A month ago I was riding the metro in Washington, D.C., when I locked eyes with a cuddling teenage couple sitting across from me. I smiled at them and turned on my iPod.
A few minutes later, my music-induced trance was broken when I sensed that they were talking about me. Through the strains of Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine,” I heard this high school girl with cocoa-colored skin and chemically straightened hair tell her partner that she wanted dreadlocks like mine.
In response, her boyfriend shot her a sharp look, rolled his eyes and snapped, “Really? Dreads are horrible, dirty, and ugly—especially on girls. You’ve got ‘good hair.’ If you want to stay with me, stay pretty and keep your hair straight.”
Giggling anxiously, the girl glanced at my iPod to confirm that I wasn’t listening to their conversation before reassuring him, “I was just kidding. I’ll keep my hair nice.”
I turned up the volume and took some deep breaths to calm my anger. Did they realize how hateful they sounded? As they walked off the train hand in hand, I fought the strong urge to scream, “Don’t date him, girl!”
I wish I could say this the first time I’ve overheard that kind of conversation, but it’s not. I’ve been hearing variations on it my whole life. As a southern-born African-American girl who attended predominantly white boarding schools, I am well acquainted with the sexism, racism, and colorism that shape people’s attitudes toward black hair. Strangers, friends, family, and ex-loves have tried to make me feel bad about my hair throughout my life. For a long time, it worked. But then one day I decided that I was done attaching my self-esteem to what other people think I should look like.