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What Can a White Man Say About a Black Woman’s Hair?
August 14, 2014 5:47 AM   Subscribe

Jenée Desmond-Harris, associate editor of features for The Root, answers a reader who wrote in wondering if his compliment of a stranger's Afro was out of line. Though acknowledging that some women won't want to hear a compliment, regardless, Desmond-Harris elucidates three points on how to compliment a black woman's hair without being a jerk: 1) Hands to yourself. 2) Compliment, don't query. 3) Consider the context.
posted by girlmightlive (136 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
I liked this, this was nice.
posted by psoas at 5:52 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Desmond-Harris elucidates three points on how to compliment a black woman's hair *anyone* without being a jerk: 1) Hands to yourself. 2) Compliment, don't query. 3) Consider the context.

Nice! This is just good advice all the way round, for everyone. It's "it-should-be-on-tshirts" levels of nice!

Thanks girimightlive :)
posted by anitanita at 6:09 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Yes, yes, this thing where black people are talking about their experiences? Let's just ignore those specifics and say "Let's apply this to everyone."

Thanks!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:13 AM on August 14 [37 favorites]


I'd be extremely unlikely to make any comment whatsoever about a black woman's hairstyle unless it was someone that I knew really, really well.

My worry is that any comment whatsoever could be interpreted as my taking a position in the 'weave wars' -- an argument that is absolutely none of my business.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:21 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


If a friend has a new hairstyle, I'll compliment it whether or not it looks great. Once in a while if I meet someone who has a really out-there hairdo, I'll say something nice because it's like they have a full performance happening on top of their head and we are chatting anyway and wow.

But to compliment a stranger in line just because their perfectly normal hair looks nice seems weird to me and I would never do it. Adding in the racial overlay (as Brandon Blatcher emphasizes) just cements that -- I can see a lot of potential downsides and not many benefits to me or them. I don't generally like it when strangers comment on my appearance (not that it happens often, but even so it's not usually a great thing) so I avoid going down that path entirely.

If you are deadset on doing this, though, the rules in the piece look like a good starting point.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:23 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


My roommate's hair is big and magnificent, and she has a lot of emotional turmoil wrapped up in letting it be natural after many years of flat-ironing. I was recently absolutely mortified when an acquaintance of mine, upon their very first meeting, reached out and grabbed some of Roommate's hair and said "Oh your hair is so big!" Roommate was so shaken. It was awful to watch. I still want very badly to tell Acquaintance that that was not okay, but have no clue how to. Maybe I'll just send her this article.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 6:24 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


I think the "consider the context" part is especially good. I might even expand it, based on my own interrogation of my compliment-motives, to "would you compliment a white person on their hair in this setting". Like, there are lots of times when I see a fellow white person who is a stranger to me, and I wouldn't compliment their hair no matter how nice it was because the moment is wrong or the mood is wrong. I get the sense that sometimes there are so many motives [for white people] rolled up in complimenting a black person's hair that sometimes white people can feel like it's okay to bring in appearance where it's not really relevant. In line at the coffee shop? I might very well compliment any person's hair if I liked it; in line at the doctor's office or at someone's dissertation defense, maybe not.
posted by Frowner at 6:25 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


Yeah, that's interesting, because my impulse would be to say that you should be careful commenting on a stranger's appearance in general, and more so if you're a man commenting on a woman, and even more so if you're a white man commenting on a black woman's hair. I would probably say that whatever is going to be gained from the compliment is offset by the possibility that she'll be skeeved out by it. But it's obviously not my call.

Having said that, I've occasionally had random women stop me on the street to tell me they liked my outfit (and once a small child stopped me in the library to tell me I had the best shoes ever), and that's kind of made my day. So maybe the potential to make someone's day is worth it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:27 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


"1) Hands to yourself."

People need to be told this?

Please excuse me. I'll be in the corner, staring into space and wondering what the fuck is wrong with people.

-sigh-
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 6:28 AM on August 14 [32 favorites]


Having said that, I've occasionally had random women stop me on the street to tell me they liked my outfit (and once a small child stopped me in the library to tell me I had the best shoes ever), and that's kind of made my day. So maybe the potential to make someone's day is worth it.

Sure. It doesn't happen to me because I don't wear cool outfits or nice shoes, but I can understand it.

But (assuming you're a white man, which it sounds like front context you are), then you are able to appreciate these statements sort of context-free, and a woman, a black person, or even more so a black woman are not.

That is to say, you can't just say 'It makes my day when I am complimented, therefore everyone else should like my compliments'

I'm not trying to put words into your mouth - I don't think you were really saying this. But I think it's something that people do think, and it's something I'm a lot more aware of recently. Little things in day-to-day life add up over time, and the more you tend to travel in the majority or in-charge groups, the less accumulation you acquire.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:32 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


I really liked this as well, and while I see how this should apply to everyone, as a white person I (mostly) don't have to deal with this stuff so making the point to white people about how to talk to black people is worth doing.

I say "mostly" because I actually did have the opposite thing happen, although in a totally reasonable and non-problematic way; I used to teach an entirely black second grade class and my kids were fascinated by my hair (some of them also didn't believe I was white and were like "are your parents white too? What about your brother?").

At one point I was reading one-on-one with a kid when I realized she was petting my hair. I said "sweetie, we need to ask people before we touch their hair" and she said "Okay. Mrs. Pterodactyl, your hair is soft, like a bunny." It was interesting to see that there is curiosity on both sides for kids but white people often feel like they deserve to know about black people and express an almost proprietary interest in the bodies of black people (especially women) as demonstrated by their comfort in touching them, whereas black people have internalized that they need to toe the line. Presenting appropriate frameworks for these interactions is really useful and anything that emphasizes someone else's humanity and agency, especially that of black people, is super worth doing.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:32 AM on August 14 [12 favorites]


I'm very sure that black people's experiences around this subject differ a lot from mine, since I'm caucasian.
At the same time, I can't think of any situation or combination of people for which these rules would not be a good idea to follow, as a basic set of guidelines.

So yes, of course it's specific. Still, these rules seem generally applicable, or am I missing something here?
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:32 AM on August 14


Basically, treat Black people like people and not aliens from outer space or some sort of très exotique cheese to be pawed at and investigated. Seems like pretty good advice.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:33 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


I'm having a hard time understanding when it's ever appropriate to comment on a woman's hairstyle. Maybe a close friend or relation, but even then.

Such comments should be saved for the car ride home.
posted by bonehead at 6:33 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


But (assuming you're a white man, which it sounds like front context you are)
I'm a white woman. I'm trying to figure out why the black women who wrote and consulted on the advice column came to a different conclusion than I did about it being acceptable for a white man to compliment a black woman's hair. Because my instinct is to tell him that it's a nice impulse but he probably shouldn't do it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:34 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


I, too, like the idea of making someone's day, but I am not so sure that commenting, even positively on a black woman's hair is really the way to make that happen. The few times I've thought, oh wow, great hair, I keep it to myself. I do sometimes comment on clothes or shoes I think are really fantastic, and I might even take that path if someone with great hair gets my attention. I just shift to that compliment as that person is on my radar as a person with style.
posted by dawg-proud at 6:34 AM on August 14


Seriously, there are people who go around touching strangers' hair?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:35 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


these rules seem generally applicable, or am I missing something here?

Yes, they absolutely are generally applicable, but I think what you're missing is that universalizing these rules, in the context of an article written by a black woman about how to talk to black women, can feel like it's coopting her message and de-emphasizing the actual experiences that black women have by making it about "humanity" or "everyone" or, more specifically, "also white people".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:35 AM on August 14 [17 favorites]


Yeah my impulse is to suggest that he keep it to himself also, but that's just me - I also probably wouldn't say it to any woman regardless of race (I'm a white man). I *might* say something to a man if he was wearing or carrying something I thought was pretty cool. Maybe. But I feel like I understand the dynamic between myself and other men well enough to do so.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:38 AM on August 14


can feel like it's coopting her message and de-emphasizing the actual experiences that black women have by making it about "humanity" or "everyone" or, more specifically, "also white people".

Mrs. Pterodactyl,

I don't know that it's co-opting her message so much as just realizing that these common sense ideas can also be applied to other situations. And I don't see the harm in taking a good idea like this and paying it forward.
posted by Fizz at 6:40 AM on August 14


these rules seem generally applicable, or am I missing something here?

