[ Originally written by Odie ( @sweetbtstea ) and edited with permission by @ellaash ]
1.) Treatment of black hair
Black hair and hairstyles are a notoriously touchy subject and for good reason. If you’re an African American and old enough, you’ll know that white American society has constantly been a mess about black hair. During slavery, slaves were often forced to cover their hair because white slave owners thought the texture was hideous.
To this day, white America remains obsessed with black hair to the point of politicizing the state of our hair as it grows out of our head and whether or not how we wear our hair should be deemed “decent,” “professional” or “classy.” Black hair is policed in schools, at work, and in the military.
So with African Americans (I can’t speak for others of black descent; you might need to add the perspective of someone else from elsewhere in the diaspora or Africa…) trying to take control of their own heads … there is little patience for people who do NOT suffer from this politicizing of, shaming of, and attempts to control their hair coming along and appropriating our styles.
We grow tired of many of the same groups that participate in the marginalization, mocking of, and disgust for black hair turning around and congratulating themselves for getting our hairstyles just right.
It ultimately comes down to people thinking black styles are cute on anyone but black people, and the people who take the time to appropriate these styles not caring about the political and social struggles that black people go through regarding their hair, bodies, and lives.
When is it appropriation?
Context is certainly key. It may be possible to appropriate hair braids from a culture that has nothing to do with African Americans (such as certain Native American tribes or Asian communities). Or perhaps it’s a hairstyle that borrows blatantly from vintage European styles.
It’s ignorant to claim that hair braids only ever belong to one group. But context IS key. If someone simply braids their hair into cute pigtails, it’s doubtful anyone’s going to scream “appropriation.” However, if they braid their hair into cornrows, wear hip hop clothing, and insist on using stereotypically black slang terms … it’s going to be a no.
Touching black hair
When it comes to black people and hair, just respect it as you would any other texture of hair. It’s all hair. It’s just that hair has different textures. You may find black hair fascinating and wish to touch it. You should NEVER touch a black person’s hair without permission because that’s both rude and creepy.
In many cultures, the touching of hair is an intimate gesture, one reserved for lovers and close family members. You usually really like, love, and know the person whose hair you’re stroking. This context doesn’t magically vanish because you’re curious about black hair.
Now, it’s possible you’ll ask permission of the black woman or man and they’ll say, “Okay.” Remember, they’re a person, not an animal at a petting zoo. Keep it brief and respectful.
If they say, “No,” please respect that and don’t try to grab or touch their hair anyway. That’s EXTREMELY rude. If they are upset by your question, quickly apologize and explain that you meant no harm and were only curious. That might not spare you their indignity, but then, try to see it from their perspective.
A black person sees themselves as human and as normal as anyone else until a non-black person comes along and insists otherwise in some way, shape or form. This is usually done through exoticizing what should be unremarkable features, commenting on or shaming them for their hair, and at times trying to grab or feel their hair without permission. And, as I mentioned, attempting to control their hair texture and styles through racist social mores.
So…if you wonder why black people are very sensitive about their hair at times, that’s why.
2.) Black names
As with black hair, people have a lot to say about black-sounding names. Some names are considered “ghetto” or low-class purely because they’re associated with African Americans. In fact, studies have shown that people with stereotypically black sounding names are LESS likely to get a call back for a job — even if they have the same qualifications as someone with a “white-sounding name”
(I’ll also note that this type of discrimination isn’t limited to African Americans. People of Latino or Middle Eastern Descent can run into problems as well with white hiring managers.)
Basically, it’s a good idea to be sensitive to the fact that people are proud of their names and you shouldn’t judge or dismiss someone because you feel their name sounds “strange.” Don’t mock or stereotype people based on their name.
Instead, get to know that person and judge them according to their words and actions. Be as respectful of that person’s name and identity as you would hope others would be respectful of you, your name, and your cultural identity.
3.) The n-word
This is a doozy as some people think all black people are n-word fans who just say it every day of the week, and two to three times on Sunday.
FACT: Some black people hate the n-word so much, they don’t want to hear it from ANYONE, even other African Americans.
The word carries heavily negative connotations, and sometimes, this is true when used by black people.
There are black people who will use the word in a negative way to describe other black people who they feel are “undesirables.” (“I love black people, but I hate n-words.”) With this in mind, reclaiming becomes a heavily complicated subject even among black people. Some want to use and reclaim the word and do say it in a positive manner. Others do not wish to reclaim the word because they feel its history is far too toxic. And also, there are still plenty of black people who use it in a derogatory way.
Because the debate goes on among black people, it makes no sense for non-blacks to come along and try to fight us over whether or not we let them call us by a historically derogatory term meant to emotionally harm black people.
If you are not black you have no place in the debate. Period. Respect that and respect the desire of black people who do not want to hear this word from you, no matter HOW you mean it. Your life will not be empty if you don’t get to use the n-word. You will not magically get closer to blackness and being black by using the n-word. Your black friend is not the spokesperson for all black people and just because he or she is cool with it doesn’t mean every other black person you meet must respect your desire to say it.
If you are not the target of the racial hatred that birthed the word, and you don’t have to go through life feeling like today might be your last day on Earth specifically because you’re black, then no, there will never be a day when it’s okay and socially liberating to you or anyone else if you get to say the word, and especially to a black person.
Just say “n-word” when attempting to reference the word. If you don’t know what the n-word IS, google it for spelling. You will find the answer. But the polite way to reference the word if you want to talk about it is to say “n-word”. Trust me…we’ll know which word you’re referring to.
