Four lovely women, a fifth one coming later, volunteered their time on a January afternoon in 1998 to sit down at Salon Utopia and chat about hair. Here are the details of their chat which will hopefully stimulate your own discussions.
Naila (with locks): People ask me what is that…what you mean what is it…can you comb that out…I’ve had people from Jamaica asking me about my locks…what do you mean what is that?
Malene (with an afro): Have you forgotten what it’s like when you relax your hair?
Naila: I’ve had Jamaican men ask me if I could comb it out – that’s psycho! Dreadlocks started in Jamaica, well like Rastafarianism started in Jamaica. They know about Rastas, and they should know about locks, and they should know that you can’t comb out locks, because you’re hair is locked.
Frank (with locks): It’s down to about here (middle of back) so when I’m on the bus, it falls over on the seat, and they pull it. They want to know if it’s extensions, if it’s real. They want to feel how it feels. I don’t know about you, but my dreads are clean, and I don’t want your grubby paws on me.
REAL HAIR, FAKE HAIR, BLACK WOMEN:
Hirut (long curly hair that is hers): I get that from people too, is it real. I get that from Black people and White people too. It’s my hair. I don’t go around asking people if I can touch your hair.
Malene: Touch your ass, touch your balls, it’s the same kind of thing. I don’t know about you but for me this (indicating head) is a very sensitive area.
Frank: It’s your face.
Hirut: Also, people identify me with my hair.
Frankie: Also, they look at you and they say she’s a Black woman, Black people only come in these particular hues, and this particular kind of hair, it’s really static.
Malene: They can’t have long hair.
Frank: Right, that’s the conception. You can only be one kind of Black woman. It’s only this kind of hair, this kind of texture.
PERSONAL HAIR HISTORIES:
Frank: My hair history…I’ve been a dread for about 3,4 years. Before that I just had normal regular my hair, no chemicals, no anything. I just got to a point where I got lazy. I didn’t want to comb it, I didn’t want to coif it, I didn’t want to spend the half an hour to an hour to make myself look presentable. I said to hell with it, I’m going to do it, I’m just going to let my hair dread.
Hirut: My hair has pretty much been the way it is right now for all of my life. The first time I really cut it in Canada was about 10 years ago. My Mom flipped. I wanted to cut my bangs. Bangs from hell. I didn’t cut it for quite a long time, but then again it was so hard to handle. Very frustrating. I don’t comb my hair; I comb it when I wash it once a week.
Malene: I first cut my hair when I was around 15 or 14. Before then, I was just using the pressing comb, doing that ghetto styles with my hair.
Hirut: I used to use the iron for my hair. My sister used to iron my hair for me. That makes it really straight.
Malene: I just used the comb, and I heard the sizzle. I was turning 15 and for my 15th birthday I was going to a salon and they cut it all off, and I was traumatized for about 2 months. But then I befriended my hair stylist, they also damaged it and I was going every week because they let me have free appointments until it gets better. It was terrible because I was there every week until I was 19 and a half. Every week…four years. After a while, they’d use me occasionally for a model, I was in the salon all the time, and one time I was there for 9 hours.
Frankie: What were you doing there for 9 hours?
Malene: I’d be waiting, then they’d condition it, and then I’d be waiting, then it would dry, and I’d be waiting for them to do what they had to do. I relaxed it, so they would be blow-drying it straight, sometimes styling it, colouring it. After awhile I got frustrated wasting 8 hours a week, solely on my hair. I ended up having to buy lots of products. Black products…the good ones are really expensive and I was thinking I could be doing so much with this money. I could be buying a new pair of shoes, or books, something. And I also got into a fight with these guys. The relationship ended up being…they weren’t just my hairstylist, they were like my gurus in a way. I became debilitated in a way.
Frank: Because of your hair…what a statement.
Malene: It’s true. Many Black women don’t know how to handle their hair and so these guys do and they would do such a good job with it that I didn’t do anything with it, I just let them do everything.
Hirut: I’ve been 3 times to a stylist. All they would do is straighten it. This is a chance for them to do something creative, and they didn’t, and I’m paying them.
