As a woman with natural hair, the daily struggle is not my wash routine (which can be an event in itself). No, it’s the little comments or suggestions about my hair that have become exhausting and well, quite annoying to hear. Sure, sometimes, questions or comments may seem harmless, but in context, they’re actually microaggressions. So, we put rounded up nine problematic phrases to avoid saying to people with natural hair. Plus, the one thing to say instead.
9 Things You Should Stop Saying to People with Natural Hair
1. “How often do you clean your hair?”
This is one of the most frequently asked questions about natural hair. It should go without saying that you should never ask anyone about their cleaning habits—natural hair or not. This question is often aimed at Black and Brown communities and feeds into the stereotypes that these groups don’t have good hygiene all around. As a natural hair gal, I’ll answer it for you so you don’t make the mistake of making someone else uncomfortable. Wash routines can differ from person to person. It all depends on hair type, hair texture and build-up (aka porosity). But on average, coily and curly gals wash their hair about one to two times a week.
2. “Can I touch your hair?”
Alexa, play “Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange. The million-dollar question that makes people with natural hair feel like an animal in a zoo. We are not your doggo or a nice velvet couch. Just like the signs state very clearly in the museum, you can look but don’t touch under any circumstances.
3. “Wow, this is so soft.”
So you failed #2 and now you’re tossing over a backhanded compliment. Ugh. Stephanie Sengwe, associate editor at PureWow explains why this phrase is so offensive: “I'm not even sure how to react to this half the time. Like do I take it as a compliment because you thought it would be rough and it isn't? Or should I actually be offended by that?” It’s another misconception about natural hair that has negative implications.
4. “Your hair looks better straight.”
Yes, people can be this bold. There are variations of this phrase that implies straight hair is superior to wavy, curly or coily hair. History has shown time and time again that if hair isn’t fine, straight and/or simple (aka no twists, braids, etc) it’s not professional. Today, many folks still face with hair discrimination in the workplace, at schools and even from their own circles. For most of us (including myself), these comments are the reason it took so long to join the natural hair movement. If you think someone looks awesome with a blowout, just say, “Love the blowout!” This way you can share your compliment without suggesting natural hair isn’t as good.
5. “I like you better because you have natural hair.”
Again, having “better” in your compliment doesn’t actually make it a nice statement. In the case of this one, Sengwe received this comment a lot when going on dates. “I mostly get this from guys. Somehow natural hair gives the impression that I'm low-maintenance,” she explains. “But one trip to the beauty supply store and one wash day usually sobers all that down.” So take “better” out of your vocabulary. There are ways to flirt and/or compliment someone without making them feel like they can’t change their appearance because you approve of one style.
6. “How do you get it like That?”
This question makes it seem like natural hair is a new style or concept of the 21st century. FYI, hair comes in many shapes and sizes. How it "gets like that" can all depend on well, genetics and a go-to wash routine. “I respond with ‘water,’” says Magdaline Hurtado, founder of Hello Updo. “My hair grows curly out of my head. It’s crazy how people think there’s only one texture. They expect me to say it’s permed and half the time they just don’t believe it’s real.”
7. “Are you mixed with something?”
Two words: red flag. Yup, we are filing this one under microaggressions 101. See, some believe that Black and Brown communities can't have long, straight and/or overall healthy hair. Those "good" qualities have often excluded these communities and think the only ones to have these types of hair characteristics are white and/or mixed. Nakeisha Campbell, an associate editor at PureWow, expressed her frustration with this question: “Because of my hair's length, some people have assumed that I'm part Indian or part Spanish...because apparently, that's the only reasonable explanation for why I've retained length. And that's just not the case. Black people who aren't mixed can also grow long, healthy, natural hair.”
8. “Does your hair grow?”
Another misconception about natural hair is that it has a hard time growing. Like anyone, some folks with natural hair do deal with hair loss and growth issues. Regardless, this question can make someone defensive (like yes, my hair grows just like yours) or feel insecure about a problem that’s out of their control. “It’s very insensitive especially when it comes to shrinkage and then it makes me feel like I have to explain and prove myself,” said Chabreah Alston, licensed creative arts therapist.
9. “Is that your real hair?”
This question (along with “Is that all your hair?”) is super problematic. It’s another example of stereotypes that Black and Brown people can’t have “real” hair. Oftentimes, these communities have been associated with only using wigs and extensions. While these protective styles and looks have been a staple for some, we can also choose to wear our hair naturally too. (Oh, and either option is 100 percent OK and none of your business.) “Every time I have my hair out people always find the need to ask me if all of my hair is mine and proceeds to tell how lucky I am or ‘I wish I can grow my hair like that.’” said Lavonnie Barthelmy, an administrative assistant.
And some honorable mentions….
These rapid-fire questions need no context because they speak for themselves. They come across as outright rude and harmful—no matter how you say it. You might get away with the nine above but these call for a bigger discussion.
- “Your hair is so...big!”
- “You’re so brave for wearing your hair like that.”
- “Does a comb/brush ever get stuck in there?”
- “Your hair is not professional/cute/etc.”
So, what do say instead?
The first step is not commenting on someone's appearance ever (especially if you don't give that same energy to other hair textures or types). Just admire different styles other than your own from afar. But, if you want to throw out a compliment (or two), "I love your hair!" or "Your hair looks amazing today" is straightforward without the potential insinuation that their natural hair is out-of-place or exotic. Oh, and how someone gets their hair "soft," "long" or "clean" might be useful to do a Google search or two if you're so curious and have your own hair issues to solve.
And one more thing, don't touch a natural gal's hair. Ever.