, my backside is not THAT round or huge at all. Yes, I am a tad more plump in that area than your typical white girl, but off the rack pants fit me fine and I don't have an unusual or exotic shape to me at all. I've told her a couple of times that it makes me feel uncomfortable when she goes on these tangents about a relatively private area of my body and then she says it's "meant to be a compliment" and says she's "jealous" of me and my backside. I said something to her twice when she didn't stop after the the last time I had had enough. I felt like just telling her that in the reserved environment and circles I run into, I simply can't be associated with someone who speaks in this manner about me (or any woman for that matter), but for reasons I won't get into here I decided to just avoid her as much as possible. So now when she tries to talk to me on the phone or hang out with me I'm always "too busy".

After she continued doing it even after I hinted how WEIRD and inappropriate it was for her to be texting me and talking about my backside, so I started to wonder if it was really meant to be a compliment, ya know? It's possible that's what she tells herself so that she doesn't have to face things about herself.

After all this same "friend" also happens to be racist against black people. (I don't entirely blame her since I know her parents and she definitely got it from growing up with them). But refuses to acknowledge that she is. There were some signs of that before, but when her ex cheated on her with a black woman it really came out. "He cheated on me with a BLACK WOMAN? A BLACK GIRL? He's not even into Black girls! That's the type he's into now?!!" Just the way she was going on about it made it seem like it reflected badly on her that her ex cheated on a woman that seemed in her eyes to be a grade downward from her- because the other girl was black. Meanwhile she does have a couple of black friends that she hangs out with. One of them is a guy who is definitely interested in more than just friendship... And she new it darn well, but she obviously liked the attention she was getting from him and in my opinion would sometimes appear to lead him on. Until he decided to make his flirtations more public by posting a couple of them on public media. THEN suddenly she became offended because she was afraid of how people would think she was "ghetto" because he was making his affections known more publicly. In private it was apparently fun to lead him on a little and brag about his interest to her friends, but after doing it in public he finally understood he didn't have a chance with her. Yet she would never in a million years think of herself as racist against african-americans. She wouldn't even allow her mind to consider the possibility.

I don't think there's anything wrong with you feeling the way you feel and it bothers you for good reason. I think that very often our gut tells us the truth and our mind tries to reason our way out of it. This person may say she's complimenting you and that may very well be the truth. She may simply be coming from a place of ignorance. In which case a simple email or text to her (or even taking her aside in private) will do fine. You can even mention the Johnny Depp analogy which I think displays the absurdity of her comments quite well. However imo, if you make it clear that it makes you feel weird and she still feels the need to "compliment" you, there's more going on behind the statements. In that case depending on the complexity of your relationship circles you may find that you may need to just say something in public the next time she calls out from across the room what an awesome afro you have. If things in your relationship are more complex such as involving work or whatever, you may simply just want to avoid her as much as you possibly can and do a slow-fade.
posted by manderin at 3:56 AM on June 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

Damn it, I meant (Brad Pitt in) Legends of the Fall, obvs.
posted by Coaticass at 3:57 AM on June 30, 2016

Also, since in real life one is never this glib, it's so satisfying to watch this retort
posted by eglenner at 4:08 AM on June 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Okay, this stuff absolutely will get under your skin. Some days you're fine because you're used to it and you smile and make excuses for people and it's no big deal and they didn't mean anything bad by it and hey it's a compliment, right, right?! Except no, it's not really, because you're being objectified and exoticized as has been pointed out and my god loads of people have natural afros and out of all 50 bajillion of them she still associates it with a single male performer who died nearly 50 years ago and dealing with that crap constantly is DRAINING. That is why some days it seems like this stuff gets under your skin more than others.

In one sense it's good if this stuff bothers you because it means you haven't lost touch with reality. It might help to remember that people like your friend probably say this crap out of cluelessness and self-absorption. I've seen it a million times over. I've seen (usually white) people do it where they think they are performing a good Samaritan act of the day by telling someone their "ethnic" feature is beautiful and unique. Or oohing and ahhing over something that's normal but, to them, seems "exotic". It's rude and insensitive and can feel dehumanizing. People should not be commenting on your hair like that, it's personal and it's like their bestowing you with their approval and then expect you to feel grateful for it. This is not the same as just complimenting someone in a non-personal way, like, you know, just saying "your hair looks pretty" or whatever.