Malene: They did really amazing hairstyles. Every week I had a new hairstyle, so the novelty wore off. I felt kind of off, I just wanted to stabilize myself, so I shaved my head. I was cutting my ties big time. I stopped talking to them. Going to the salon, spending 8 hours talking about hair, fashion, this, that, all these superficial things. I would sometimes have deep conversations with people, but I just didn’t like who I was. So, shaved my head, and for the past 2 years, it’s been like an afro. Every time it would start dreading out, I would cut it. But now I’m ready to go full dread, I’m just too lazy to actually do it. It’s so easy because now all I do is wash my hair, towel dry it, and then I’m out the door, pick it, and that’s it.
Naila: I went through the same pressing comb stuff when I was about twelve. It was kind of like a rite of passage, because when I was about twelve years old, all the women in my family, well my sister was getting her hair permed, and I was turning twelve, so it was my turn to get my hair permed. But my Mom had to wait until she was much older to get her hair permed. But she didn’t really have a big issue with it, because I always used to get it pressed, but since it got humid (laugh) it was over. You’d go to school with this great style, these nice ponytails, and then it would rain. Then you’d walk home with an afro. So I got it permed. I remember being very concerned about getting my hair permed, why am I getting my hair permed. Everybody said it would be more manageable. It’s a very odd idea that taking your hair away from it’s natural state it can make it more manageable.
Malene: We’ve never learned to manage our hair, they’ve never taught us that. It’s also learning to work with the naps.
Frank: We have been taught…if you came from the West Indies, you have been taught to manage your hair. You braid it, you cainrow it, you do wonderful things with it. But they’re Black things. It’s not the carefree White hair hanging down blowing in the wind. It’s something different, but we want to get away from the cainrow and the beads.
Hirut: On Friday nights I don’t go out, I do my hair. If I don’t do it on Friday, I have like really bad hair for 2 weeks, because the schedule is all screwed up.
Naila: Yeah, so I got my hair permed. And I did the gel and the side parts and the buns and the bobs, and I had the curl and I had the styles and what not. And I had a really bad experience getting my hair permed because the next day there was blood on my scalp because the woman was having a conversation with someone while doing my hair. There were chunks of blood on my scalp. My scalp was just covered with blood, it was completely damaged. It was the first time I had gone to the salon on my own. Because Saturday, my Mom and sister and I, we’d go to the salon, there all day watching soap operas and listening to the salon talk. We’d go about once a month, but always on a Saturday. Then I was like no, this is not happening, so I cut it off. And I remember the guy in the salon was like, are you sure you want to cut it. I said sure, I want to cut it. He said if you cut it, you’re not going to have any hair. He only cut it in a bob and asked do you want it lower, and I said, cut off my hair, keep on cutting until there’s no more perm. He gave me this box cut hair, and people were insinuating afterwards that I was a Lesbian. What do you mean a Lesbian? If you have short hair. Then I had to go to a real barber to get it done right, with the fade, and then I was in business. And that was a real trauma for my family.
Malene: Well, that’s another issue when cutting your hair. You’re so-called sexuality and your family or whatever. It’s like you’re sexless if you cut your hair.
Frank: My Mom always says, a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.
Malene: I was just thinking with the scabs on my scalp, I went through relaxers in my eye. Like he dropped relaxer in my eye. And it still has damage here a little bit. And you go back, and you say I’ll forgive you for that. And the burns on the back of the neck.
Frank: It’s torture.
Malene: Yes, it’s to keep that womanly look. To have that bone straight look and have my hair on my shoulders and have it swing and bounce.
Frank: Womanly, that’s a touchy issue. Because you’re still womanly with a short cut.
Hirut: We understand that now.
Malene: It’s also when you’re 16, 17 years old…you can’t be telling that to someone that age. That was my high drama.
Naila: That was really cool. For 2 something years I had it natural. My Mom and I got back into that mother-child, like daughter relationship, because she would do my hair for me again. And she hadn’t done my hair since I was 8, or 9, or 10. And I would be getting the China bumps again and I learned to braid my own hair. And I would have this huge afro that I would just blow out and mind you this wasn’t the 80s, it was like ‘94, and I was just like I don’t care. The guys too that I knew, were like T-Boz (from TLC) has a great cut, Left-Eye (from TLC) has a great cut. You could do that to your hair. You could do what whatever’s doing. And I was like, no, no, I’m happy. Then I went away and I came back, and I was stuck, I have to wash my hair. I don’t have 3 hours to wash my hair, then oil it, then China bump it. And I was like Gail, my sister, perm it. And she was like are you crazy. And I was like perm my hair, I just did not have 3 hours to perm my hair. So just 2 hours later, I just threw it all away, I just didn’t want to go through the whole thing of doing it. It just wasn’t me, it just didn’t look like me. So I cut it off again.
