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Going Natural: Understand the Different Cultural Perceptions of Your Hair

Your hair type may be misunderstood in other parts of the world.

When poet and essayist Audre Lorde traveled to the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, the young Black woman at the immigration control desk stamped her visitors card “No Admittance.”

“You can’t come in here with [your hair] looking LIKE THAT,” the worker said, referring to Lorde’s shoulder-length locs. In her essay “Is Your Hair Still Political?”, Lorde wrote about the experience that happened more than 20 years ago. Lorde was shocked that she had been denied entrance to an island predominantly populated by people of color simply because of her natural hair—and she was denied entry by a Black woman, no less.

It is a rude awakening for Black women who live in natural-hair meccas like Brooklyn or Atlanta to find that their hair is not acceptable when they travel abroad. And visiting naturals who expect a “homecoming” in Africa and the Caribbean may be disappointed to find that their hair type is misunderstood in these parts of the world too.

It is a rude awakening for Black women who live in natural-hair meccas like Brooklyn or Atlanta to find that their hair is not acceptable when they travel abroad.

Abosede George, a Nigerian professor at Barnard College whose research focuses on urban history in Africa, pointed out that in West Africa it is usually women of the African diaspora, not Africans, who wear their hair natural.

“Natural hair simply does not mean the same thing to other people as it does to women of the diaspora,” she said.

Beyond the hurdles of being a natural in the US—like being told by your employer that your hair is unprofessional or dealing with people who still think you got a haircut every time you change your style—traveling abroad presents other challenges that naturals need to take into consideration.

What are some cultural perceptions of natural hair around the globe? Most people consider which hair products to pack when taking a trip, but when Black naturals travel, they must also make considerations that extend beyond what can go into a container.

Hair could signify lower social status
Natural hair is gaining popularity in West Africa, but generally, with the exception of braided and twisted styles, straight-hair looks are the default. Because of the history of colonialism, European styles have also tended to signify a higher social status. In some places, people may even assume that a woman wears natural hair because she can’t afford a weave or a relaxer.

The cultural disconnect can be difficult to swallow, especially for Black American women who went natural to connect with their African heritage.

Before Kim Powell, a filmmaker from Atlanta with natural hair, visited Nigeria, a Nigerian woman in America asked her with a tone of caution, “But how will you wear your hair in Nigeria?”

“She wanted me to know that people would think I was a bum if I wore my hair natural,” said Powell through laughter.

The cultural disconnect can be difficult to swallow, especially for Black American women who went natural to connect with their African heritage. Be aware that travel often means that your assumptions will be challenged in some regard. Remember that the people worth meeting are the ones interested in knowing you, not just what they imagine your hair says about who you are.

Religion plays a role
After the immigration attendant denied Lorde entry because of her locs, a supervisor was called. Among the first questions the supervisor asked was “Are you a Rasta?”

Lorde said that she wasn’t, but the intermingling of hair and religion and the implications for Black naturals stayed with her.

In the US and Western Europe, Rastafarians are no longer the sole wearers of locs, and the style is popularly viewed as distinct from the religion. This, however, is not universal. In Ghana, for example, Rastas are commonly considered weed-smoking outcasts. Locs may be considered dirty and unkempt, and anyone who wears them risks being mistaken for a Rasta.

Being asked to explain hair is nothing new for naturals; being asked to explain something as ordinary as one’s hair can feel tedious while reveling in new adventures.

You may be asked to explain your hair
In Egypt, Morocco, and Ethiopia, be prepared for locals calling you the names of Black American pop stars while walking through the streets. Some people may ask to touch your hair. You can feel free to hit them with the “Hell, nah” while Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” plays boldly in your head.

Being asked to explain hair is nothing new for naturals; being asked to explain something as ordinary as one’s hair can feel tedious while reveling in new adventures.

How do you make your hair stand up like that? Did you get a haircut? How did your hair grow so fast? These questions vary depending on where you are traveling and how much people notice your hair in general. But they aren’t dissimilar to what you may have already been asked at home.

You reserve the right to decline speaking about your hair and/or permitting someone to touch it, but bear this in mind: your travels present an incredible opportunity for cultural exchange.

If you’re not in the mood to talk hair, keep it moving. If you are, make sure to soak up everything you want to know about their culture to balance the exchange.

 

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