So I think you should say something to someone when they make those comments. It shouldn't be your job to educate the world but in this case she is your friend and she needs to be clued in.
posted by Polychrome at 4:10 AM on June 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

I find it a hell of a lot easier to go through life assuming most people are doing their best and aren't trying to be assholes or passive-aggressive or jealous or mean or racist. She just said something idiotic.

If I were your friend, I'd want to know I said something stupid. I vote for just telling her that you know she was trying to be nice (which she probably was), but you didn't find it complimentary when she called your hair interesting or like Jimi Hendrix's.

I think they were stupid things to say, but she was trying to pay you a compliment. It's fair game to tell her that she ended up saying something pretty insulting.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:31 AM on June 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

I find it a hell of a lot easier to go through life assuming most people are doing their best and aren't trying to be assholes or passive-aggressive or jealous or mean or racist. She just said something idiotic.

I work with a lot of people, like 2,500 souls on this facility. They say dumb shit each and every day, for a quarter of a century so far. Never attribute it to mean-spiritedness when it's just straight up dumbassery.
posted by fixedgear at 4:55 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd let this one go but say something in the future if it comes up again. It's weird to me you're making a big deal over what my hair naturally does, is what I'd say.

I think friend meant well but was being insensitive. White women often want the hair they can't have (straight vs curly) and this may be an extention of that. Saying something in the future or being prepared to may help you feel less bothered. Or realizing this is her own insensitivity or jealousy (my bet is both).
posted by Kalmya at 4:57 AM on June 30, 2016

If I said something to a friend that offended them, especially if it were something super clueless and obnoxious about race or gender, I hope they would tell me.

There have been a handful of people in my life who have done the hard work of calling me out to be all hey, that thing you said was not cool, and I am eternally grateful because they've made me into a less shitty person.

Tell your friend she's being an ass about this. If she takes it poorly, well, that's on her.
posted by phunniemee at 4:58 AM on June 30, 2016 [13 favorites]

You absolutely get to choose who touches your hair and you absolutely don't have to put up with people making inappropriate comments about it.


You initially frame this as being what a black woman in America has to deal with - and your description certainly sounds like this person sees you as black before anything else - but then you say it would be ok if she compared your hair to Diana Ross.

If I wasn't single maybe it wouldn't matter as much but when she said I look like a man it made me feel unfemine and undateable to men.

This person wasn't saying "you look like a man, you look unfeminine." She was comparing your *hairstyle that day* to Hendrix's hair at Woodstock because that's all the average person has ever seen. She was wrong, but her wrongness was in objectifying your blackness, not in attacking your femininity.

But even if she did mean it as a dig, don't let other people determine how you view yourself. Whether they intend to make you feel bad or they're just clueless, other people's comments shouldn't be more than a momentary sting. If you're carrying it or chewing on it or letting it build, then you're giving that person way too much power.

So twist it differently. You look like a hippie. You look like the kind of person who thinks feedback is music. (sorry, editorializing here) You look like someone who can sing the blues like a pro. You look like you're experienced.

Definitely school this woman - If she's a friend she'll be mortified that she hurt you and grateful to learn. But just be sure you're schooling her on where she actually went wrong.
posted by headnsouth at 5:02 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Giving her every benefit of the doubt by assuming she's not racist as hell, she's still insensitive, unaware of appropriate boundaries, and somehow missed several hundred years of US history and several decades of pop culture.

Friend-wise, you could probably do better.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:06 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ugh. I'm a white woman with naturally very curly hair and people comment on it all the time, and ask to touch it. It's irritating; I can't even imagine how much more it would be with the undercurrent of racism.

I like to answer with "Uhhh, wow." completely deadpan, and then bluntly ignore any follow up comments.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:27 AM on June 30, 2016

I think that's annoying as hell and have no idea how you are supposed to feel differently. Assuming you want to do the emotional labor of helping this person, the concept of microaggression could be useful to explain, i.e. she's not doing anything deliberately wrong as an individual but she has no idea the cumulative effect of it. Although, the way she quickly said she didn't mean any harm and it's just what popped into her head makes me guess she is somewhat aware of what she is doing. And also, I say "micro" but telling someone they look like a famous person of another gender is really pretty off and inappropriate. I don't know, tell her she looks like George Washington (if she is white)?
posted by BibiRose at 5:33 AM on June 30, 2016

If I were your friend - which I pretty much am - I would very much appreciate learning how ignorant and insensitive I was being, as it would keep me from putting my foot in my mouth in the future. In fact, I would probably thank you!

