Dear White People, Keep Your Thoughts About My Hair To Yourself

White folks are absolutely enthralled by black women's hair. They can't stop talking abo...

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White folks are absolutely enthralled by black women's hair. They can't stop talking about it. Yesterday, fashion journalist Simon Doonan published a trainwreck of a piece on Slate about why we ("we") need to bring back the "freaky 'fro."

Doonan's article exemplifies a primary impediment to the breaking down of racial divisions in this country. White folks are willing to demonstrate their curiosity about black things in the most appallingly ignorant ways; however, they often will not go so far as to seek out a deeper understanding of said black things. Thus, we get commentary on the aesthetic choices of an entire race of women from a noted fashion journalist based entirely on an afternoon on YouTube.

This piece is a would-be tribute to black fashion icon Pam Grier, but the enthusiastic ignorance laced throughout outshines any homage.  First he speaks of Black women like we're zoo animals. 
"...styles change, and fashion evolves, and the afro has—with the exception of occasional retro-hipster sighting on Broadway below Eighth Street—become as rare as a dodo."
First of all, I can't imagine that being even remotely true. Even if Doonan contains himself to an extremely white Manhattan bubble, it's just not possible for him not to see Black women wearing unloosed natural hair with some sort of regularity. I've been to Manhattan. Natural hair queens reign.

It makes more sense to me that Doonan purposely forgot to mention those women because they don't fit into the National Geographic meets Blaxploitation narrative he's peddling. So he said, "They don't exist" to tidy up this terrible commentary. That's the magical erasure of lazy journalism at work.

Doonan also managed to miss how the long, complicated history of white supremacy and shifting beauty standards impacts the way women of all ethnicities wear their hair. He goes on to demonstrate more maddening arrogance while questioning black women's choice of "less desirable" styles.
"The alternatives—$2,000 weaves, time-consuming blowouts, and scalp-searing chemical processing—seem infinitely less desirable, and yet, African-Americans have largely turned their backs on the freaky ’fro."
The choices black women make about our hair don't occur in a vacuum. By the time we reach adulthood, every black woman is well aware of the social implications of the styles we choose. Most of us never experience a time when it's "just hair." And white folks' responses don't make navigating the fraught space any easier. Catch how Doonan refers to the style he claims to love so much as "freaky."

I'd bet every Black woman has had a white person, usually a woman, approach them, extend their hand and say with an puzzled and almost pained expression "How do you get your hair like that?" or "I wish I had hair like yours." or some other permutation of a feigned not-so compliment. It's not the words that cause offense. It's the unconcealed disgust with which the words are said. And Black women are expected to take any acknowledgement as praise.

When that dreadful woman sported an afro to make a statement about personal freedom (or something) she wasn't tributing us. Her fetishization of the hair that grows naturally from our heads only pushed us further to the margins. People like Michelle Lapidos and Simon Doonan can't fathom the historical weight that accompanies black women's hair, and they don't care to.

Afros are not costumes; they're not kitschy throwbacks to a bygone era. But they're not necessarily political statements either. The meaning they hold depends entirely on the predilections of the wearer. I'm tired of white folks attempting to strip those of us who must actually deal with the implications of wearing certain styles of the agency to define them for ourselves.


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Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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