I think what is missing is that the idea of complimenting a stranger's hair in a public setting is more likely to happen to black women and that they also have a fair amount of other not so great interactions that build over time to the feeling that, "fabulous, another stranger feels the need to talk about how I style my hair," and that can be/is tiring.
posted by dawg-proud at 6:40 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Mrs. Pterodactyl: Gotcha, thanks.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:41 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Nobody who you're not related to or in a relationship with needs your opinion on sartorial choices.
posted by Renoroc at 6:41 AM on August 14 [9 favorites]


I have never been a black woman, but I have lived in Mexico and South Korea and had my hair touched in both places. I had friends who were committed to being offended by stuff who found this horribly offensive. I recognized that I was a stranger in a strange land and my hair was weird and therefore intriguing to them ("It looks like a sponge..."etc.). As a curious person myself, I try not to get too enraged that other people are curious too.
Obviously there are a some differences between those places and the US but POC often don't realize how white White America is. While our nation is rapidly approaching majority-minority status, the vast majority of places in the country are super-majority white. It bothers me that so many are committed to ascribing malice to ignorance.
posted by Octaviuz at 6:44 AM on August 14


I was about to write, "I like getting compliments on my outfit or hair from strangers!" but then I realized I only like it if other women are doing the complimenting. It does come off kind of creepy when rando men comment on a woman's appearance, even if they have the best of intentions.
posted by something something at 6:44 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


I'm having a hard time understanding when it's ever appropriate to comment on a woman's hairstyle.

Ever? How about this: A few years ago I went to church on Easter Sunday and took a seat next to a woman who had long beautiful braids that she'd woven multicolored ribbons through. I said, "Oh, your hair looks nice!", she smiled and said thanks, and that was the end of our conversation. I certainly hope I was in the clear.
posted by psoas at 6:45 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Me: Excuse me, waiter?

Waiter: Yes sir?

Me: This bowl of mints next to the cash register keep telling me my hair looks nice.

Waiter: Yes sir. They're complimentary.
posted by valkane at 6:47 AM on August 14 [27 favorites]


I'll pass.

I try hard to not comment on people's appearances at all. Even a "You look nice today," has so many connotations best to avoid. "What, I didn't look nice yesterday? How do you mean 'nice'?"

"Have you lost weight?" No, I gained 30 pounds.

Height? Nope.

Complexion? Nope. I've found often that fair people want to be darker and dark people often want to be lighter.

Makeup? Hell no.

About the only thing I will ever comment on is clothes, but that's because I have a weakness for paisley.

I can't imagine a situation where I would feel comfortable enough to compliment a black woman on her hair unless I was married to her.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:47 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Obviously there are a some differences between those places and the US but POC often don't realize how white White America is. While our nation is rapidly approaching majority-minority status, the vast majority of places in the country are super-majority white. It bothers me that so many are committed to ascribing malice to ignorance.

I don't think people are ascribing malice, I think people are saying "your curiosity does not trump my autonomy or right to exist in this space as a real person and not an object no matter how pure your motives in wanting to know." The malice only exists when this fact is pointed out and people still refuse to acknowledge that they are making someone feel uncomfortable because they think that their curiosity trumps someone else's comfort and ability to feel like a part of their society and community.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:47 AM on August 14 [27 favorites]


these rules seem generally applicable, or am I missing something here?

What you're forgetting is the ongoing dynamic between white and blacks in America, where blacks are often fetishized for their differences from the majority white population. I say that as black man who's gotta the "can I touch your hair" thing a number of times. It's not a big deal, people are generally just being curious. But.

Here's another example: Don't shoot unarmed people is generally good advice for any cop, but uttering it the midst of what is happening in Ferguson ignores a centuries long dynamic.

Obviously there are a some differences between those places and the US but POC often don't realize how white White America is.

I think you mistyped something. If not, I assure you minorities realize exactly how white White America can be.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:48 AM on August 14 [37 favorites]


I recognized that I was a stranger in a strange land and my hair was weird and therefore intriguing to them ("It looks like a sponge..."etc.).
I don't think that you can equate the experiences of POC in America to your experiences when you were, as you say, "a stranger in a strange land." They're not strangers in a strange land. They're home, same as anyone else. It's offensive to treat them like some sort of alien specimen. And I think that POC are probably acutely aware of how white much of America is.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:48 AM on August 14 [24 favorites]


POC often don't realize how white White America is.

I can assure you, we certainly do.
posted by kmz at 6:48 AM on August 14 [26 favorites]


People being aggressively ignorant at you all the time is functionally indistinguishable from malice.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:49 AM on August 14 [74 favorites]


I never say anything about someone's physical appearance (clothes/hair/etc.) unless they specifically ask (which pretty much never happens). I'm sure there have been times when they've been disappointed by this but I'm willing to take that chance.
posted by tommasz at 6:50 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


psoas, since you ask, yeah, I'd consider that dodgy. It's too easy to interpret as unwanted creepiness. She had to sit beside you for the next hour, after all.
posted by bonehead at 6:51 AM on August 14


People being aggressively ignorant at you all the time is functionally indistinguishable from malice.

Holy mothballs I think Bulgaroktonos phrased this really well. Part of the problem is that the onus is always on the POC to be understanding of white people's curiosity and never on white people to respect other people's space.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:52 AM on August 14 [19 favorites]


It bothers me that so many are committed to ascribing malice to ignorance.

Something doesn't have to be malicious in intent to be tiresome, annoying, offensive etc. in effect. I don't need to know the inner workings of someone's heart in order to decide if the pain or joy they are causing me is "real."

It's interesting that you framed this as people insisting on being offended when I'm not seeing in the original link or here anyone who is expressing that.
posted by rtha at 6:53 AM on August 14 [16 favorites]


And I think that POC are probably acutely aware of how white much of America is.
What I meant is that I couldn't go any length of time without interacting with white people, only my Census Bureau fandom made me aware that the opposite was not the case.
posted by Octaviuz at 6:53 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


> What you're forgetting is the ongoing dynamic between white and blacks in America, where blacks are often fetishized for their differences from the majority white population.
Well, since that's not part of my life in any way, it's easy to forget, or rather: to be unaware of, especially in detail. Pretty much all of my knowledge about the society you are living in comes from websites, such as this one.
So thank you, for telling me about your world.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:53 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


It bothers me that so many are committed to ascribing malice to ignorance.

"Racist" doesn't mean "malicious", and conflating them (while simultaneously complaining about "friends who were committed to being offended by stuff") comes off as dismissive. Microaggressions aren't as bad as being shot by police for Walking While Black, but they're still bad, and articles like this that take great pains to say "Hey, it's okay, white guy, you're not a racist, you're just stepping into a fraught area" don't deserve that dismissal.
posted by Etrigan at 6:54 AM on August 14 [10 favorites]


It's interesting that you framed this as people insisting on being offended when I'm not seeing in the original link or here anyone who is expressing that
Valid correction, as with all discussions of this nature I bring my past experiences with me. Apologies.
posted by Octaviuz at 6:55 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


I'm amazed that people talk about hair. Why talk about hair?
posted by vapidave at 6:57 AM on August 14


Because it's one of the things we notice about others, and that may strike us as beautiful?
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:59 AM on August 14


I know of a particular woman who complained to her boss about the gross ladies restroom in teir office: there were bits of hair all over the bathroom floor. Well, the woman who left the hair was black (yes, there was a weave involved). This woman got a reprimand for racism inserted into her personnel file. Yes, her boss is a bit of a dick. (You can call a woman a dick, can't you?)

By the way, woman #1 is half Asian; the boss is white.
posted by kozad at 7:02 AM on August 14


I feel like I've already said a lot in this thread so I'm going to bow out, at least for a while, but I do want to explain why I've contributed so much; I definitely used to think "but I'm curious! It's good! I want to learn about other people! They should appreciate it!" and eventually I realized that expecting other people to appreciate my curiosity wasn't actually a good thing, it was basically me saying "my deigning to bestow my attention upon you is a great gift and you should be glad I'm even paying attention at all". I was expecting other human beings to take their time and energy and be GLAD that I cared enough about them to wonder about them and it felt squicky and fucked up, partially because it sets the default as "not caring" which is bullshit; people shouldn't have to grovel for recognition. Learning and curiosity are reasonable and natural but when I thought about people in this way it positioned the entire world in relationship to me, a white American woman with a fair amount of privilege, instead of actually recognizing that other people are people.

I care about these issues for a lot of reasons, but part of it is that it took me a while to realize how I was thinking and behaving and how problematic (and othering) my expectations were, and I'd like to do what I can to prevent that mode of thinking in the future.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:03 AM on August 14 [17 favorites]


~I'm amazed that people talk about hair. Why talk about hair?
~Because it's one of the things we notice about others, and that may strike us as beautiful?


But, apparently, we may not say so.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:04 AM on August 14


As a person of colour I have way too many "stories" about specific situations where social lines were transgressed. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I'm "really good at making curry."