For our sake, please don't be too confrontational; I know you must get these questions all of the time (and they must be infuriating), but no need to ruin her day and possibly create unnecessary conflict over what sounds to me like someone's socially awkward attempts at bonding. I think Thella's angle upthread is a good example of no-muss, no-fuss boundary-setting.

And if your friend reacts negatively to something like that, she's shown her true colors so **** her.
posted by CottonCandyCapers at 5:51 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

This person wasn't saying "you look like a man, you look unfeminine." She was comparing your *hairstyle that day* to Hendrix's hair at Woodstock because that's all the average person has ever seen.

#1) The "average person" is not by default white.

#2) If the only Afro the average white person has ever seen is on Jimi Hendrix, who's been dead for decades, then their hair knowledge is similarly moribund (Solange? Beyoncé? Esperanza Spaulding? Angela Davis, for cry Pete! All female, all still alive at press time.)

Ugh. I'm sorry your friend is rude and also dumb about hair. (You've mentioned in another question a friend who started eating your popcorn -- you either have one friend or two friends with lousy social boundaries.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:53 AM on June 30, 2016 [49 favorites]

You are absolutely within your rights to be annoyed by this.

If you feel like saying something, for sure, do it. You could, if you want, view it as a "teaching moment." But I'm also of the mind that it is not the responsibility of minorites to teach white people how to be better human beings, because we all should have figured that shit out on our own by now. So if you DON'T want to say anything, and if that decision makes you want to avoid further convos with her, you are also well within your rights to approach it that way.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this shit.
posted by Brittanie at 5:59 AM on June 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Jimi Hendrix? I am so sorry. That is boneheadedly insensitive. No advice, just sadness.
posted by djinn dandy at 6:00 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm a woman, not a man, and I don't like to be told that I look like a man.

That would bother me too! When I had dreadlocks (I know, its own separate issue, I was younger) people would tell me I looked like Bob Marley or Lenny Kravitz and... O_O Wrong race, wrong gender.

Sometimes it can help to put things in perspective for people. I have a friend who deals with this and she's a little more up front "You know, you may not know there's a long history of people talking about black women's hair, but it's sort of a thing and it makes me uncomfortable when you do it so please keep your hair remarks to yourself? This is my hair being my hair, just like yours is"
posted by jessamyn at 6:04 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

It is perfectly ok to react honestly to people in the moment! If somebody (who you like and want to stay friends with) says something offensive, you can act offended. With other women I try to keep it light the first time and usually people get the point. Laugh like she's said something hysterically dumb (which she did) and say, "Seriously?!? Jimmy Hendrix? How would you like it if I said your hair reminded me of Johnny Depp?!? Geez, it's just hair. No big deal. Now let's go boating."

If it happened again I'd get a little more serious about telling her to cut it out.
posted by TallulahBankhead at 6:20 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a Jewish woman with very curly hair, especially when it's heavily layered. I've had people obsess over my hair, and I've been told I look like Marc Bolan and Slash. Since I used to get mistaken for a boy all the time when I was young, this could really bother me if I let it. I don't; I just take it as a compliment. I could twist it into something negative if I wanted, but I choose not to.

I've also been told I don't look Jewish, which is flat out insulting and racist. It's also hilarious because I actually look extremely Jewish. But I usually just roll my eyes and say "Yes, I do", and then I walk away and don't think about it anymore. Life is too short, etc.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:43 AM on June 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Speaking on behalf of stupid white women everywhere (my hair is reminiscent of Jerry Lewis) I say tell her directly and clearly and if she doesn't apologize, get better friends.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:46 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Use humor and tell her she looks just like Jim Morrison and you guys should start a band.
posted by Vaike at 7:03 AM on June 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

As a woman, I would love it if women could stop relating to each other by how we look. It's like a thing with a chunk of my social circle to always mention or talk about the state of one's hair after not seeing each other for awhile. Mostly: "Your hair is so long!" Length of course is a signifier of proper expression of feminity. Bold haircuts get attention, too. My SIL has a particularly insidious expression of this where she looks flummoxed and then calls out some truly banal part of my clothing or look and compliments it. Since we spend weekends at her house, she sees me in all sorts of versions of slumpy to "going out." "I love that top!" Me: "This beige flannel top which was $19 at REI over 10 years ago? Ok."

