African / Irish / Nigerian / nonfiction / The Latest

Understanding Black Hair Culture: a review of Emma Dabiri’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”

Book cover of Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair

Emma Dabiri’s part memoir part scholarly investigation of African hair culture in and outside of African countries is close to my research heart. I have always been fascinated by female hair and beauty and the culture around it. So much so, that I wrote my master’s thesis on Black hair.

Female hair and beauty are considered essential parts of the female condition, yet these same essentials are also points for ridicule and mockery in society as they are frivolous things. Coupled with that are the more sinister intentions to control, divide, and harm women through harsh competition and the race for perfection that produces no winners. Women have to be beautiful, but not too beautiful. They can care about their appearance, but only so much. The very concepts like ‘no make-up make-up’ highlight the prejudice women face: they simultaneously have to care about their hair and make-up, but not to the point where it becomes obvious to (male) onlookers.

When we add race to the mixture of hair and beauty standards, we have new levels and even more complex issues relating to racialised standards of beauty. Western ideals of beauty, which can be briefly defined as white, blonde, and blue-eyed, are at the top of the ladder. As one goes down this hierarchy of beauty it is widely acknowledged that African, Asian, and other non-white ethnicities are wrongfully placed at the bottom in Western. What this means for non-white people, is that they are expected to perform a certain type of beauty and hair culture that is in direct contradiction to their own features, cultures, and health. And I say health here to not just refer to the pyschological stress of racism, but to also acknowledge that Black hair and Brown skin often requires different hair and skincare routines that are not part of Western culture to remain healthy.

So what does this say about Black hair and Black hair culture? Well, one of the most complicated and harmful repercussions from these Western ideals put on Black bodies and hair is that Black hair, and arguably Blackness in general, have always been problems waiting to be solved through whiteness. The problematisation of Blackness suggests that when Blackness is performed outside of Western ideals, it is wrong. There is also a false promise of perfection as well, because even if every Black man and woman on the face of the earth was able to perform and fit into Western notions of white culture, they would still be problematic because no matter what they did, they would still be Black. It is important to acknowledge this losing game that has been offered to Black people around the world, as it is these very notions that shape contemporary discussions around Black culture in and out of African countries today.

Dabiri is Yoruba/Nigerian and Irish. Her unique features in Ireland created complex struggles for her as she was growing up. She struggled with her own hair and hair texture from finding the right people to style it for her, to being bullied or looked down on for having non-white hair. These struggles play out all over the world, but it was particularly refreshing and insightful to hear about Dabiri’s experiences in Ireland as discussions of Black beauty are often North American-centric. What is disheartening to note though, is that whilst Dabiri offers a new perspective, the same types of struggles with colourism and hair texture play out everywhere.

Dabiri’s book Don’t Touch My Hair is not just a personal memoir of her experiences with hair culture and beauty, but also a critical look at slavery’s impact on African aesthetics, Yoruba (Nigerian) culture around hair and beauty, and contemporary reactions to Blackness. She also talks a lot about the act of doing hair and what this means for, in particular, Yoruba culture, versus the Western world. She talks about the importance of mathematics and geometery when doing African hair styles. She also acknowledges that Black men are often left out of discussions about Black hair culture in the Western world because of the idea that hair and beauty are women’s business.

Another interesting aspect of Dabiri’s book is her discussions of re-thinking Blackness. Firstly, re-thinking Blackness requires us to think about it outside of Western constructions of culture. Secondly, we cannot ignore the colonial past of Blackness, which means when scholars like Dabiri discuss the notion of a ‘new’ Blackness, it is important to acknowledge the past whilst looking forward. And lastly, the re-thinking of Blackness has to come from inside of Black communities all over the globe. It cannot and should not be homogeneous, and I genuinely hope the works like Dabiri’s, which offer non-North American Black experiences can contribute to such discussions.

Have you ever found yourself judging other women for how much or how little time they spend on their hair and beauty? Do you ever have open discussions with friends or family from a different race about their experiences with hair and beauty? And lastly, what are you doing to learn more about diverse female experiences? As always, share the reading love.