Also, if you ask someone from another country what their name is, the following is NOT an appropriate response: "That's weird."

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 7:05 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


Nobody who you're not related to or in a relationship with needs your opinion on sartorial choices.

True, but why do we have this instinct to do so? I feel something like a compulsion to make these kinds of compliments (I rarely indulge that compulsion), but wtf is that and where does it come from? It's mystifying.
posted by GrapeApiary at 7:05 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


> But, apparently, we may not say so.

Not any time, anywhere, to anyone. There are social rules. Surely this isn't a totally alien concept?

Would you appreciate the compliment if a police officer were writing you up for speeding, and paused to look you over and say 'by the way, nice butt'? Compliments can be inappropriate.

Still, I tend to think that there are situations where it can be okay to compliment someone you don't know on their hair.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:11 AM on August 14


I have always been comfortable complimenting both men and women on hairstyles, appearance, clothes etc (Black, White, Asian, younger, older or ??). My guidelines--it has to be absolutely sincere/honest, it is not a prelude to anything else, brief and to the point, don't linger (waiting for additional socialization). I am absolutely confident that more than 90% of the time the person has said something to the effect of--thanks, that made my day, I really appreciate that, I was not sure about wearing this, thanks for noticing, this is the nicest thing that has happened so far today etc. I have the advantage of being very happily married, it was never a prelude to a "pass" (even when I was younger), it was my honest thought and I am equally likely to do it whether my wife/friend/family/etc is there or not. My wife says I get away with it because I genuinely like and enjoy women and their company. But, I genuinely like most people and assume the best. BTW--no compliments on "body parts" unless it is something I happen to know the person has made a commitment to changing/working on.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:21 AM on August 14 [12 favorites]


Seriously, there are people who go around touching strangers' hair?

Yes. This has happened to me at parties, for instance. Mostly I am asked first but usually the person is already reaching for it anyway. (I occasionally have a somewhat large jewfro.)
posted by kenko at 7:22 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


The majority of POC in the US are FROM HERE. They are not exotic. So the stories of that one time you were in China or West Africa and people thought you looked funny, or touched your hair without permission, and you really stuck out, are not really helpful anecdotes in this situation. That experience is not analagous to their experience because being othered and exoticized alienates them from their home, treats them like they don't belong where they are from, and can last an entire lifetime. I found my experience of being exotic and visibly different in equatorial Africa incredibly educational from a personal perspective, but as a large illustrative story, I think the points that POC are making stand pretty powerfully on their own.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:25 AM on August 14 [31 favorites]


How hard is it to maintain an air of icy politeness toward anyone who isn't a close friend? It continues to amaze me that these articles need to be written.
posted by indubitable at 7:25 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


I can say "wow, your hair looks great!" without sounding racist, right? I strive to be an Equal Opportunity Complimenter.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:26 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


I'm having a hard time understanding when it's ever appropriate to comment on a woman's hairstyle. Maybe a close friend or relation, but even then.

Not exactly related but perhaps analogous: my father once said to me, "there's really only one question you should ask a pregnant woman when you see her, and that question is 'How are you?'"

Commenting on anyone's appearance is really fraught, because everybody has things about their appearance that they would rather not have attention brought upon. Not only is there always the possibility that one will unintentionally bring up one of those things, but also normalizing such comments creates a lot of space for people to be intentionally cruel. Accordingly I don't, personally, see that the benefits of such comment outweigh the costs.

If someone asks you, that's different. "I'm about to go to a meeting; do I look alright?" You are doing them a service to answer that question. But unasked, the calculus seems much different.
posted by gauche at 7:26 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


As a white cis (gendered, specied) straight brunette bespectacled employed housed adult male of height with health insurance, you should feel 10,000% comfortable with complimenting me on literally anything about my appearance or behavior that you enjoy, thanks.

But no touching, geez! And that goes double for you, Mahogany from the Blue Moon-- just because we're both dudes doesn't mean that you're allowed to try and sneak attack my schvontzgarten. Four times, no less! Rude.
posted by Poppa Bear at 7:28 AM on August 14


People being aggressively ignorant at you all the time is functionally indistinguishable from malice.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:49 AM on August 14 [14 favorites −] Favorite added! [Flagged]


Yes I flagged your comment - flagged as fantastic!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:32 AM on August 14


True, but why do we have this instinct to do so? I feel something like a compulsion to make these kinds of compliments (I rarely indulge that compulsion), but wtf is that and where does it come from? It's mystifying.

I think it's residue of social competitiveness - "Please be aware I am evaluating you against the norms of our social context" - and that's one of the reasons why it's so often problematic even when ostensibly complimentary. That kind of competitiveness is pretty basic to our psychology.
posted by aught at 7:34 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


The fact that "don't touch other people" seems to really be some next level shit continues to amaze me. This is like, pre-K level manners.
posted by PMdixon at 7:34 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


I say that as black man who's gotta the "can I touch your hair" thing a number of times.


Two of my friends have t-shirts that say TOUCH YOUR OWN HAIR. I thought it was hilarious (because seriously WHO DOES THAT) but doubly so when I actually saw it stop someone. With her hand reaching out in that ... way that hair-touchers do.


As black women are my number one source of day making compliments, I do return the favor. Generally I don't venture to the hair unless they have done something very unusual with it (as in- if it is awesomely bright blue) or we happened to be chatting about hair anyway.

One thing I know for SURE- You should always, always, ALWAYS compliment a black woman on her falcon.
posted by louche mustachio at 7:35 AM on August 14 [16 favorites]


As a white cis (gendered, specied) straight brunette bespectacled employed housed adult male of height with health insurance, you should feel 10,000% comfortable with complimenting me on literally anything about my appearance or behavior that you enjoy, thanks.

But no touching, geez! And that goes double for you, Mahogany from the Blue Moon-- just because we're both dudes doesn't mean that you're allowed to try and sneak attack my schvontzgarten. Four times, no less! Rude.


I have no idea if this is a parody of privilege or a demonstration of it.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:35 AM on August 14


air of icy politeness

Come on. There are more alternatives to social interactions with strangers than the extremes of touchy-feely and icy.
posted by aught at 7:36 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


An afro is a special, somewhat politicised case. Hence a compliment from a stranger might well be acknowledging 1/ the vintage nature of the look; 2/ the background, the politics, the possible alliances - the history, in short. Part of the goodwill extended towards the asker by the women who discussed the question is due to the iconic status of the afro, which implies that such a compliment comes from an ally anyway.

As for people who strangely feel free to touch your hair - well it reminds me of that famous Ask about the woman who re-arranged a beautifully-iced cake at a party. "Have you lost your mind? Were you raised by wolves?!" But yeah, some people have no home training and are just rude.
posted by glasseyes at 7:37 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


But, apparently, we may not say so.
Ok, so this is the wrong way to think about it, and it actually isn't the question that the guy in the OP was asking. He wasn't asking "may I say this?" He was asking whether saying it might make the black woman feel uncomfortable. And I think that's the right way to think about it. I have pretty bad social anxiety, and one of my big insights about it is that often when I freak out about this kind of article or advice, I'm thinking about me. I'm thinking "is saying this going to make me look stupid/ foolish/ laughable/ racist, etc." And a better way to think about it is to focus on other people: "is saying this going to hurt someone's feelings/ make them uncomfortable/ send a message to them that I don't want to send." I'm less likely to freak out and more likely to take the advice to heart when I focus on how my behavior or words are going to affect other people, rather than what other people are going to think about me.

And the point here is that you need some context to understand how your words might affect other people. You need to realize that many black people have a lot of experience with white people fetishizing their hair. You need to realize that a lot of women have experience with sleazy dudes commenting on their appearance in ways that aren't benign. That context will help you figure out if you will hurt someone by complimenting their hair, and then you can make an informed decision about whether it's a good idea to do it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:39 AM on August 14 [13 favorites]


As a white cis (gendered, specied) straight brunette bespectacled employed housed adult male of height

Sigh. No offense, but surely it's been noted before on MeFi that it's not particularly helpful for white dudes to make the tired old joke in discussions about objectification of ethnic minorities and/or women that they themselves would enjoy being objectified.
posted by aught at 7:41 AM on August 14 [15 favorites]


And by the way an afro is bloody high maintenance. Dreds are easier.
posted by glasseyes at 7:42 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


indubitable: "How hard is it to maintain an air of icy politeness toward anyone who isn't a close friend?"
Not that hard if you're Scandinavian. Other people seem to struggle more with the concept.
posted by brokkr at 7:56 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


I have always been comfortable complimenting both men and women on hairstyles, appearance, clothes etc (Black, White, Asian, younger, older or ??). My guidelines--it has to be absolutely sincere/honest, it is not a prelude to anything else, brief and to the point, don't linger (waiting for additional socialization).