It's bonding of a sort but it can definitely take on tones and your friend is definitely in tones waters. All the responses above should have you covered. I think white women who feel at a loss to how to embrace their browner-skinned friends look to these incredibly shallow external markers to do that feminity bonding thing but it boring, banal and othering. If this friend does not have other very redeeming qualities, I'd slow fade.
posted by amanda at 7:05 AM on June 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm white, but I'm trans and I get some really, truly dumbass comments because of that. Most of the time it's just ignorance. We grow up in a transphobic, racist culture that exotifies (sp?) both of us. You are right to feel angry. It definitely is death by a thousand cuts to be constantly reminded that people see you as "other."

Most of my comments are made online by virtual strangers, so I can just close the window, but in your case I think it's best to address it directly. "When you make those kind of remarks, I feel like you see me as fundamentally different than you. I am just a person, and this is just the way my hair grows. Please don't comment on it anymore." You're not calling her a racist, you're calling her out on what she said, and if she gets hurt about it, it's not your problem. Let me repeat - other people's feelings - especially those who have no concept of what you go through - are not your problem.
posted by AFABulous at 7:15 AM on June 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

oh, and as far as "how do I not let it bother me," I think saying something will make you feel a lot better than repressing it. Repressing it is piling disrespect (to yourself) on top of disrespect.
posted by AFABulous at 7:16 AM on June 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have a friend whose foot is regularly in his mouth. My wife and I laugh about it. When he says something particularly stupid, I call him on it. "Dude, that was stupid and offensive. I grew up getting shit because XYZ and I thought you knew that and what the hell are you doing?" And he always apologizes. And later says something else surprising.
(He's a fundraiser and advocacy specialist for a huge NGO - that he has this job is a source of wonder, on the surface. But he's smart and empathetic and knows he says stupid shit and apologizes. You know, human.)
But you gotta tell people when they hurt your feelings, and tell them why.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:34 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

It doesn't matter if she's "clueless" or "well meaning" or whatever, she's commenting from a racist place and you have every reason to be bothered by it.

You also aren't responsible for educating, coddling or reassuring her (I'm reminded of some of the comments on the recent Sad Boner Confessionals about women feeling like they needed to reassure a man after he'd abused her.)

Your only responsibility in this case is to yourself. Would it feel good to make her feel as bad as she made you feel? Or to send her links to articles about the long history of othering of black women and their hair? Or to quietly think "racist motherfucker" while smiling at her? Or possibly to just ignore her and pat yourself on the back for not letting yet another microaggression get you down? Or decide to do the emotional labor to gently educate her about her problematic ideas about black women and their hair?

Whatever you do, if you make it a deliberate decision (and one you can change as you want), it might help to mitigate the feelings of powerlessness and, I'm guessing here, invisibility (because you aren't being see as the full, complex starpoint that you are but as a cardboard cutout of "black hair").
posted by mcduff at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2016 [14 favorites]

What a dumbass thing to say to you! This person is your friend. She hurt your feelings and what she said is racist. You should be able to tell a friend both of these things without having to treat her like a child.

(Note: informing someone that a comment was racist is not the same thing as saying it was malicious or that you think she hates black people! It could have been ignorance, and the attitude was probably not one of hatred but something subconsciously absorbed from the culture and unquestioned. She still ought to know she can't go around saying dumb shit like that. She should question now why she compared a black woman to a man and went on and on about her hair.)
posted by kapers at 7:51 AM on June 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Ugh on behalf of dumbass white women, I apologize, and put in a vote for "tell her what she said was dumb and racist, and she shouldn't say it anymore to anyone, especially you."

This lady's feelings are not your problem, since obviously she doesn't think your feelings are hers.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:55 AM on June 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

In my time, I have a few times REALLY put my foot in it and said things that were not intended to hurt or touch on things like culture, religion, disability-- but they still did hurt or offend someone nonetheless, because of things they have to hear every day, because they have to think about things that I hadn't ever had to, and they told me so. And because I am an adult, I listened and changed. That's what everyone, especially a friend, should do. I'm in strong disagreement with the let-it-go or kid-glove-her responses.
posted by kapers at 7:57 AM on June 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

I find it a hell of a lot easier to go through life assuming most people are doing their best and aren't trying to be assholes or passive-aggressive or jealous or mean or racist. She just said something idiotic.

In a white supremacist culture, you don't have to "try" to say something racist. Just blurt out the default thoughts running through your head and you'll end up there eventually. Telling someone they said something racist is not the same as saying that they should be cast into the outer darkness for all eternity, and it is not something you should hesitate to do just because it supposedly imputes ill will to a person.

