“This femme wants pastel colored hair, preferably lavender.”
It was such a simple Facebook status, but the journey that followed was anything but simple. It was six weeks full of complicated emotions, microaggressions, and respectability politics. It was six weeks of being hyperaware of my presence in different spaces and waiting for the inevitable stares and unwanted comments.
Let’s rewind and go through the full experience.
As a femme with a deep love for pastels, I started developing a profound want and need for lavender hair. At first, I kept it to myself. I spent hours perusing photos of Black naturals with pastel hair on Tumblr and Instagram. After awhile, it became too much to handle, and I knew it had to become a reality.
The first step was making it public, so of course, I went straight to Facebook. I posted the status and waited for the responses. After 30 likes and one affirming comment, I knew I could move forward with making it a reality. I decided to get yarn twists. It was a cost-effective and lightweight way to get the color I wanted without dyeing my hair.
Have you had an event happen in your life that momentarily made you feel complete? When my hairstylist handed me the mirror once she was done, I became filled with joy and happiness. These lavender twists were the missing pieces that I needed at that point in my life. I went straight home and posted pictures of my new lavender twists on Facebook and Instagram. I received so many affirmations. It was just what I needed in order to feel comfortable with such a bold choice of hair.
But the weeks that followed reminded me of the difference between my social media networks and my public life. On Facebook and Instagram, I can control who I interact with. In my real life, I can’t.
A common occurrence while wearing lavender yarn twists was white people ogling me. As a queer, fat, Black woman, no matter what I’m doing or wearing, when white people stare at me, I become automatically uncomfortable. I’m well aware of what could go wrong if I’m perceived as a threat. Fortunately, people were mostly only staring out of disapproval or overwhelming approval. And most often, the approving white people proved to be the most problematic — and, frankly, annoying.
After a conference, I was sitting in the Oakland International Airport with a friend, waiting for my flight home, when I noticed someone walking towards me. As I looked up, I made eye contact with a seemingly middle-aged white woman with a huge smile on her face. She immediately blurted out, “I love your hair!” This statement was then followed by a barrage of questions and statements:
“Is it your hair?”
“Oh, it’s yarn. Yarn like you use in knitting?”
“Oh my! That must have taken forever!”
“That’s so beautiful!”
During her approval rant, my friend and I just sat staring at each other, waiting for it to be over and hoping she wouldn’t do anything else. We both feared she would touch my hair. She was so close to me that it seemed inevitable. I would like to say that experiences like this one were unique to airports, but they also happened at grocery stores — and even at the Georgia state capitol. While compliments are nice and I don’t mind them, interactions like this one are much more than just compliments.
These interactions force me to answer invasive questions and have conversations with people that I do not want to speak with. I’m forced to speak sweetly and nicely to white people who are treating me like an exhibit in a museum. And as a Black woman, I don’t have the ability to tell people to leave me alone without fearing retaliation. So, for the six weeks in which I had my lavender yarn twists, I just had to grit my teeth and put up with everything that I experienced.
Traveling through airports with my yarn twists was a major headache. Airports are not my favorite places in general. When traveling through them, I am often filled with anxiety that I will miss my flight or that my bags will be lost. It’s a hub for coming into contact with people I don’t want to interact with. And I have to interact with the Transportation Security Administration, better known as the TSA.
Going through TSA procedures can be a hassle on any day. I feel as though I’m always fumbling with my shoes, forgetting my laptop in my bag, and trying not to misplace my ID or ticket. However, having extensions adds an extra dimension to my experiences with the TSA. Whenever I have braids or twists, the full body scan is my worst enemy. It seems as though no matter how I style my hair, it always results in my being patted there.
When I have braids, it’s common for TSA agents to stick their hands in my hair to check for whatever the body scanner told them is in my messy buns. With my lavender twists, not only did they check my hair, but on several occasions, they patted my back and shoulders, too. And all of my encounters with TSA agents seemed to be less than pleasant.
All that changed after I took the twists out. It was an early morning flight, and they were doing TSA pre-checks with everyone. As I walked toward the TSA agent sitting at the counter, I pulled out my ticket and ID and held out my hand, waiting for him to swipe it. I was met with a warm smile and a simple, “You’re good.” The combination of it being 6:00 in the morning, his warm attitude, and the lack of the hand swab threw me for a major loop. I momentarily stared blankly at him, waiting for him to mirror the reactions I had been garnering over the past few weeks, only to have him once again smile at me and jokingly ask, “Not awake yet?”
It was in that moment that I realized how unpleasant going through TSA had been with my purple hair. It finally hit me that I had been experiencing agents being short with me, agents touching my hair and body without my consent or warning, and agents making assumptions about me because of the color of my hair. And they weren’t the only people making assumptions based on my hair color.
Most of the time, when other people of color have acknowledged me and/or my hair, I’ve received simple compliments. But I wasn’t immune to other Black folks projecting their respectability politics onto me. I’ve garnered many side-eyes, stares, and whispers from other Black folks. I’m assuming they saw my hair, tattoos, and facial piercings and immediately knew I was on the wrong path in life. This experience is all too familiar to me. I have had many conversations with respectable Black folks who want to give me words of wisdom that will essentially save me from myself.
I find this experience to be the most frustrating. I expect to encounter white people and their microaggressions. I expect to be treated differently by systems of authority. However, being treated differently by folks within my own community makes the biggest impact. While I know they are coming from a place of somewhat good intentions, I have to acknowledge that those intentions are steeped in oppressive respectability politics.
When I first conceived the idea of lavender hair, it was just a femme dream. But once it came to be, it was an unexpected lesson in respectability politics and microaggressions. While it was great having fun pastel hair, it’s been nice having my natural hair back with a little less anxiety and oppression. But hopefully, next time, I will be more prepared to let others know that my scalp is no place for their opinions.[Headline image: The photograph shows the author, a young black woman with lavender yarn twists and a nose ring. She is looking directly at the camera and smiling slightly.]
Thank you for sharing your experiences- reading this made me think a lot about my own privilege where appearance is concerned. I was thinking about how strangers often comment or ask questions about my tattoos, sometimes entire lines of questioning – and it is not uncommon for someone to approach me and actually lift up my shirtsleeve to see more tattoo (before even saying a word to me).
But after reading your piece, it’s very clear to me that as a white woman, these interactions can be annoying or weird at times but never threatening or oppressive – nor even slightly othering. Very different from the experiences you write about here.
So again, thank you for sharing this- and you look so beautiful with lavender hair 🙂