Hirut: You know what, when I cut off my hair it was in the summer, it was during exam time. My hair needed to be washed, and I hadn’t washed it. I was like, I have to cut my hair. I went home and I just cut my hair. I didn’t even comb it out because that would take time. Then I washed it, and it felt so good. The amount of shampoo it took to wash it was like half. And I got out of the shower and it took half the time. It was just very nice. It was very liberating having half the hair to take care of. It was the whole thing that I don’t have time to wash it, comb it, and then style it. I’ve got other things going on in my life.
THE CHEMICAL-USING SALON EXPERIENCE:
Frank: I never understood that, you’d see these women go into the salon and they’d have this nice coif, and then the next day you’d see them in a ponytail.
Malene: That’s because they slept on it wrong. They didn’t prop the pillows up properly.
Naila: They didn’t have the correct satin head wraps. (Laughs)
Frank: All that trouble to perm your hair, to relax your hair, and you go through the burning, and the scalp, and the eyes, and the money, but to put it in a pony tail.
Naila: But when you’re hair is straight, you have the ponytail option. When you have a big afro, there is no ponytail.
Frank: My experience is so different from yours. I’ve been to a salon once in my life, and that was to cut off my dreads. That was all I wanted from them. My hair wouldn’t do an afro. I would die for an afro, I would wish for an afro. It would do this; it would be flat on the top. And I’d tease it, tease it, tease it some more. I would try to get it to pouf, and just look at it, just limp. I braided my hair. I spent 10 hours braiding my hair; I wanted that so much, I didn’t want the other stuff. I wanted it to stay, because it would unravel so much. It wasn’t torture for me to deal with my hair. I liked going through those rituals.
Hirut: For me, it’s like I identified with my hair. For me to cut my hair, I’m like scared. I want to cut it short, short, short. My sister’s hair was to her waist, but recently, she’s like almost bald.
Naila: The other thing is that you can’t wash your hair before it’s going to be permed, you can’t wash your scalp. Because when that lye hits your pores and you scratch it, you’ll be bawling. I’ve seen women in the salons with tears running down their eyes, but they’re not washing out the perm for anybody, because they have roots, and they want the roots to be gone. They will stand and they will sit there and take it. They will take it, they will take it, take it, take it.
Malene: The good salons know that they would never put it down to the base of your scalp. They’ll never put the actual relaxer on your scalp.
Naila: But that’s what people want.
Malene: But the real salons, they won’t do it, because they know that if they put it there, you can end up losing all the skin in that area, and all the hair there too.
Naila: What this is, it’s just such a denial of how you come to this earth. There’s one thing if you’re doing it as a style and you’re relaxing your hair because you want a certain hairstyle. But when you believe that’s the only way you can wear your hair. If you sincerely believe that your hair can only be worn in the way other than how it naturally wants to be, then I just don’t understand.
GETTING DOWN TO THE ROOTS OF THE MATTER:
Malene: What I find funny is that those women who believe this is my hair, and the extension. I laugh when people come up to me and they ask, how do you do that. I laugh and I say don’t you remember, this is what happens when you don’t relax your hair.(Laughter) I do have odd hair in a way, the way it’s such a tight curl. And people come up to me and ask, how can I get that? You stop relaxing and you’ll get it.
Naila: I can’t get my hair to look like that. And that’s the thing about Black people, because the way my hair takes a perm, to how my sister takes a perm, and my Mom is all different, and we’re all in the same bloodline. My Mom can perm her hair all year long, but she will still when she wets it, have a wave. My hair is dead straight. So we all have our own, yes we’re all women, but we all have a completely different hair texture. And I have like 8 hair textures in my hair.
Malene: We’re willing to deal with our hair textures. Many people are just like, put it in extensions, put a weave on it.
Hirut: It’s all about pride, and being creative. I do different things, I don’t get bored. It’s not somebody else who’s doing my hair for me, I’m doing it myself. And I’m not burning myself, there’s nothing destroying my brain.