I cringe thinking of things I've said in the past, but I cringe more thinking of the people I hurt who chose (as was their right) not to tell me about it.
posted by praemunire at 8:14 AM on June 30, 2016 [39 favorites]

Then she said, "you look just like Jimmy Hendrix." I frowned and said, "what, i look like a man?" And she quickly replied, "I didn't mean it in a bad way! It's just that Jimmy Hendrix is what comes to mind whenever I think of or see afros."

She sounds like she has some sort of pseudo-crush thing going on with you, and she is presumably a (mostly?) straight woman, so maybe in her mind she also has a crush on Jimmy Hendrix and the wires got crossed? She probably does not think of Diana Ross as sexually attractive, but maybe thinks of Jimmy Hendrix as sexually attractive because she's (mostly) straight or at least "femme"? It's one theory to consider anyway.

IMO, she knows she fucked up. Her reaction makes that clear. Harping on it is not going to get her to realize anything she hasn't already realized. It's too bad you had to be the unwilling vessel for her to learn this lesson out loud, though.

If she keeps gushing about your hair or says anything else stupid in the future I think you're completed justified in calling her out with whatever level of grumpiness you feel like.
posted by quincunx at 8:21 AM on June 30, 2016

Quincunx, what you wrote made the hairs stand up on my neck. I don't think that take is productive at all and is a complete parallel to what young girls are told when boys harass them. He probably has a crush on you. He probably feels embarrassed and you don't want him to feel worse. Just stay away from him. Don't escalate unless he does it again.

This is the way we socialize young girls to accept the patriarchal power structure and let them know that they do not have an upper or equal hand. In this situation, we are looking at a racial power structure and you're suggesting that she doesn't have an accurate read on the situation that it hasn't yet risen to the point where action should or could be taken. I just feel like this is a poor approach and doesn't give much weight to OP's experience in favor of aligning with the existing power structure.
posted by amanda at 9:16 AM on June 30, 2016 [16 favorites]

Ugh, these "inappropriate comments about someone else's appearance" threads always hit close to home. I'm a very busty lady with the build of a curvy cartoon pinup girl. I have spent years deflecting comments about my breast size but in the last few years I have stopped letting those comments go. For so long, I would grumble silently and dwell on those conversations because of the "pick your battles" thing. It ate away at me to be honest and it got to the point where I don't give a shit if I make someone feel awkward by calling them out when they say something idiotic like "Wow, your boobs are huge!"

School her. Rock the boat a bit if you have to. This sort of thing, while possibly not meant maliciously, is still not okay. Remind her you're neither a pop culture reference nor an object.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

Agreed that if this is someone you consider an actual friend -- someone who is supposed to like you and respect your feelings about stuff -- you gotta speak up!

I agree that this woman "probably doesn't mean anything by it", but that's still no excuse if it's bothering you. The intention isn't the point. I think there's a degree of saving your energy if you know this person just sucks or doesn't matter, but is there anything worse than someone who is a "friend" but who retains the right to hurt your feelings because it's gauche to speak up about racism?

I'm a white girl with black friends and would be really upset if they silenced all these big feelings because they were worried about the social fallout of commenting on something shitty I did. Speak up!
posted by Sara C. at 9:54 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

What your friend said was insensitive, clueless, and unintentionally racist. If you want to talk to her about it, I recommend Jay Smooth's "what you did was racist" approach.

At the same time, it's not your job to officially educate the white people in your life or handle their feelings about racism. You would be fully justified in writing off the friendship now and never talking to her again; you would be just as fully justified in engaging with her in long, intimate, painful conversations about race over months and years. It all depends on how much effort, time, and emotional labor you decide you want to give to this relationship, not to mention how open your friend is to criticism and educating herself, by herself.

You can engage with her on the subject as much as you're comfortable with and send her some educational links to read as suggested above. If she comes back at you all like, "But I didn't mean to be racist! How will I LEARN about racism if you don't TEACH me," etc? Not Your Job.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:09 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

When someone is unintentionally an ass, I think you should let them know as a kindness to them. It's something along the lines of "I know you didn't mean it as offensive, but it is offensive, and other people aren't going to cut you slack if you go blathering on about afros." It's the same uncomfortable conversation as when you let people know that there is spinach in their teeth or that they have a bat in the cave. Uncomfortable, but ultimately a kindness.