When I've complimented strangers or people I don't know well, I've also taken care to compliment them on something they've done rather than something that's just a part of them.

For example, choosing a piece of clothing or an accessory - "I really like that scarf/dress/tie. It looks great with that blouse/jacket/suit." Or a particularly well-executed hairstyle rather than the hair itself.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:56 AM on August 14 [9 favorites]


As a straight man, I don't much talk to other men about their hair. Certainly not strangers. If some guy said to me: "you're rocking that hairstyle today" I'd be slightly creeped out.

If it were someone I hadn't seen in a long while and I had, say, gone from shoulder-length hair to a buzz cut I'd expect "woah, took me a moment to recognize you" and maybe a little chitchat.

Otherwise, it's my hair; why do you want to talk about it?

It's our mutual courtesy of just getting to be without constantly having our efforts to be a certain way pointed out. Seems a good courtesy to extend everywhere.
posted by argybarg at 7:57 AM on August 14


That stock photo is perfectly chosen! Those strained, polite smiles...there is so much going on beneath the surface.
posted by beau jackson at 7:59 AM on August 14


I try to keep my compliments on someone's appearance:

a) focused on skilful choices people made for themselves rather than uncontrollable/inherent attributes and
b) mindful of the power context I am in.
posted by whittaker at 8:00 AM on August 14


aught, I am not making that tired old joke. I'm making a tired new joke about a bunch of white people who are so afraid of breaking the New Rules that they contort themselves into increasingly ridiculous and ultimately humanity-denying pursuits of behavior which is above and beyond reproach of whoever they think are the final arbiters of Good (not that we believe in that). To wit:

I'm having a hard time understanding when it's ever appropriate to comment on a woman's hairstyle. Maybe a close friend or relation, but even then.

How hard is it to maintain an air of icy politeness toward anyone who isn't a close friend?

Nobody who you're not related to or in a relationship with needs your opinion on sartorial choices.


What a miserable way to live, and I absolutely do not mean any offense by that. That just sounds sad. Clothing, image, appearance communicate. And when you choose to look a certain way, you are choosing to communicate. By that I do not mean that others have carte blanche to say what they want about anyone they see! But isolating yourself from others (micro-isolating?) because you've absorbed the lesson that your choices are false-attemp-at-connection-and-injury or safe-and-wise-distance is-- well it's just awful sounding. Please talk to me. Please engage. And we'll learn what works and what doesn't the old fashioned way. By doing.

Listen, I know this isn't going to come out right because I'm typing, and this is the internet. Let's get a beer, talk it out sometime, and if we have to at the end we'll just agree to disagree.

And as the interaction between ArbitraryandCapricious and RustyBrooks handily illustrated, the impulse to ad hominem from context clues, or even outright statements such as the one I made above, should be checked; anyone can say they're anything in a comment, or a profile or a post. If someone is right or wrong they aren't right or wrong because of their skin color, number of sylables in their last name, or shape of their chromosomes. Anyone you talk to on the internet could secretly be a dog, after all.

woof

posted by Poppa Bear at 8:01 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


My basic rule of thumb in re: hair.

Fellow white person, verbal: "Cool hair!"

Black person: (thinks) "Cool hair!"

Regardless of race however, I am not touching anyone's hair because that is crazy rude and weird.
posted by Kitteh at 8:07 AM on August 14


oh my gosh that falcon article is amazing
posted by threeants at 8:10 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


The majority of POC in the US are FROM HERE. They are not exotic. So the stories of that one time you were in China or West Africa and people thought you looked funny, or touched your hair without permission, and you really stuck out, are not really helpful anecdotes in this situation.
Since I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who dropped an anecdote of this nature, clearly you didn't read it.
posted by Octaviuz at 8:11 AM on August 14


Metafilter: mindful of the power context I am in.
posted by Fizz at 8:11 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Basically, treat people like they're human. And don't think that everyone will be amazingly flattered and happy that you decided to "compliment" them. You're not that special.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:22 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


Poppa bear- I don't see people contorting themselves out of fear of breaking some arbitrary set of rules as much as people (like the guy who wrote in to the Race Manners column) just trying figure out how to be kind and decent to each other.
posted by beau jackson at 8:23 AM on August 14 [11 favorites]


I'm making a tired new joke about a bunch of white people who are so afraid of breaking the New Rules that they contort themselves into increasingly ridiculous and ultimately humanity-denying pursuits of behavior which is above and beyond reproach of whoever they think are the final arbiters of Good (not that we believe in that).

I think the bottom line is that these white people might realize that it's not just white people who are those final arbiters of Good anymore. Sorry someone took away some of your tall straight white dude authority to comment on any and everyone or everything that strikes your fancy.

Also, your "new" joke is still the same old joke no matter how many lame "isn't PC reeeediculous guys" bits you throw into it.

Anyone you talk to on the internet could secretly be a dog, after all. woof

For future reference that joke is pretty tired too.
posted by aught at 8:24 AM on August 14 [12 favorites]


Poppa Bear: "What a miserable way to live, and I absolutely do not mean any offense by that. That just sounds sad."
Thanks, but we have perfectly rich inner lives without vocalizing our experience of your appearance.
posted by brokkr at 8:31 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


What a miserable way to live, and I absolutely do not mean any offense by that. That just sounds sad.

You know, it would be easy to take that exactly the opposite way you intended.

Which is the point: we don't get to decide how other people react. That "rule" isn't about you, it's meant to be for the person receiving your comments. If we want public spaces to make everyone feel welcome, like they belong, we have a duty to not say things that make other feel like objects, like zoo exhibits there for our entertainment.

Communication is fine. Being genuinely friendly is great. This isn't about not talking to the other person, or limiting interaction or some imagined Scandinavian chilliness. It's about not judging or even allowing the impression of judging others by their appearance alone. It's also true that those of us who have social advantages have to be particularly careful of doing it carelessly, without thinking.
posted by bonehead at 8:35 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


As a white cis (gendered, specied) straight brunette bespectacled employed housed adult male of height with health insurance

Brunet is the word you're looking for. Not going to touch the rest of this.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:39 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


But, apparently, we may not say so.

Ok, so this is the wrong way to think about it, and it actually isn't the question that the guy in the OP was asking. He wasn't asking "may I say this?" He was asking whether saying it might make the black woman feel uncomfortable.


This is so right and important.

We could resolve huge swaths of these "political correctness"-type arguments if people would stop asking, "What am I allowed to say?" and start asking "What's the kind, decent, human, loving, non-asshole (or whatever terminology best fits with your moral system) thing to say?"
posted by straight at 8:39 AM on August 14 [10 favorites]


I'm making a tired new joke about a bunch of white people who are so afraid of breaking the New Rules that they contort themselves into increasingly ridiculous and ultimately humanity-denying pursuits of behavior which is above and beyond reproach of whoever they think are the final arbiters of Good (not that we believe in that).

Or maybe it's neither the overblown hyperbole of denying one's "humanity" by not randomly commenting on appearances unsolicited, nor any sort of contortions around behavior. If the people in question are telling you "I'm not a fan of comments on my appearance unless there's context for it" --which in this case they are--and others choose to heed that advice in general, that's basic humanity. If you can't conceive of how this upsets people who are bothered by often unwanted public access to their bodies, and you choose to present yourself as a member of a group who holds a great deal of power in society condescendingly granting that access, the problem isn't with them.

What a miserable way to live, and I absolutely do not mean any offense by that.

Maybe it's time to learn that what you mean may be less important than how it's taken.

Clothing, image, appearance communicate. And when you choose to look a certain way, you are choosing to communicate. By that I do not mean that others have carte blanche to say what they want about anyone they see!

What one presents to others should not require or even stimulate input from others. To demand otherwise is the slippery slope towards slut-shaming, mocking of ethnic styles, and the like. This article and many of the comments are basically telling you that communication should be invited, not imposed, regardless of its nature.

If someone is right or wrong they aren't right or wrong because of their skin color, number of sylables in their last name, or shape of their chromosomes.

Again, you're speaking from a position of great power in social and cultural dynamics. It's easy for you to say that, because being challenged over what you believe is right or wrong about how someone feels about themselves is a recent phenomenon.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:41 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


"But I want to do what makes me feel good regardless of how it makes other people feel!" is the shittiest whine in the world.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:45 AM on August 14 [15 favorites]


If you think of yourself as the kind of person who just wants to spread some joy by giving strangers a nice compliment, but you're uninterested in listening to what people say actually does or doesn't give them joy, you're not really that kind of person.
posted by straight at 8:46 AM on August 14 [41 favorites]


Kind of unfortunately, it's best to say nothing to strangers and very little on a personal level to colleagues and coworkers. Probably why most people's closest friends are all from college or high school, before all the walls and internal filters go up.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:49 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


"...but POC often don't realize how white White America is."