Frank: There’s a difference between perming your hair and doing styles with that hair. I used to think that women who went and permed their hair wanted the white hair, and then when they went and curled it, they wanted the curly version of the white hair. I thought it was crazy. But then I realized, if it’s about style, press the hair, it can go back to its natural state. If it’s about style and variety, then why not do that instead of permanently altering the chemical make-up of your hair.
Malene: There’s that whole notion that you don’t look beautiful with natural hair, and running your fingers through it. It’s not happening, breaking nails. How many combs have I broken, how many teeth are missing from my comb.
Naila: There is no running hands through hair, that’s just a crazy lie.
[Judy, with locks, comes and joins the group]
Hirut: My hair breaks my nails. If I attempt to put my hands in it (laughs).
Malene: I have no desire to have my hands running through my hair. I like it the way it is.
Naila: Now I enjoy taking care of my hair.
Malene: Giving yourself massages…
Naila: Yeah, now it’s an enjoyable experience. Yeah, it’s nice.
ANOTHER PERSONAL HAIR HISTORY:
Judy: My name’s Judy and I’ve had my hair like this for the past six years. I had my hair in dreadlocks since I graduated from film school in Calgary. I decided I was going to go and do it because there weren’t very many Black people in Calgary. I felt like I was kind of disappearing. So I felt like I had to go and do something about it, and I did. I walked into a Black hairdressing salon and I asked the woman how can I get dreadlocks. And she said, just don’t comb your hair. That’s it, yup, don’t comb your hair. Another friend of mine told me that you can help your dreads along if you twist a bit after you wash your hair. And I really enjoy this hairstyle the most after I’ve had a lot of things. I’ve had the braids, the weave, Jherri Curls, remember those…
(Laughter and comments)
I’ve tried them all. I think I have sort of a sensitive scalp too. I don’t like anything pulling on my scalp, so dreads have really been great for me. It’s a really low maintenance hairstyle, so if I have to work really long hours I don’t have to worry too much about anything. Definitely it’s a look for a woman of the 90s. However, we’re living in a White society, it’s a bit difficult, sometimes I think the way people perceive you. They see the image of a gangster when you have dreadlocks on. I’ve had a lot of different reactions. It’s either people really like you, and they want to come up and talk to you because they assume you’re counter-culture and they want to talk to you. Or, I’ve had like little ladies cringing, things like that. But it’s been very good. A lot of Black people come up and talk to me now, they feel more comfortable talking to me.
Frank: Do you feel you know every dread in Montreal? I feel like I know every dread in Montreal. You walk up to them and you do a head nod.
Judy: Yeah, that’s right.
Frank: I love that, I really love that. You get that kind of shock, with anybody?
SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY:
Judy: Usually, it depends on the age. I find that with young people, they’re cool with it. Some people, some older people, not all people, have a harder time with it. It depends on what you do for a living. I could not have my hair like this if I worked at the Bank of Montreal, or something like that.
Frank: But you could, that’s the funny thing.
Malene: I worked with about 6 Black women at the Bank of Montreal. And all of them looked at me funny because they were like you just don’t look neat, you don’t look finished, professional enough to be presenting presentations. They just have this mind set that if you relax your hair you have a more polished look, and no matter how polished I look, I still look a little bit rustic, not rusty.
Frank: It’s true. I beg to differ somehow. I’ve seen dreads in a lot of places they should be. I go into big companies with big head honchos and I go in there with my hair waving around and you have to listen to me, you have to listen to my mouth. I know as soon as I turn my back they are thinking all kinds of things.
Hirut: Are you sure that it’s not because you’re a Black woman with dreads. I’m sure if you were a Black man, you probably wouldn’t be able to come into the office.
Frank: But there’s a big difference in the way of the confidence level. I don’t want to be a natty dread, I’m not a Rasta, there’s a big difference between me being a Rasta and a dread. I aspire to be a Rasta, but I’m not. Neatness does matter to me, I don’t want nasty looking hair, so that comes into it. I’ve never had that problem, but if I had, I guess I didn’t approach it that way, or see it.
