What Not To Say To Women With "Ethnic" Hair

"What are you?" It's a common cocktail party question inspired by my "ethnic" hair. More often than not, only one answer will satisfy my interrogator: a one-word, fill-in-the-blank racial label. My naturally dark, thick, curly hair makes me stand out — the logic being that white girls have straight, thin, light-colored princess tresses... so what on earth is going on with mine? Thus, the question presents a dilemma.

My optimistic do-gooder side sees this as an opportunity to educate, to have a level-headed conversation about race, ethnicity, and standards of beauty around the world and throughout history. But my "girl, be real" side sees this as an opportunity to roll my eyes and grab another drink because I'm tired, annoyed, and don't want this rando touching my hair. Luckily for the sake of grass-roots activism (and AmeriCorps pride), Polyanna usually wins. Partially, at least. There's only so much you can explain or unpack over cheese and crackers.

One reason we "ethnic-haired" ladies may find this question offensive is that it puts us on the spot, thereby robbing us of our agency. People should have the choice of how to define their identity based on their heritage, upbringing, and lifestyle, on and in their own terms — not because someone is bored at a party.

Women with "ethnic" hair may not feel comfortable openly identifying themselves at a cocktail party for any number of personal and political reasons. Maybe they fear that doing so will put them at greater risk for racial profiling, hate crimes, or sexual coercion during or after the party. Maybe current events, such as war, genocide, or recent legislation, prevent them from opening up in what is supposed to be a fun, social situation. Maybe they just don't plain feel like it. All of these reasons have applied to me at one point or another.

My own racial and ethnic identity is complex. The simplest way to define it without oversimplifying is probably "Salvadorian-Scottish-American." My mother is from El Salvador, a small Central American country that's often familiar to Americans because of its horrible civil war, the global gang, MS-13, and the recent influx of unaccompanied minors in the U.S. Genealogical research indicates that her ancestors were indigenous Mesoamericans and Sephardi Jews, the Jews of Spain and Portugal. My father is American-born, and of mixed British descent (family names include Stoddard, Wells, Orrick, Allred, and others). We can trace ancestors, maternal and paternal, who came to the U.S. from Scotland and England as early as the 1600s and as late as the 1840s. That one-or-two word reply to the "what are you" question just doesn't apply to me — or most people, for that matter.

Labels, especially one-word labels, are limiting, attached to too many stigmas and stereotypes. Identifying yourself can put you in a situation of "us" and "them." The problem is that you may be the only one to represent your entire race, ethnicity, or nationality, which is not only complicated but a huge responsibility. Sometimes I want to discuss U.S. involvement in El Salvador's civil war, the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition, or the conundrum of Scottish independence; other times I don't. Sometimes you want to step up; other times, you have to step down for the sake of your emotional health.

Talk about a big burden for a conversation about hair.

Another reason I hate when someone stares at my hair and asks about my race is, depending on the interrogator, my answer doesn't matter. The question can be an in for giving me a makeover, which often translates into making me "look whiter." I've often had women I've just met refer me to a salon for keratin treatments or recommend anti-frizz hair products. In high school and college, lukewarm acquaintances would invite me over to flat-iron my hair in what they perceived to be an entrance to friendship. I never saw it that way.

To quote my former classmate, Mari Pack, a Jewish-American woman who now lives in Israel, "In North America, my hair is my point of difference from hegemonic whiteness." Ditto. Most of the year, I am light-olive. Though I tan very easily, it is my almost always my "ethnic" hair, not my complexion, that prompts the question of my race. I'm not interested in "passing." I'm interested in looking and feeling comfortable, with good health to boot. Hopefully it means looking like me, whether that means "white" or not.My friend, Cheyenne Glenn, an African-American woman from Washington, D.C., says, "It was a journey for me to love my hair. There was so much out there telling something was wrong with it." My old classmate, Leah McKoy, who's half black and half white and lives in Richmond, VA, agrees. "As a very little girl, I honestly wasn't too confident about [my hair]," she says. "I wanted straight hair because it was easier to maintain and it moved in the wind. It also didn't help that my poor mom didn't know what to do as far as taking care of it ... I think we should make sure that all little girls embrace themselves."

After my own journey to self-love and acceptance, I refuse to be bullied into straightening what my mother lovingly calls my "lamby locks." (Even though lambs don't have locks, Ma.) Pro-tips or no pro-tips, I'm keeping my "ethnic" hair. A more tasteful and sensitive way to start a conversation about a woman's "ethnic" hair would be to compliment it or mention your own recent hair experience (e.g., a trip to the salon, trying out a new product.) This gives her a choice to share what she wants to share instead of forcing her to answer a direct question. After hearing, "You have pretty hair," I'm likely to say thank you and add a note about my ethnicity because I'm proud of my heritage. It gave me, among other things, my hair and I've learned to take pride in that. With a compliment, I'm put at ease because I don't feel an impromptu makeover coming on. If you complain about a bad haircut or dye job from your past, I might talk about how hard it can be to find a stylist who knows how to work with my hair. That might get me started on the broader topic of salons and "ethnic" hair. (One frustration is that many stylists try to persuade me into straightening my hair.)Under no circumstances should you ask a woman you've just met to touch her hair. Many pregnant women complain about strangers touching their bellies; the issue of personal space remains the same when it comes to our locks. Touching someone's hair is an action only appropriate between friends, and only then if you have a relationship where hugging or other touching normally occurs. The exception to this rule is if a woman invites you to touch her hair, which may happen if you're talking about salon or hair products.There is nothing wrong with admiring a woman's "ethnic" hair or wanting to learn about haircare for thick, curly, or coarse hair if your curiosity is genuine, stems from no other agenda, and you respect her right to share only as much as she wishes. What is wrong is cornering a woman for her hair, figuratively or literally.

Images: Christine Stoddard; David Fuchs