human behavior

What’s so scary about black hair?

Posted in Habits & Manners, Race & Ethnicity, Sydney, The Expatriate Life by humanb on May 11, 2010

One of the cool things about being black is that you can boast about having a truly original hair texture. The hair textures in Asia, Europe, South America, Australasia and the Middle East have their differences, undoubtedly, but these differences are nothing when you compare any and all of them to African hair.

African hair. There’s just nothing like it. A living monument to chaos, it defies the laws of gravity to follow its own elusive rules. It won’t be contained without recourse to hot irons. It won’t be tamed without chemical torture. It’s a paradox: it looks strong, coarse and durable, when it’s actually weak, brittle, and prone to break.

But it’s more than this. No physical feature has come to shape black culture more – for better or worse – than our hair.  It’s political – shaping intergenerational, inter-family, intra-community, intersex and interracial politics. It’s big business: black women spend a good chunk of their incomes on the top of their heads. And it’s psychological. It’s a rare and impressive woman whose hair doesn’t factor into her sense of self.

So one of the worse things about being black in Australia, is having a truly original hair texture.

I’ve lived in Sydney for 6 years now and have yet to find a regular hairdresser. If you meet another black woman in the streets of Sydney (an uncommon occurrence), perhaps your first questions are “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing here?” but such pleasantries are quickly followed by the most pressing question: “Who does your hair?”

The answer will inevitably be some black immigrant from Africa, the Caribbean or the UK, because segregation is alive and well in the hair industry, people. But these hair dressers are few, far between, and of varying quality. There just isn’t the demand here to generate a quality supply.

So why not go to a white hair dresser?

As different as black hair may be, in the end, it’s still human hair, and cutting hair ain’t rocket science. At least, I thought as much when I decided to call my neighborhood hair salon, the 2008 Australian Hairdresser of the year, that styled the hair of Australia’s Next Top Models.

humanb: Hi, I’d like to make an appointment to get a hair cut. Oh, and I’m black American.

salon: Sorry, we don’t do your kind of hair.

humanb: Oh. Really? None of your hair dressers will do it? [They have multiple stylists, mind you.]

salon: No. Well the owner of the salon may do it, but no one else.

Let’s forget for the moment the humiliation of being rejected without anyone having even looked at my hair. The owner of the salon happens to be the most booked stylist at the salon and the most expensive. While the other stylists charge less than $100 dollars, the owner would have charged me $300 for a hair cut only if I personally and painstakingly chemically straightened my hair beforehand. Given that my short hair requires trimming every 6 weeks or so, that wasn’t on. So several years since that call, I can’t help but to scowl when I pass my neighborhood salon.

I ultimately found one of those rare black stylists: a Caribbean-born stylist from the UK. Like every black hairstylist should be, she was great at working with our texture: she could color, straighten, texturize, braid and weave. But she didn’t cut. Cutting hair of any texture just wasn’t her forte. So she would hire a non-black hair cutter and accustom them to working with black hair. For some reason, these hires never stayed long.

One of theses hires was a buff and beautiful Egyptian barber who gave me an almost illicit head massage before giving me a truly spectacular and high-fashion, super-short hair cut: easily the best cut I’ve ever had. Now I just had to maintain it. Within a month, he was gone.


Since then, the salon has closed, and the black hair dresser has been renting chairs from other salons and trying to convince the hair cutters there to have a go at my head. The last was a lovely Russian woman whose hands would tremble with fear while cutting my hair. I could never get through an appointment without her sighing in frustration and making some remark about how “different” my hair was. And then I’d cough up $80. But hey, at least I had someone trying.

She’s on the other side of the country now.

So over the years I’ve had to train my own hair cutter: my husband. An Aussie lawyer of English and Irish stock, he knows as much about black hair styling as I know about legal due diligence. But God bless that man for grabbing a pair of scissors every two months and following me into the bathroom to do his worst. And God bless him for remarking:

I don’t get why these hairdressers won’t do your hair. I mean my hair is coarse and goes in a hundred different directions. Your’s is just going in one.

Gotta love ’em. I suppose he doesn’t fear my hair because he sees it in every possible state: in the morning, in the rain, in the humid summers, and after months without straightening it. He caresses my head and knows the feel of it between his fingers. It’s different, but it’s just hair, after all.

Alas my hair has reached a stage where it requires skill beyond my husband’s. I desperately need a hair cut. So you can’t imagine my delight when I called the black hairdresser to find that the Egyptian had rolled back into town. She booked me for the next day, sent me the contact details, and I could barely contain my excitement.

So yesterday was my appointment. I didn’t really have time for the appointment, but I made the time. Priorities, after all. I made my way by public transport to the address she gave me and found myself outside a grungy backpacker’s hostel near Sydney’s red-light district. Okay. Young backpackers stood outside smoking, and I stood outside wondering what to do next.  I called the number I was given and the recorded voice explained that the phone restricted incoming calls. Okay. So I asked the young Irishman at the front desk about the Egyptian. I told him the Egyptian was expecting me.

The Irishman kindly escorted me into an old and dingy building, up a narrow flight of stairs, down a dimly lit hall, and to the door at the end of the corridor. Knocking for me, he yelled out to the Egyptian that he had a visitor and promptly left me at the door.

Another young Egyptian opened the door, and I was instantly bombarded by the stench of marijuana and stale food. The room was tiny and dark, but there was enough light through the window to see that the room was trashed, the bed a tangle of dirty sheets. At the end of the room near the window, was my hairdresser reclined in a chair, unmoving. He slowly stood up and walked towards me and his face slowly came into view. He looked strung-out and not remotely sober. I understood very little of what he said to me beyond something about a fight the previous night and his phone being stolen. As I stood in that dark and dirty room with two young men I didn’t know, feeling nauseous by the smell of weed, the only thing on my mind was not high-tailing it outta there, but rather:

So can you do my hair?

With a single-minded focus, I was prepared to stay there if it meant I could get my hair cut. In the end, he explained that he couldn’t do my hair. I was devastated. He gave me several apologies, and asked for my details, suggesting perhaps he could do my hair later in the week. I gave him my phone number reluctantly.

I won’t be seeing him again.

I left angry and dejected. I was angry not at him, but at myself for being willing to go anywhere to get my hair cut. And I was severely disappointed in myself for having had no patience or sympathy for his tale of woe. He said he was beaten up. I’ll be a doctor in less than a year. I could have checked him out, or at least inquired about whether or not he had seen a doctor. Instead I left sulking and cursing this city with its fancy hair salons on every corner – each posting an invisible sign reading “No coloreds allowed”.

This morning I’m thinking more calmly, and now that I’m out of that dark backpacker’s hostel, I see my behavior more clearly. I was selfish and needy. I was desperate and insensitive.

And I’m still in dire need of a bloody hair cut.

♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

UPDATE: God bless the French. I have secured not one, but two(!) young Frenchmen as hair cutters. The second has only just arrived to these shores and after watching the first Frenchman cut my hair (who explained to him in French about my dilemma), the new arrival smiled to me and bowed, saying with an adorably heavy accent “It is my pleasure.” I assume he was referring to cutting my hair in future. 😉

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2 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on May 12, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Wow, where is the permenator when you need him?

  2. humanb said, on June 13, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    lol. The Perminator would be very welcome here, but he has paced up his comb and plastic gloves for more lucrative work!

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