Hair is so personal to ourselves, yet in many ways it is also political. Hairstyles can signal status—gender, affluence, class, or cultures. As Emma Dabiri explores in Don’t Touch My Hair, this is particularly true for Black women. This book goes far deeper than I expected given its length; Dabiri fuses her personal experience growing up Black in Ireland and the United States with meticulous research. The latter takes us from enslaved people in the Americas to Yoruban culture and mathematics to the sprawling, technologically sophisticated cities of African empires. This book is about far more than hair; it is a story of culture and history as it is written on people’s bodies.
As a white person who grew up in a city with a very small number of Black people, Black hair has never been something I have had much familiarity with or call to think about. Somewhere along the way, I learned about the controversial idea of Black people rocking “natural hair” instead of relaxed or straightened hair—but again, my racialization and upbringing meant that I really didn’t understand the internal politics of such decisions. Dabiri is really doing white people a favour when she discusses the history and weight of Black hairstyles, for she helps us understand how colonialism extended its control over Black bodies long past the formal end of slavery. In so doing, we go far beyond the simple eponymous admonishment and actually get to the root (pun intended) of our society’s misogynoir attitude towards Black women’s natural hair.
Dabiri’s grounds her connections between colonialism and hairstyling in her Yoruba heritage, but I suspect similar stories exist from other African cultures. She relates what she has discovered about the role that hairstyling played in Yoruban life, from the status of travelling hairstylists to the way that one’s hairstyle could signal one’s social position, such as a messenger. Dabiri admits that taking care of natural Black hair is time-consuming, then goes on to say:
The time it takes to do Afro hair is, quite frankly, the time it takes to do it. And it is in this fact that a very powerful truth is revealed. Our hair continues to be a space in which the fault lines between an imposed European system and black bodies’ resistance to that system are exposed and played out in real time. Our very bodies are positioned as seemingly at odds with the “British values” imposed by colonialism. As such they are subject to regulatory procedures.
Truly in this paragraph Dabiri demonstrates why it is so necessary for white people like myself to continue, always, to read books about racism by Black people. It isn’t enough to stop at “ok, don’t touch Black people’s hair without asking, and don’t ask to touch a Black person’s hair.” That’s merely being not racist. If one wants to be antiracist, one needs to go deeper than mere behaviours and actually understand the connection between Black hair and the forces that maintain racist oppression. That’s what Dabiri does in the above paragraph and throughout this book, and it is why no white person will ever be an expert on anti-Black racism no matter how many of these books we read.
But one of the benefits of reading to learn more about being antiracist is that it also encourages me to think about how white supremacy, while not oppressing me, also forces me into certain patterns of behaviour. Reading this book inspired me to reflect on how my relationship with my own hair has changed over the past few years, mostly as a result of my transition. Since that isn’t relevant to my thoughts on this book, I turned that reflection into a companion blog post that you can read if you are interested in my thoughts.
Beyond the antiracist education made available in Don’t Touch My Hair, there is just a wealth of cultural and personal knowledge that Dabiri shares. I was not expecting the final chapter to be all about mathematics! It was with such delight that I read Dabiri’s account of research done by white ethnomathematician Ron Eglash. In this way she summarizes how, historically, Yoruban and other African cultures have used hair as a way to describe mathematical knowledge, such as fractals, long before these concepts were laid out in writing by European mathematicians. We often give a tip of our hat in mathematics to the contributions of “Islamic mathematicians” while forgetting that a large portion of Muslims were, indeed, Black Africans. This erasure is, in and of itself, a form of racist revisionist history wherein even as we re-admit Islamic contributions into science and mathematics, we whitewash Islamic scientists and mathematicians just enough that they become palatable to Eurocentric stories of these disciplines.
Dabiri’s point? African people have always participated in scientific and mathematical discovery and innovation long before Europeans showed up in Africa, looked around, and promised to deliver “civilization” by railway at gunpoint. Moreover, African people did this through complex, three-dimensional ways of storytelling, from the construction of their cities and weaving of their clothes to the styling of their hair.
Highly recommend this book to a wide audience, particularly for white people like myself. It isn’t too long, it is rigorously cited, and it is packed full of important ideas and information. Dabiri’s writing challenges you, pushes you to consider your own complicity in these systems, and exposes wide without recourse the ways in which white supremacy continue to oppress Black bodies despite supposedly centuries of freedom. It’s time to change that.