You, of course, have every right to tell her she offended you as a kindness to yourself. But if it makes it any easier to have the conversation, then realize it's a kindness to her if she lacks the awareness that her comments were just wildly out of bounds.
posted by 26.2 at 10:19 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

So, yes, I think you should tell her. But I want to say something about the part above the fold: where you are so sick of all the shit black women get shoveled at us. It is not just you! It is fucking maddening! And when you stand up for yourself, you get even more shit — even if what you say is way milder than all the white people you are surrounded with. You get people telling you "to assume the best," to work harder and complain less and lady, that is some shit. I don't know how to tell you to not care; being at the bottom of the pile in all these tiny ways really sucks and you can't change it and really, you just want to live your life like everyone else, right? But I do know my life got better when I decided to stop letting people tell me I was feeling wrong or overreacting or too angry or whatever. It's not you; it's them. And feel free to tell her to knock it off however you want, without sugarcoating it or "educating" her if you don't want to. They may not like it, but you don't have to internalize the job of your own oppression.
posted by dame at 10:25 AM on June 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

'I'd prefer it if you don't comment on my hair style. Would that be all right with you?"

Don't give explanations, you're not a tutor. If she asks why, or if you feel like it, maybe say a true thing about how it makes you feel - "it makes me feel Othered" or "I don't like it."
posted by honey-barbara at 10:34 AM on June 30, 2016

Guuurl if someone told me that my appearance reminded them of Jimi Hendrix, they would be blessed to come away with only hurt feelings. Of all the people to come to mind when you think of an afro, Jimi had more of a thing that sat on top of his head that his hair made, in addition to not being at all conventionally attractive. So I don't think you need to worry about hurting her feelings, which is good, because due to her already defensive reaction, I don't think you'll get away without doing so.

The next time I saw her I'd probably preemptively say, without anger, "Hi! Don't say anything [racist] about my hair today or compare me to [the only black] [ugly] male celebrities [you know], thanks!" [brackets for inflammatory words that I might or might not utilize.] I wouldn't be cheery about it, but again, also not angry, just stating a flat fact because it is. You could even add a "you can talk to me about it if you have questions."

Also, I'm sorry, this sucks.
posted by tyrantkitty at 11:21 AM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nthing that it's 100% reasonable for this to be upsetting. Her feelings are not more important than yours, and if she is hurt by hearing that these comments are not ok, she's not much of a friend to you.

You're in the right to say something to your friend, whether it's about her making you feel like you're not feminine, or about the weird microaggression aspect, or just a general "please stop talking about my hair." Whatever makes the most sense for you.
posted by violetish at 11:27 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a white Jewish girl and I love to play with my friends' hair. I am that person at the house party who after a couple drinks starts petting her friends' heads and asking to start a braid train. When I like a person I start playing with their hair. It is a thing for me, one way I show affection and good will.

But somewhere along the line I picked up the fact that black people (and also this is a thing with asian people) get all sorts of shit about their hair. Maybe I picked this up because I have huge unruly wavy mixed texture hair and could never get a good cut or style until I started consulting hair advice for PoC. Maybe it was some early internet feminism article, idk. What I do know is that now I will always ask permission before getting touchy feely, most particularly with PoC. I ask every time even if they've okayed it in the past because I know some days you just don't want to deal. I never make comparative comments - I will compliment specific aspects of someone's hair, but never link it to the hair of another unrelated individual or (even worse) a whole group of people. And most importantly, I am that white girl who tells other white girls that they are being racist about the hair. I've gotten a few sour faces but mostly the response is relief on the part of the person being objectified and an "oh! I'm so sorry, I never realized!" reaction on the part of the white girls.

So I think you are not overreacting, that you should be straightforward with your friends about how this sucks for you and it is a boundary thing and a race thing, that you feel othered and objectified. And I think (hope) that your friends will respond positively to this. I want to know when I make my friends uncomfortable, even when their comfort comes at the expense of my good time. If I never get to play with pretty hair again, so be it, even though it's one of my favorite things.
posted by Mizu at 11:44 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

She was being ignorant. She needs to get taught. Tell her comparing you to Hendrix is as stupid as comparing her to ... Sting or whomever the fuck.

At least that's the stance I'm taking at work where I'm the only woman and have to ignorant sexist remarks from my well-meaning colleagues who totally thought that remark they made was a compliment. They don't know what is sexist and what isn't? Here let me teach you!!!