FALSE.
posted by allthinky at 8:51 AM on August 14


Commenting on hair - not hair style, but on the actual hair - is like complimenting someone for their unusual-to-you skin tone. I bet a lot more white people would hesitate to say "Great skin color!"* because they would instinctively understand that it would be weird and othering and presumptuous to act like they are an arbiter of what's good when it comes to markers of ethnicity.

I get that this stuff gets complex because we're often responding to grooming or styling choices and not necessarily just to exoticism, but like with most things in life intention does not set the curve for impact. I get frequent comments on my (Asian, generally very smooth, pale and warm pink) skin. It is usually unclear whether these people are commenting on the fact that my skin is a different color than their own, or that it is a different color from the skin of many other Asians, or on how well I must be taking care of it (which is hilarious, I go with water and a washcloth when it occurs to me, which is rarely). I am resentful that the burden is on me to figure out which one or which blend of things it is or decide not to care in order for the interaction to go smoothly - I shouldn't have to always quietly work harder or be uncomfortable to make it okay for everyone else. Black hair is super politicized and there is a larger list of intentions and baggage to filter through than in my skin case, and I can only guess at how tiresome it must be.

I think I am saying that we just shouldn't casually compliment strangers on those things, pretty much full stop. I'm okay with that.

*yes I know some people do just this thing and basically that just makes me throw my hands up and say come on.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:51 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


TFA specifically does not say 'say nothing to strangers' and is not about white people contorting themselves to get Good White Person points from Other White People so I don't even know where people are getting that.
posted by sweetkid at 8:53 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


Kind of unfortunately, it's best to say nothing to strangers and very little on a personal level to colleagues and coworkers.

This has not really been my experience ever.

There's a lot of room between never interacting with people and just doing or saying whatever seems like a good idea at the time. That room can be called "exhibiting basic impulse control."
posted by PMdixon at 8:53 AM on August 14 [9 favorites]


As someone who pretty much hit the privilege jackpot, and takes pride in dressing well, even I hate compliments from strangers. The only ones I ever enjoy are the ones that aren't said directly to me: but I hear secondhand that they think I'm gay.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:03 AM on August 14


I'm really surprised that this hair-touching is a thing. I can't imagine doing that to someone I wasn't intimate with, that's a ridiculous violation of boundaries. Also, wasn't there some kind of Jim Crow era folkway that it was "good luck" to rub an African-American child's head? It's creepily reminiscent of that, too.
posted by thelonius at 9:05 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


beau jackson, I'm not talking about the nice (but kind of clueless) dude who wrote in to the original article, but us in this thread right now, and honestly Mefi in general. Totally agree with you, at least on the people I think fit your description. I'm not decrying "being PC", or "treating other people with respect, decency, and kindness". I'm pretty into them.
posted by Poppa Bear at 9:10 AM on August 14


On the burden of self-contortion:

I am a white woman, and there was certainly a time when I worried that I was going to have to watch my behavior and my words in order not to "offend" anybody, and it felt like a heavy burden.

Then it turned out that if I thought instead about not *harming* others, and took some positive action to learn what white privilege looked like from the vantage points of many people of color, it got easier to see the patterns of behavior that were awful, and to begin to change them.

I'm not saying I never fuck up, because I do, but I feel like this is *precisely* what it means to be human, to try to live in a way that does not cause needless harm.

I know now that my perspective is not the only perspective, and that treating everyone the same does not amount to treating everyone equally, and seeing the world as it really is, and not just how I want it to be, or how it seems to me, is completely part of the job of being human.
posted by allthinky at 9:11 AM on August 14 [15 favorites]


oh p.s. I think if you are white and you *didn't* know that hair-touching was this thing, you might not be paying enough attention.

And poppa bear, I don't doubt that you are into kindness and decency and all that jazz, but again, you might not be the best arbiter of what counts as respect or decency in every situation. Believing that you are, and that if you can't grok someone else's upset or pain it must be illegitimate, is a problem. I think.
posted by allthinky at 9:15 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


some sort of très exotique cheese to be pawed at and investigated

Also don't paw at the cheese because I was going to eat that
posted by Hoopo at 9:19 AM on August 14


I hand out compliments all the time on people's clothing and shoes. If I see someone with a great pair of shoes, I'll say something like, "I love your shoes!" I figure that's fine, because shoes and clothing are chosen and not an integral part of someone's appearance. Of course I won't ask "how much did they cost!" or "are those Louboutins?" but I don't feel I'm out of line complimenting clothes or accessories. Most people seem to like knowing that their outfit looks great (when pointed out in a neutral, not-sexual and not-intrusive way).

With hair - I wouldn't compliment a black woman just for having a nice natural hairstyle or something like that. But, if someone has, for instance, bright pink hair, I might say something like "I love your hair!" I figure that if someone dyes their hair bright pink, that is not "natural" or integral to their ethnicity or whatever, and that to some extent they don't mind the attention. (If you dye your hair pink or purple and then get offended when others notice, that's not very perceptive.)

I certainly would never touch a stranger's hair - that's rude. OTOH I don't think a wary distance/icy politeness is the way to go, either.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:27 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


With all due respect Rosie, there's a gender component to this too, like it of not.

Again, this is not about not talking to the other person, this is about not making her feel like she's an object, be that racial or sexual.
posted by bonehead at 9:37 AM on August 14


Bonehead: yes, there IS a gender component, I agree. I'm female, so I think that I have more latitude than a man would when handing out compliments. I almost always compliment other women, and it's almost always on clothing and/or accessory choices. I really doubt most women would hear "I love your purple necklace!" and hear a sexual or aggressive innuendo.

I think it really is different for men complimenting women. If I were male, I don't think I would be as free with the compliments as I am. I also think that, as a white woman, specifically complimenting a black woman's hair (as opposed to her scarf or whatever) is some place I would step more carefully.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:43 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Man, I'm not a person/woman of color, but people of either gender comment on and/or touch my hair rather frequently - thankfully they usually ask before touching, but not always - so it's not just black women who get this. But I totally understand that people/women of color get a lot more of this and it's weirder. I don't think I've ever had a black woman ask to touch my hair or even comment on it, though, which makes sense.

Actual comments:

"Wow, your hair is so long!" (Uh, yes, yes it is.)
"Wow, how do you wash it?" (Uh, usually in the shower?)
"Wow, your hair is so frizzy!" (This one was weird and annoying. Said by total stranger random middle-aged geriatric raver guy with super-sized saucer eyes at like 7AM, said like he was observing coral or wildlife or something. To be fair I was probably backlit by night club lighting and it had been a long day, and he was probably high as fuck.)
"OMG look at your hair can I touch it?" (Uhm... I guess? I guess it depends on how cute and/or non-creepy you are? Can you please put down the cigarette/drink/cup of coffee fiirst?)
"When was the last time you cut it?" "Can I give you a haircut?""Can I cut your hair?" (Random people who may or may not be hairstylists. Uhm, right here? No?)
"Your hair is awesome and you should totally let me cut your hair!" (Persons who are actually hairstylists. Are you offering a free haircut? No? Hrmpf.)
"Wow, you're certainly not going bald!" (No, and neither are you? WTF?)
"Wow, it's so soft! How do you take care of it?" (Uh, I wash it, but not too much or too often?)
"You look a lot like x!" where x is some variant of Ozzy Osborne, Stephen King, others. And, guh, Fabio. (No, I look like me. Especially not Fabio, WTF!? Why would anyone even say that?)
"If you shaved the sides you could look like Skrillex!" (Yeah, did that in high school proably before he was even born. How about no?)
"You should cut it all off and donate it to Locks of Love!" (Uhm... but I want my hair?)

There are many more, but that's the gist of it.

More than a few times I've been basically pounced on at local coffee shops and have had women in particular wanting to touch my hair. In groups as large as three or four. Not complete strangers, mind, but friends of friends who have just been introduced, but then I say yes to, say, one woman and the next thing I know she's saying "OMG, feel his hair!" to her friends and I'm suddenly in a petting zoo. There are worse problems to have, sure, but it can be kind of weird.
posted by loquacious at 10:17 AM on August 14


The idea of touching any strangers hair strikes me as truly weird. And I don't think I've ever mentioned a friends hair unless they'd made some huge change to it. I think I've only ever complemented clothes with a "cool t-shirt, dude" which has never caused any problems far as I know. FWIW.
posted by jonmc at 10:24 AM on August 14


My wife tells me that people, almost always women, touch her curly hair all the time and she doesn't mind. Probably they sense that she doesn't mind. She says: "It's a primate thing."

