A Conversation about Black Hair

I’ve been wanting to give myself some lovely marley twists lately and it’s got me thinking about  what black hair means in Korea.

It may come as a surprise to other non-black/non-natural hair folk that this could warrant an in-depth discussion, but a quick google search of “natural hair korea” in Google shows that my post isn’t the first and it won’t be the last on the topic.

Even though I have been here for half a year, students are still impressed with and very curious about my hair. I can understand the curiosity. They live in a pretty homogeneous society and just about everyone has straight (sometimes) wavy black hair. Short aside, when teaching the lesson on appearances it was hard to play games based on the looks of students because everyone had black hair and dark eyes. But hair like mine definitely isn’t something they are used to seeing. They see a lot of fair-skinned, straight-haired people in movies and advertisements, but they rarely see black women in their media, if at all. And even if they do see artists like Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, or Rihanna, they don’t see them with coarse natural hair. Afro-styled or textured hair is usually used as a gag when someone on a Korean comedy show dons an Afro wig and black face.

Last week my students asked me if my hair was a wig. (I was wearing my hair in twists that were pinned back). I was slightly confused and asked them why they thought so. This was only grade 4, but what I got as a response in English is that my hair looks “too difficult” to be real. And that I do “too many changes” to my hair. I never really thought I varied up my hair much, but I guess when compared to other teachers in the school, who usually wear their hair straight and down or in a ponytail, I do change it up quite a bit.

Some “styles” I do are twist outs, braid outs, high curly poof, low curly poof, braided bangs, swooped bangs, and regular buns. It doesn’t seem to me that it ever looks that different, but I do blow it out to nearly straight sometimes and or keep my tightly coiled afro other times.

Every time I do change my style up I get, from what I hear, positive comments from my students about it. And then there’s the touching. When I first started teaching students would always ask to touch my hair. I usually gave them a pretty firm no. But I did have a few instances where students touched or grabbed my hair without permission. I even would have my vice-principal touching and petting my hair without asking first. I found it a little uncomfortable back then, but now I am more inclined to give students permission to touch my hair.

A couple of months ago I went to lunch with my co-teachers and the topic of my hair came up in the discussion. My co-teacher informed me that almost everyday she would have a student come and ask her about my hair. She told them that they should ask me since, you know, it’s my hair. I could tell though that this was something my co-teachers had probably wondered about among themselves as well. I could see the curiosity as they awaited my response.

“Well,” I began. “I just change it up depending how much work I feel like doing each day. Some styles take longer to accomplish than others.”

“This is your hair naturally. The hair like how you were born with.” my co-teacher says. I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement, but it sounds like something she looked into a bit. As if she did some research to find out for herself about my hair.

“Yes. I used to have straight hair. Like with a Magic Straight kit, but a few years ago I cut my hair off and started over.”

The conversation continues and we talk about black celebrities and their straight hair. I’m starting to get slightly uncomfortable because I feel like I’m trying to speak for my entire race, but I’m doing an inadequate job of it. I try to explain to her about relaxers and how they can sometimes be damaging and some reasons why black women go back to natural. Eventually, I start to realize that black hair, a topic that has been researched,debated, and written about so extensively, cannot be covered in an hour and a half lunch period. And also not in this blog post either. I left the conversation feeling as if I had been a bad black representative.

So back to marley twists. I had some I did myself a year or so ago. I loved them, but even some white Americans have trouble understanding how my hair went from short curls to long flowing twists. Before that I hadn’t worn extensions in my hair since 5th or 6th grade. I decided to stop asking for them when I would get picked on or stared at at school. It was uncomfortable having to explain my hair to the entire school, so I decided to just avoid it.

Admittedly, I had a negative view of braided/twisted weaves for a while after that. But when finally I stopped being embarrassed myself, I came to appreciate the complex braids and the versatility of our hair–of the skill it takes to weave micro braids or maze-like corn rows.

Now I wonder about the reaction from my students. At first I was a bit hesistant, but now I’m kind of excited to see their faces. I have no problem being an ambassador for black Americans, but it has to be when I choose to do so. I cannot expect to speak for us entirely, but I hope to leave my students and co-workers with a little more understanding and acceptance. So when they meet another person like me, and the chances of that happening are increasing, they’ll be a bit more knowledgeable and tactful.

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