Naila: I think that people always think about how White people the quote unquote corporate North America will view it. But I don’t think White people know enough about Black hair to know the difference from locks, from braids. (Laughter) Sincerely, what I think is because I know that when I started locking my hair, my grandmother sat me down and spoke to me about it and told me her concerns. Because she was saying that in Jamaica if you’re hair is locked, that means that you’re a Rastafarian, they don’t have dread and Rasta. When I went to Jamaica, that meant I was a Rasta. That week I was there, I was a Rasta. I was like no, I’m a dread. They were like no, if you’re hair is locked, you’re a Rasta. I’m like okay. But here there is a distinction. She sat me down and she said how people are going to view you from our country and our culture is that you are a Rastafarian and with that you have a lot of negative connotations. But I don’t think that a lot of North American White people know about Rastafarians.
Frank: They know Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh, and all of those people.
Naila: I wouldn’t even go as far as Peter Tosh, it might be Bob Marley (Laughter). But the thing is, they just see it as another style that we have.
Frank: But they’ve adopted that style too.
Naila: But they don’t have the same connotations that Black people have of dreadlocks. So I don’t know if it really matters that much if you’re in a bank with dreads, or extensions, or a weave, or a perm. You know, because they don’t have the distinctions. Whereas a Black person that walks into a bank, will notice the difference between a perm, braids or locks. And they’ll probably treat you differently between a perm, braids and locks.
BLACK MEN AND HAIR:
Frank: You said something I think is quite poignant. Because if I were a man, that whole set up between a man and me, a Black man in White society is completely different. They’re scared of Black men period, and a dreaded Black man…oh God, they’re going to come and shoot the place up. So maybe I wouldn’t be able to do that.
Hirut: Already a man with long hair is not acceptable, so like Black, dread, and long hair…it’s just not kosher. (Laughter).
A HAIR WRAP:
Hirut: Hair wraps though, I started using them recently. The first time I started using them I felt odd, like everyone was staring at me. But it comes in much handy, when I don’t comb my hair, when I have like a bad hair day, it’s this miracle, I just wrap my hair…
Malene: It also shows your face more, and when people wrap their hair it’s just beautiful because you get to see just them.
SHE IS STILL WORKING HARD FOR THE MONEY-MORE THAN 9 TO 5:
Judy: I have a question for the dreads? Have you guys noticed if you’re treated differently before you had dreads and now you have dreads when you go out on the job hunt?
Frank: No, it’s pretty much been the same thing. Talk to them on the phone, and then you show up and it’s like…(her mouth drops). I tend to try to tie my hair back when I go, the first time, so it’s not so noticeable. You don’t want that to be the first image they see. There is a difference, I have to talk my way around it more.
Hirut: Are you sitting at the interview thinking are they looking at my hair, are they thinking about my hair?
Frank: I really try to make my hair as inconspicuous as possible, so it’s not the first thing they see. I know that the minute I see a little thing sticking out, I have to do some fast talking, or they’re not going to bite. Because the connotation is there, if you are a dread, you’re smoking up, you know, that’s what you’re doing, you’re not doing anything constructive. I think from the Whites that I know that have adopted a dreadlock hairstyle, they know a bit, but not as much as a West Indian, or an African would know, but they know more about it. The older ones, I don’t think they have a clue.
Judy: Unfortunately it’s not the hip ones who are working in human resources. (Laughter)
Malene: Have you had problems when you would go out on the job hunt?
Judy: I think being Black is enough of a shock usually. And the fact that I’m a woman as a camera operator in film and video, I’m already out on the edge, so. I don’t really think that makes too much of a difference, but I think it would make more of a difference if I was looking for a job in an office, or working at Jean Coutu in a pharmacy. I think it would be something different.
Frank: That’s true, I haven’t really seen a lot of dreads working in cosmetics and things like that.
Naila: I really haven’t had any problems with it, because I don’t have a problem with it. I just feel like it’s not an issue for me. It’s not an issue for me. But then the work I’ve been pursuing is on a part-time basis, I am still in school. But I plan to work in broadcast TV. But I will be on TV, and I will be reading the news, and people will be, but what is this, but that’s how life go. And it comes from too many years of watching TV and not seeing anybody that looked like anybody I knew, like close in my family. So, for me it’s not an issue, and that’s a lot of reasons why my family counselled me against it.