Just a single point of anecdata there.
posted by argybarg at 10:26 AM on August 14


I have definitely complimented the hair of strange women, but it's almost always been on hair styled in a deliberate, eyecatching way: hair dyed bright non-natural colors and/or swept up in elaborate braids with ribbons and flowers--fancy wedding hair, basically.

I would be very hesitatant to compliment a black woman on her hair like this unless I knew her or we were in an appropriate environment (like it's literally her wedding day and she has fancy wedding hair). There are times I've wanted to compliment black women on the more elaborate braids like cornrows and Senegalese twists, for the same reasons I long to compliment women for their flawless cat eyeliner: because I know how much time/effort/practice it takes to get this effect (and my own lack of skill at the same). But I don't say anything, because there's no way to be complimentary without political overtones unless I go into a lot more detail than either of us is comfortable with.

"Your hair's braids are beautiful! I bet it took forever! This compliment makes it sound like I approve of the effort you took that makes your hair smooth and matching white beauty standards! Not that I think you should have to match white hair beauty standards, or that you were trying to do so, or that I would think less of you if you didn't, or think less of you if you did! And not that I think natural hair takes less effort than styled hair, or that you wouldn't look good with natural hair! But I don't want you to feel like I'm judging you for not having natural hair either! I'm going to creep away quietly now."
posted by nicebookrack at 10:39 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


I'm surprised Jessica Williams' *Operation Black Hair* from The Daily Show last month hasn't been mentioned here.
posted by peacay at 10:41 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Again, this is not about not talking to the other person, this is about not making her feel like she's an object, be that racial or sexual.

That's the difficulty I would have with saying something like that. I feel like saying 'nice hair' is really just a single step removed from saying 'nice tits, baby', or 'that ass has really got it going on.'

If I were a woman, I'm pretty sure my internal, emotional response to all of these things would be 'And why do I give a single fuck what you think about these things? Keep it to yourself, asshole.'
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:50 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Well, so ... there is a student worker in our office, a young woman, who came back from break with a much different and -- IMHO more flattering and professional, but also clearly less "processed" (for lack of a better word - think Lupita Nyong'o) -- hairstyle. I have wanted, very much, to say to her "Hey, I love what you're doing with your hair. I think it's a great change for you. It's much more flattering and professional." but have avoided saying anything because I know what a minefield it could be for me (a white middle-aged middle-class woman and someone who supervises her) to talk about hair with her (a barely out of her teens woman of color from an immigrant family). On the other hand, though, part of our mandate with our student workers is to encourage them to become more polished and professional, and if a different young woman in our office had come back with a similar change (which I wish she had, honestly) I would not have hesitated to complement such a radical and positive change.

Hey! I said to myself. Here's an article that I can use for guidance. But now, having read both the comments here and the article, I'm still in the same place -- I want to acknowledge and encourage her new look, but I feel like it might be somehow wrong for me to do so.

What would you do?
posted by anastasiav at 11:05 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


I apologize in advance for onion belting. I'm feeling really old lately, though. Please mentally insert a "White Opinions" gif here now.

My first couple of years in school were horrific. I was bullied so severely that a school employee covertly contacted my parents and told me they had to get me out immediately, because she was concerned for my physical safety.

So they took me out of my default school and, for a couple of years, I went to a school with 95%ish black students. And that was the first time in my life I really felt like I had school friends, plural. I'd always had one or two friends, but I was such a pariah and my teacher hated me so much that they weren't safe talking to me at my old school. So that was the first place I really got to feel a little bit like a normal kid. I was a white girl and I had (pretty spectacular, if I say so myself) white girl hair, so many of my first interactions with school friends were hair-related. We were all curious. We all messed with each others' hair and oohed and aaahed and experimented. We'd sit on the asphalt nearly every recess and just mess with each others' hair. I got cornrows. I gave cornrows. I picked afros and did twists and braids, all sitting in a big circle around a giant tub of Dippity Do. (This was in the 70s. (And I was also really good at double dutch, but this isn't about my resume.(Parenthetically.)))

So when afros first started showing up in the wild again after being dormant for a while, I'd get emotionally overwhelmed and yeah, a totally secret part of me would want to touch them. And I guess I just get a little frustrated with people who feel like they can't restrain themselves because if I can, anyone can, goddammit.

And if you really feel like you NEED to touch black peoples' hair, go learn some hairdressing skills and you might get enlisted to help with some braiding or something. Those cute little twists and beads and braids are a whole lot of work, and you can practice on beards first to hone your skills.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:06 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


What would you do?

I would consider my relationship to the student. Do you feel comfortable talking to her about her appearance? Do you have a structure in place - either formal or informal - to mentor her? Do you regularly mentor her about stuff that's not how she looks, or would this just be dropping in to talk about her hair?

I would consider whether I had a history of talking about appearance with student workers - if it's something you do regularly, then go ahead. But if it's not, remember that she may ask around and find out. (I've been asked by two colleagues of color if I was treated a certain way by a particular person, and I assumed at the time that they were trying to figure out if it was about race or not.) And she'll feel weird if she finds out that it's only her.

I would also remind myself that honestly, she's getting other reinforcement in the world, not just mine. If I don't mentor someone about something, they do have other contacts and other opportunities, and if there's a large drawback to my mentoring, it's okay to assume that they'll receive that guidance elsewhere. I think it's very tempting to have this too-strong sense of responsibility that can lead us to do and say too much, where we feel like if we don't step in right now everything will collapse. Maybe you'd be giving her positive reinforcement on her hair, but then that would be outweighed by making her feel like she was a priori unprofessional and that other people see her as needing constant appearance-managing.

(And of course, the girl herself may already have decided that she wants a dressier hair style and that's why she has the one she does.)

Maybe your take-away here could be "I would like to set up more structured professional development for all the student workers, so that going forward I can discuss things like professional appearance with all of them without it seeming weird" and then you'd just let this particular situation alone.
posted by Frowner at 11:12 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


My hair's curly enough that I sometimes shop in the 'ethnic' hair care section (which, seriously Target? That's awkward phrasing there) so I do get comments on it often enough.

Comments tend to fall into two camps: a nice little ego-boost (typically women with curly hair, whether POC or not) and super awkward beyond belief (typically guys and middle-aged white women who tend to overreact).

That's without all the extra BS that comes from being a black woman in America so I can well imagine that this article is needed.

Oh and as for people touching hair without asking? When I was in my teens I was relatively emotionally immature for my chronological age and touched everything because I was a very kinesthetic learner with still-forming boundaries. One of my friends (and yes, she is a POC) politely took me aside and asked me to stop touching her hair. I was mortified but have never crossed that line since. I wish someone had taken me aside when I was even younger and pointed out that that shit's not ok, but there you go. The internet is a huge help in that regard these days so there's even less excuse for people to make that mistake.
posted by librarylis at 11:14 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


I feel like saying 'nice hair' is really just a single step removed from saying 'nice tits, baby', or 'that ass has really got it going on.'

Really? Cause that seems like a major jump. It's more like saying "I like those shoes," or "that is a nice scarf." Should you be approaching strangers in the street to tell them this? Probably not, because getting accosted by strangers is always uncomfortable, even if they have the best of intentions. And also because creepers do use seemingly innocuous statements and entry points to being shitty. But telling someone you think they have excellent fashion sense doesn't have to be sexual harassment.

There are times I've wanted to compliment black women on the more elaborate braids like cornrows and Senegalese twists... But I don't say anything

But now you're just othering Black women in another direction. If you have the kind of relationship with a person where a compliment on their style from you would not be inappropriate and you withhold said compliment from them -- simply because they are Black -- then you are no longer treating them like a person, you are treating them like a of racial archetype. I feel like it has already been said a dozen times in this thread though, no one is saying you should stop being nice to people or cut yourself from human interaction for fear of inadvertently offending someone. If someone you know has a hairstyle you like, chances are pretty high that they like it too, since it's their head. They don't need your validation or approval, but they also don't need you to be the person awkwardly standing around trying to not say something about their hair.

You can just say, "your hair looks nice today," without giving someone your dissertation on race relations and personal stance on the subject of Black women's hair in particular. You also don't need to go full-on "ooooohhh gurl you got your hair did," because that is basically a hate crime. Just treat Black people like people. Don't put them on the spot; don't bury them with your White guilt; don't give them their your life story; and don't descend into minstrelsy trying seem like "you relate." Those are all things people do to make themselves feel better, not the person they are trying (and failing) to compliment.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:30 AM on August 14


Or "That haircut looks good on you".
posted by brujita at 11:39 AM on August 14


You can just say, "your hair looks nice today," without giving someone your dissertation on race relations and personal stance on the subject of Black women's hair in particular.