(Of course it may turn out that they don't really want to have to not say shit, and are using ignorance as an excuse. Feel free to tell those people off, too.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:00 PM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think if you value her friendship, but don't want to get into an exhausting Racism 1.0.1 conversation, it should be enough to respond to her next hair comment with, "Yeah. About that. You're a good friend and I know it's supposed to be a compliment, but man do I hate comments about my hair. Please can we drop this, like, yesterday?"
posted by Omnomnom at 1:42 PM on June 30, 2016

The scourge of the well intentioned white lady! I personally haven't had to deal with racism based on appearance, but my go-to line for general idiotic comments is, "Did you mean to be rude just now?" That may sidestep the racism too much. Having a response ready has helped me deal with tense situations, though.
posted by mrcrow at 3:44 PM on June 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

White women with super long sterotypical feminine hair adding tell her that your uncomfortable.

Honestly I'm not educated on hair (not even my own really) and I would feel awful if I ever said anything that stupid.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:04 PM on June 30, 2016

I'm a white woman who had absolutely no idea the kind of shit black women get about their hair until I became friends with a black woman a few years ago. I was absolutely shocked that strangers touch and comment on her hair - I can't imagine doing such a thing. And if I had to name someone with an afro, I'd probably say Angela Davis because I'm old and will recognize maybe three celebrities by sight in an average issue of People magazine. You don't mention this woman's age, but a lot of us boomers just don't keep up with pop culture, so it's weird that she compared you to a male, but for me, not weird that it's someone who's been dead for so long. It's strange how the 60s can seem like yesterday.

I get that you don't want to spend all your time teaching Race 101, but if I were your friend, I'd appreciate a heads up. "You know, black women get comments on their hair all the time, and I really dislike it. Could we just drop it as a subject?" If she doesn't stop after being told directly, then you have a problem.
posted by FencingGal at 8:37 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming good intentions on all sides, I think this sort of thing is a numbers game all around.

If people have been touching or commenting on your hair much or all of your life, it's probably because you're often in a situation where you're one of the few/only black people those other folks come in contact with. Likewise, your friend is likely rarely in circumstances with a lot of other black people.

Where people are coming into little contact with people of different backgrounds, looks, descent, heritage, it gets easy to "abstract" those people, and it can be hard in the moment to imagine that what's unique to you is not, in fact, unique, and therefore many, many other people have done or said what you're doing or saying.

I know it takes emotional energy to tell people that that sort of thing makes you feel bad, but if you do it with one person once, and they hear it from you once, you should never have to do it again, and they should never make that same mistake again, with you, or any other black person.

The problem is you're responding with a cumulative feeling built up over years by comments like that one. And she responded to your hair with a cumulative ignorance built up over years with too little exposure to other black people. That kind of ignorance has some hope of getting stopped with a brief, clear gentle statement on your part. It seems a more constructive option than anger to me.

Having said that, we all have bad days, and some days we all get mad, or say something stupid. From my point of view, that's why it's better to approach these things with compassion, at least as a first response. We forgive, so that at some point when we need forgiveness, with any luck someone will forgive us, too.
posted by Violet Blue at 11:38 PM on June 30, 2016

I'm on the side of telling her it's an issue.

The book You Can't Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson may be pertinent (though I have not read it.). In addition her amazing comedy podcast with Jessica Williams and other comedians called 2 Dope Queens touches a lot on race and gender relations. It's an amazing show and may give you some language to backfire at people being idiots.

That said, I'm a white lady that thinks natural hair is stunning - along with lots of types of hair. But beyond giving a standard compliment, it crosses into weird, rude, and potentially racist territory.

Having tattoos I have been randomly grabbed, touched, oogled, and questioned in similar ways. If a friend started doing that stuff beyond being curious I'd definitely need to shut that down.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:10 AM on July 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

If it helps you to be patient with her, just remember that wearing it natural and "Black is Beautiful" used to be bold political statements.
posted by whuppy at 5:42 AM on July 1, 2016

I think it would be fine to let her know that comparing you to Hendrix is about as appropriate as you comparing her to Johnny Depp. But like everyone has said, your friend probably doesn't realize how loaded and uncomfortable this is. She thinks she is complimenting your hair. Just tell her the exoticizing is making you uncomfortable. She'll be mortified, but hopefully the honesty will make you both feel better and she'll stop.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:54 PM on July 1, 2016

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