4.) Black stereotypes
In addition to the n-word, racists like to compare black people to gorillas and monkeys. Just don’t compare black people to animals period.
Don’t assume all African Americans are lazy ghetto fools who love to eat watermelon and fried chicken. Do not assume that Africans have bones in their noses, live in huts, and are ignorant cannibals. Do not assume that people who are black are criminals, overly promiscuous, and are magically all good singers and dangers.
Some of us are vegans who are terrible dancers or can’t carry a tune in a bucket or come from stable family backgrounds and are highly intelligent.
Do not think of black people, no matter where they are from, as a monolith comprised of every stereotype you saw on TV or read in a book somewhere.
I PROMISE you that the same racists who fed you those awful stereotypes about black people have more than enough stereotypes that they’ve created about you and your culture. Hurtful stereotypes that no more define who YOU are as a person than these stereotypes define any black person anywhere.
Instead of thinking of people as animals, savages, or criminals…how about making the effort to respect them as your fellow human beings? Don’t go up to them with a, “Is it true?” series of questions about every stupid stereotype you’ve ever heard about black people. Assume it’s a lie, and then do the smart thing — ask that individual about their own life and interests.
5.) Black bodies and skin tone
It is disturbingly common to fetishize and exoticize black features such as our lips, hair, or butts. Please do not merely think of people of African descent in terms of whether or not certain things of a sexual nature are true or false.
Dark skin is a product of melanin. It’s not satanic and it’s not “dirty.” If you touch a black person’s skin, the darkness won’t rub off onto you. I can’t believe anyone would think that in 2018, but as [we’ve seen over the years] … stupidity is a human condition that has yet to go extinct.
Someone is not better or worse than you because of their skin tone. Skin tone and eye color are determined by dominant and recessive genes. The social and racial stigma associated with skin color is a by-product of ignorance and archaic class structures that caused harm and continue to cause harm.
POC around the world are struggling to cope with the nasty effects of colorism, a problem further exacerbated by the myth of white supremacy. Black people are no exception.
Do not dismiss, judge, insult, or harass someone because of their skin tone or body type.
6.) Try to educate yourself
It gets very tiring very fast for black people when they have to deal with people who are not only ignorant about black-related social issues but pointedly insensitive to their concerns. It’s one thing if you genuinely don’t know why certain behaviors or words are hurtful and upsetting. It’s another thing when you don’t know AND don’t care.
It’s likely the “don’t know, don’t care” crowd is beyond educating and are simply content to be part of the problem. But if you are genuinely in ignorance and want to know something, make the effort to educate yourself.
Learn a bit about Jim Crow, Apartheid, the Rwandan genocide (and the notorious lack of response from world powers like the United States). Learn the history behind certain words. Learn to recognize micro-aggressions and “code words.”
Realize that Africa isn’t a country, but a continent filled with MANY rich cultural heritage. It’s the same as “confusing” Koreans with Japanese and Filipinos with Vietnamese. The same type of ignorance that makes it okay to label K-pop “Chinese music” insists that Africans are all indistinguishable from one another. This is far from the truth.
Knowledge is not only power, but it can breed empathy. If you know and understand why people feel a certain way, you can better understand their feelings. In this way, you’re better prepared to make the effort to be a better, more open person.
7.) Cultural differences in terms of dressing.
As one person pointed out:
“In some African countries it’s actually difficult/indecent to wear short skirts/shorts (I mean really short) yet you can leave ‘ a loooot of cleavage’ out. This is unlike European and other cultures where you can wear really short things but a bit of cleavage is perceived a bit insensitive. So people need to remember the differences in culture exist everywhere….and we should educate ourselves more and more every day.”
It’s generally a good idea to understand that how someone dresses changes according to the weather and their cultural norms. You shouldn’t judge others based on your own cultural norms or immediately expect them to adopt your norms overnight.
8.) Compliments that aren’t really compliments
You may feel that your black friend “isn’t like other black people,” but you should avoid saying it because it will never come across as flattering. All you’ve said is that you believe negative stereotypes about people according to your race, and you’re congratulating yourself for making friends with that one rare black person who is somehow a decent human being just like you.
Before you utter this compliment, think very carefully about how much your friend’s blackness has anything to do with your friendship. Do you, in your heart of hearts, see them as “your black friend?”
Why do you put a racial barrier between yourself and this friend that doesn’t come up when you think of other friends? Do you feel the urge to compliment your friend for having “good hair” rather than “nappy hair?” Or for speaking proper English rather than using “ghetto slang?”
Think very carefully about the racially-tinged comments you say to your friend and ways you wish to compliment them.
They may not correct you openly, but it’s possible they may quietly side-eye you for the rest of your life. They may side-eye you at your funeral. They might even side-eye you when they drive past your gravestone.
Learn to love and appreciate your friends, no matter where they are from, for the wonderful people that they are. Build your friendships on what you have in common and enjoy about each other.
And never, EVER use your friendship with a black person as a “get out of jail free card” for saying racist, problematic things. No, you “having black friends” doesn’t mean you’re suddenly immune to racism, to problematic thoughts and behaviors, OR the need to take responsibility for something you may have said or done that caused offense or hurt feelings.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article only represent the views of the author and do not represent the views of BTS ARMY Guide, its partners, the sources used, and/or BigHit Entertainment.