Except you can't, really. Black hair is so politically/culturally/emotionally charged that it cannot be separated from those feelings. There is no state of a Black woman's hair that is okay with everybody, so saying you like it is essentially endorsing your particular opinion EVEN IF YOU DON'T KNOW THERE ARE OPINIONS TO BE HAD.

Anyway, are you saying she looked like shit yesterday? Thanks, now you've made her feel bad. That's a really popular Mean Girl "complement" - "ooooh, you look nice for once."

Now, if this woman is your friend and you know she hated her last haircut and was looking forward to the one she got over the weekend, because she is your friend you know what is and isn't okay to say to this one person specifically in your life. This is not any harder than knowing not to comment on stranger/acquaintance pregnancy but being able to talk to your good friend about her pregnancy because you know the limits and the context.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:41 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


Quoting myself (& correcting my spelling) above:

I would be very hesitant to compliment a black woman on her hair like this unless I knew her

I have complimented and will continue to compliment my black friends on their style, including hair, just as I would my other friends. And when I'm out in the world giving compliments to strangers (as I do), I will commend a random black woman for her shoes/bag/geeky tshirt/book she's reading/phone case/whatever. But I'm not going to bring up her hair, because there is too much historical baggage in that exchange, and I shouldn't expect a stranger to have to parse my intent as "I recognize the complicated politics of black hair and I mean you no harm" in the thirty seconds we spend together. It's just not worth her time.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:22 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Analogy (that isn't a perfect analogy because the hurtful spots of racism/sexism/body image/othering don't line up in the same way): I would never say to a random strange woman, "Wow, where do you get your bras? Your breasts look amazing, and so well-supported and comfortable!"

Even though I lurk on r/ABraThatFits talking about bras with strangers and I read about bra sizing and I struggle with my own bra issues, so therefore I know that a well-fitted, comfortable, nice-looking bra is a rare magical unicorn. It is not an appropriate topic to open conversation with a stranger who doesn't know me or my possibly-creepy intentions toward her bras, or her hair. [/END FLAWED ANALOGY]
posted by nicebookrack at 12:34 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


I'm 45 and if someone tells me I look nice, hooray! That said, I know what a PITA the hair thing can be for women of color, and I have witnessed first-hand the entitled awfulness of white people pawing at fros and braids and stuff like that. And the questions about whether it's real, how long is it, how do you make it do that, etc. This article was prompted by REAL THINGS that actually happen to women, and if it results in a few less awkward or awful and entitled run-ins, that's great.

But SRSLY tell me I look good, it's OK!
posted by Mister_A at 1:09 PM on August 14


How to Be Polite. "I have only very rarely touched their hair."
posted by cjorgensen at 1:33 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


anastasiav: "I have wanted, very much, to say to her "Hey, I love what you're doing with your hair. I think it's a great change for you. It's much more flattering and professional.""

Just say "I love your new hairstyle, it looks fantastic." Don't make the comparisons to her former hairstyle -- sorry, but they kind of ruin the compliment with presumptions.
posted by desuetude at 1:57 PM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Hi all. I'm a black woman with natural hair that has been touched, complimented, and attacked fairly often. Reading through this thread has been both frustrating and encouraging, and I'm glad this is being discussed.

One thing I'd add to the Desmond-Harris article (which I thought did a great job explaining my feelings on the matter): Don't tell me you're so jealous! I find this pretty annoying and I get it from white people A LOT.

"Gosh, I wish my hair could do that! I just have lame white-lady hair!"
"I've always been jealous of black people's hair styles!!!"

I get that people mean this as a really high compliment, and I usually just go, "Heh! Thanks!" but I'm always thinking, why are we talking about your (negative) feelings now*? What do you want me to say? "There, there! You guys have lots of other things!" I get the feeling that deep down, the person thinks I should be super excited and grateful that a white person found something to admire in a black person.

And, do you really want my hair on your head, or do you want to be black, or what? I have a feeling you don't know what you're saying right now.

*I think this applies to whenever someone, myself included, uses "Ugh! I'm so jealous!" as a compliment.
posted by Slater Sheldahl at 2:52 PM on August 14 [10 favorites]


When I was about five or six years old, I inadvertently busted an N-bomb for the first and only time in my life. I'd seen two white kids on my schoolbus do a cool handshake they'd termed "the [n-word] shake", and boy howdy did I ever want to show off my new skills to my mom. When she asked me what it was called, I very excitedly told her "it's called 'the [n-slur] shake!" My mom stopped short on the shoulder of the road and explained to me in great detail that I was never allowed to use that word, that it had been previously used to demean and dehumanize black people, and that it disgusted her to hear that people were still using it to this day.

"And never, EVER, touch a black woman's hair. You hear me?" she added.

In the moment I was terrified, but I had this weird feeling that I had just crossed a line that I should never cross again, not even to rebel against my parents when they pissed me off.

Whenever I hear about white people casually dropping that slur into everyday conversation or making unwanted physical contact with someone because their hair is gorgeous and "exotic", I feel sick. Don't these people know what these words and actions mean? Who raised them to think that way? Christ.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:52 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


"I have wanted, very much, to say to her "Hey, I love what you're doing with your hair. I think it's a great change for you. It's much more flattering and professional."

...like a white person?

Black hair and the concept of "professional" is a huge issue.

Natural Hair vs. Corporate America: Why Are We Still Fighting This Battle?

‘Can I Touch It?’ Photographer Gives White Women ‘Black’ Hairstyles For Corporate Portraits
posted by Lyn Never at 4:25 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


...like a white person?

I knew someone was going to ask that.

Just for the record: no, not like a white person. Her prior hairstyle was a style that said very clearly "I still think of myself as a teenager" (including dyed green stripes).
posted by anastasiav at 4:51 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Yes, yes, this thing where black people are talking about their experiences? Let's just ignore those specifics and say "Let's apply this to everyone."

Thanks!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:13 AM on August 14 [33 favorites +] [!]


Whoa, Brandon Blatcher, I'm not sure if that was directed at me, but if it was, I consider that seriously a most ungenerous interpretation, followed by a little bit of unnecessary snark. Assuming that I understand it, which is that somehow I am diminishing a Black person's experience by my comment:

Desmond-Harris elucidates three points on how to compliment a black woman's hair *anyone* without being a jerk: 1) Hands to yourself. 2) Compliment, don't query. 3) Consider the context.

Nice! This is just good advice all the way round, for everyone. It's "it-should-be-on-tshirts" levels of nice!

Thanks girimightlive :)
posted by anitanita at 6:09 AM on August 14 [3 favorites +] [!]


Before I responded to your comment, I thought I'd check in about that. Feel free to memail me as well, if you'd prefer to take it offline.
posted by anitanita at 6:42 PM on August 14


If you have the kind of relationship with a person where a compliment on their style from you would not be inappropriate and you withhold said compliment from them -- simply because they are Black -- then you are no longer treating them like a person, you are treating them like a of racial archetype. I feel like it has already been said a dozen times in this thread though, no one is saying you should stop being nice to people or cut yourself from human interaction for fear of inadvertently offending someone. If someone you know has a hairstyle you like, chances are pretty high that they like it too, since it's their head. They don't need your validation or approval, but they also don't need you to be the person awkwardly standing around trying to not say something about their hair.

I totally agree. I have an African-American coworker who is also really into dressing up (along with me), and she comes in with these really awesome hairstyles. She had this gorgeous one with red twists the other week that just made me drool. And you know what? If she has awesome hair, I'm gonna tell her so, same as I would to anyone else. And she seems quite pleased as far as I can tell. Same as when I like her outfit.

I still don't get why anyone who's not a hairdresser wants to paw anyone's hair randomly, though.