Frank: You just put your best foot forward when you go. You don’t have one sticking out like this (hand in the hair).
Naila: That’s how I look in the morning. (Laughter)
WHITE PEOPLE AND LOCKS:
Hirut: White people that you come across with dreads, do they identify with you. Do they act like they can identify with the Black cause because they have dreads?
Frank: I know they try.
Judy: Out west it’s different. When I was out west I was like what is with all these white people, blond people with dreadlocks. For them, it’s like the hippie thing, the Sinead O’Connor look, it’s like all that kind of gang that are in it. It’s like they’ve distanced themselves from the Black experience.
Naila: You know that in 5 years, they are going to be like clean-shaven…
Malene: Not even 5 years.
Naila: I know for me what I’ve found with my hair that you’re forever teaching. It’s like you’re forever teaching all the time. Can I touch it? It’s not a petting zoo. I have to tell people you can’t come behind and touch my hair.
Frank: You should charge them. (Laughter)
Naila: The most recent experience was when a man came up to me and he said, I don’t know if I should say this but you look like Medusa with you hair, I said see, you and me have to talk. It is an issue, you know. It is an issue. But the more of us out there that are just going on with our lives…
Frank: I don’t explain my hair to anybody, not even my mother.
NOTION OF PASSING AND HAIR:
Judy: My mother is really status quo. She said, if you ever want to change your hairstyle, I’ll pay for the hairdresser. The question I think of trying to assimilate, you live in a White culture, you should try and assimilate.
Frank: To pass as much as possible. No, I don’t explain my hair to anybody. If a Black person asks me, I say just leave it alone, don’t play with it, that’s different. But I’m not explaining my hair to…no, I’m not doing it. You don’t explain your hair and your hair rituals to me in the morning, I don’t want to know. So why should I explain mine to you.
Naila: I see it differently. Most Black people can’t wash their hair everyday, no. It becomes tedious, but this is like an opportunity for them to know. Maybe it’s not my job.
Frank: I can’t explain for every Black woman, I can only explain for me. And I don’t.
Judy: There was a dreadlock in Calgary and I went up and talked to him and he said, mother nature, that was his explanation. (Laughter)
Frank: I like that.
Naila: People would get into big discussions with me about why I locked my hair, and finally I just said, who feels it knows it, as Bob says in his songs. And that’s it.
OTHER CULTURES AND HAIR:
Naila: The thing that’s weird…do other people do this stuff. With Black people there is such a cultural and political culture that you’re hair is in. It’s never just a style. I know some guys who will only check for those who have natural hair, and some guys will not check a woman who has her hair natural. I don’t see other cultures or races having to do that.
Frank: Sure they do, it’s just different.
Malene: It might be the actual colour of their hair.
Naila: But it’s not a political statement.
Frank: Please, go to Japan. We have to deal with hair, we have to deal with body type, we have to deal with skin colour, we have to deal with a whole lot of things that are not of the White people. But then you have Asian people, there are a whole set of different imperatives that they have to deal with. So you’ll have Chinese women going in to put in a bone so they’re eyes are not like that, and blonding, it’s insanity, whatever you do to make you more White. There are Indians who will not marry anybody close to our colour. They’re Indians, but no, no, no, you’re too black.
Hirut: I watch a lot of Japanese animation, and even the hair colour is blond, they’re very White looking.
Naila: I’m not worried about them. As Black people, we don’t have a unifying language, we don’t have a unifying religion, because the religion many of us have was put onto us, we don’t have a unifying culture, so I’m just more concerned.
Frank: But I think it’s all moving that way though, it’s moving towards whitisizing everything. So Japanese people have Japan but not for always. There are Chinese in Trinidad that don’t associate themselves with Chinese. You tell them they’re Chinese and they go what, I’m Trini, don’t talk to me, they don’t speak no Chinese. They’re Indian people in Trinidad that go India, they tell you do I look Indian to you, you go yes, I’m a Trini. It’s different, it’s changing, we’ve been displaced a lot longer, but we can’t go back, like you just said. We have to accept that you’re different, and you’re different, and we’re all different, there’s a diaspora, but it doesn’t mean Blackland is here. We can still be unified. We can’t go back, but we’re here.
Hope you enjoyed the salon talk. You can lengthen the discussion in the Salon Utopia community.