(disclaimer: as I type, I'm letting a friend chalk my hair, hah)
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:24 PM on August 14


I don't think Brandon Blatcher was just talking about you, anitanita, but I don't think the crossout comment plus *anyone* is all that thoughtful, and don't think there's anything unnecessary or ungenerous about pointing that out. This FPP is pretty specifically about black women's experience. I think talking about other experience is not irrelevant, but to do the "fixed it for you" thing on the text of the FPP itself is to invite some criticism, I think.
posted by sweetkid at 8:27 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Taking away the context that black women get their hair touched by strangers much more than other people do erases the specific reality of black women. Any sort of "That's just good manners" comment, as if almost everyone already obeys this etiquette rule, makes it seem like the experience of being targeted in this way is unusual. It's only unusual for people who aren't black women.
posted by jaguar at 8:49 PM on August 14


(I don't think it's super controversial that someone who is doing accessorizing piece X in a new and flamboyant way every week is okay with talking about X, whether X=hair, nails, facial hair, tattoo, shoes, earrings. But also the sum total of those people for all values of X is maybe like 6.3% of the population so maybe it'd be cool to take that exception as noted. Most people are satisficing in most things and when one of the things you have to satisfice is, for lack of better words, political/loaded, it's potentially kinda frustrating.)
posted by PMdixon at 8:52 PM on August 14


I'm not a black woman. I'm a white dude. However, I am a Southern European (Spanish) white dude with big hair living in mostly white/asian Melbourne, Australia. I have had to tell off drunks and physically restrain them from touching my hair, and also to tell people no, thanks for asking, but you may not touch my hair, I'm not your poodle. However, I don't think it's exclusively an ethnic thing. I think it's an asshole thing.

Here's why I think it's not ethnic, at least not exclusively: In Spain, where my hair is uncommon but not *that* uncommon, it was actually worse. Because drunk people (both men *and* women) tried to touch my hair while holding a smoking cigarrette in their touching hand. Big WTF.

So yes, it's a thing. Some people have a poor sense of boundaries, and some cultures have a poor shared concept of boundaries (Spanish vs Anglo, for instance).

To unpack my privilege, let me affirm that I'm sure if I were a black woman with an afro it would be even worse, as some people would feel the boundary is even less strict. But it's fucking bad already. Grrr.

About compliments: "I like your hair" is always nice to hear. It's the stupid roundabout comments about crows' nests and losing combs and your pubic hair that I don't want to hear. Again, if a man tells me about his pubic hair, I don't feel threatened. I just take it as evidence that some people have no filters. But I wouldn't like to be a woman alone (of any ethnic adscription) on that train with that man.
posted by kandinski at 8:58 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


On reading more comments and the article (I had jumped straight to the comment box), I notice that yes, my anecdotes fit exactly with Desmond-Harris's recommendations:

"Hands to yourself; compliment, don't query; consider the context".

How is it that difficult?
posted by kandinski at 9:02 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


As someone who pretty much hit the privilege jackpot, and takes pride in dressing well, even I hate compliments from strangers.

White cis woman here, so pretty privileged except for the woman part. Compliments about my appearance or dress from someone I don't know make me feel uncomfortable. They don't "make my day." They make me wonder why the complimenter feels compelled to share with me what's going through his head. What does a stranger get out of telling me my dress is nice? It's really more about them than me, isn't it? Just because I put effort into my appearance -- the aspects I can control, anyway -- doesn't mean I want to be a conversation piece.

So, bringing this back on topic, I'm extra-aware that POC are even more vulnerable to this sort of thing, and I just tread carefully.
posted by mirepoix at 10:14 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Ah, fair enough, sweetkid. Line striking was not the best way to make my point. I can see how an "And" statement would have been clearer.

That point being that as Black woman, I'd appreciate it if Desmond-Harris's excellent advice was extended in every way, to everyone, beyond just Black Women's hair. Yes, I'd love it if people considered boundaries and language and context before engaging me in any way about my kinky hair. Heck, I'd like those same 'someones' to extend that same courtesy when deciding to pass their eyes over, or comment on my rear, or the darkness of my skin tone, or the whiteness of my teeth, or my curves, or how I carry my weight, or when commenting on my ability to swim, run, sing, speak, or whatever else. The "And" part for me is in imagining how much less rough day to day life would be for everyone, overall if we all considered - 1) Hands to yourself. 2) Compliment, don't query. 3) Consider the context - in engaging anyone, in general.

So in the "Consider the context" spirit of the advice, I'll take a step back and appreciate that my focus on the universality of advice could be construed as a derail when the OP clearly meant the focus to the be topic, and that line striking is often used to diminish the value of the topic (commentary on Black Women's hair), though that wasn't my intention here. Apologies if it seemed so, girlmightlive. For me, the drag of people commenting on my hair is just one of the many issues I view through the lens of an example of a failure to consider civility when engaging someone you consider an "other". Desmond-Harris's advice is what I consider an example of a crisp and clear general principle that makes me feel less like I'm asking for this consideration specifically because I am Black, or a Black woman, but rather, just because I'm a person. But I can write my own post, if I really do want to discuss that topic.
posted by anitanita at 11:25 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


They make me wonder why the complimenter feels compelled to share with me what's going through his head. What does a stranger get out of telling me my dress is nice? It's really more about them than me, isn't it? Just because I put effort into my appearance -- the aspects I can control, anyway -- doesn't mean I want to be a conversation piece.

This sounds quite exhausting for you. Did you ever consider that a person just wanted to tell you "Cool dress?"
posted by kuanes at 6:52 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


Did you ever consider that a person just wanted to tell you "Cool dress?"

Well, duh. This whole thread is about how easy it is to be thoughtless about what we say and that maybe not being so thoughtless would make the world a better place.
posted by straight at 2:23 PM on August 15


Well, duh. This whole thread is about how easy it is to be thoughtless about what we say and that maybe not being so thoughtless would make the world a better place.

I think there is a huge difference between one person's not wanting to talk to strangers, and disrespectful, boundary-crossing, and racially-charged interactions. I don't think it's rude to compliment strangers on their clothing/accessories. It's certainly more accepted in some cultures and areas than others. In some places, strangers keep a cool reserve around one another; in others, people interact more with those they don't know.

Now, as far as white people just going up to black women and patting their hair - I'm white, and I am not Miss Manners, and even I know better than that. You don't treat other people as if they are your own personal petting zoo.

And if one doesn't like interacting with random others - and I have had Those Days, and so has everyone - that's what putting in earbuds and/or being absorbed in your iPad or phone games is for. I take that as a signal of "Leave me alone."

I'm a woman, and that does give me a freedom to chat with other women about clothes or shoes or Starbucks eggnog lattes or those Giants, in a way that might not be welcome from a man. Completely aside from race, just about all women have had a Hi, Whatcha Reading? experience.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:37 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking about this thread and thinking about when I feel like it's okay for me to compliment people. I am a big compliment-giver, which stated as a concerted effort to not be afraid to have interactions with other people, and continued as a part of my "whoa that's cool!" attitude. I know that since I started reading metafilter, I have become more thoughtful about my behavior because I have become more aware of how other people experience the same society differently than I do. I am glad to see a person in a position of privilege taking a moment to make sure that he is not inadvertently hurting/discomfiting other people.

Anyway, I think that with strangers, I often compliment people on something that is sort of a common ground for us, like we're in the same club. I used to compliment people's hair a lot more, people of all genders and ethnicities, back when I had rad pink or blue hair and was in the cool hair club. Now my hair is boring and I don't do that as much. I like to wear pretty dresses, so I'll compliment my colleagues on their pretty dresses. I often don't compliment men because getting compliments from men can be uncomfortable and it may send the wrong message, because we're not both in the sweet necktie club, so I must have other motivations. I think the reason the man in the article asked the question is because he realized that maybe he didn't have something like that (at least not obviously) in common with the woman he complimented.

(This is maybe somewhat off-topic, but) In my teacher training, an instructor mentioned that we should avoid complimenting kids on expensive things like fancy new shoes, so I'm super cognizant of how compliments work in a group setting, which doesn't apply to coffee shop man, but may apply to the people talking about mentees and coworkers. In that sort of setting, who you're not complimenting may be equally important. If you only compliment POCs on their hair, maybe it's not actually about rad hair, and people will notice. If you only compliment people on displays of wealth, in a closed setting, you are implicitly encouraging those displays and not giving equal attention to people who don't/can't display wealth.
I almost always notice when people get haircuts and almost everyone gets a haircut at some point, so that seems like a pretty equal-opportunity, not charged thing to mention. I also compliment the colors people wear, but make sure to include the more muted colors my conservative Muslim girls wear. Relationships are so important in teaching and this seems one of the ways I can help establish appropriate person-to-person relationships. "Hello fellow human! I, too, like orange! Now, on to sonnets!"

As someone mentioned above, I think moving on after the compliment is really important and serves do distance a person who actually wants to give you a verbal high-five on your presentation and a person who thinks that you owe them your attention in exchange for the compliment.
posted by MsDaniB at 8:54 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]


Oh, and back to hair: when I used to bleach and dye my hair all sorts of candy and crayon colors, people often thought I was wearing a wig.

Do you know what strangers do when they think you are wearing a wig?

They fucking pull it.
posted by MsDaniB at 8:57 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]


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