Oh, and that “steel wool” reference? Check it.

Found this on YT last night:

Years ago, I was in a writing workshop discussing a story written by an older, fierce white woman.  We were all working toward Masters degrees in Creative Writing, but she had a lot of disdain for such things.  She told me early in the class that she was already published widely and just wanted the piece of paper to improve her employability.  In her story, the son of the older, fierce white woman narrator was dating a black woman.  The black woman didn’t play a big part in the story, but was on scene long enough for the narrator to describe her skin as looking like hot chocolate and her hair as feeling like steel wool.

I read these kinds of descriptions of black people all the time.  I might be used to seeing them, but that doesn’t make me any less annoyed by them.  Seeing people of color’s skin described in terms of food rankles because it seems part and parcel of the oh-you’re-so-exotic nonsense that continues to prevail.  I am not Hershey-bar brown, or toasted honey almond, or dark caramel or any other sugary-sweet item you can think of.  And if that girl in the story was really the color of hot chocolate, there was something wrong with her skin (or maybe I need to stop thinking Swiss Miss and start thinking Jacques Torres … still)!

The steel wool description annoys me even more.  To those who hold tight to this descriptor, I have to ask:  Have you actually touched a black person’s hair?  Have you ever touched steel wool?   Are you missing nerve endings in your fingers or the proper synaptic sensors leading from them to your brain?  Please.  This ridiculousness obviously comes from the deeply-ingrained notion that kinky hair is coarse and hard and could never be in any way appealing, certainly not like the silky-smooth business that grows out on non-kinky heads.  Stand corrected, people.  Yes, there are some people of color who have totally un-touchable hair … just as there are white people with hair that you’d never want to get your hands in.  That’s about hair care, friends, not about the hair itself.  Don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting you start asking black people if you can touch their hair.  The answer will almost always be negative and you will lose all kinds of cool points for asking.  My cartoon friend above isn’t wrong when she says it’s a violation of her personal space  I have, on rare occasion, let people touch my hair, but don’t ask me, either.

So no hair touching, but you can observe.  Look at women with natural hair.   Many of us spend a lot of time touching it.  Are we worried that it’s out of place? Probably not.  More likely, we are just enjoying its excellent softness and texture.  Yes, that’s right: we get to play with our hair, you don’t.¹

I’m amused by this video, and by the others that accompany it.  I don’t love that she makes the comment about being able to comb her hair “especially when it’s wet with leave-in conditioner in it.”  That seems like a give-back to the steel wool people.   But she actually helps make sense of something  I ran into a lot during my dating experiment.  Men who said I looked like a real “soul sister” or “roots sister” (no, I’m serious), also seemed to think there was no need to take me anywhere nice … or anywhere at all in one case, and always seemed surprised when I didn’t reach for my wallet at the end of the evening.  Just to clarify: if I ask you out, I expect to pay.  If you ask me out, I expect you to pay.  If you ask me out and take me to a place where you can only afford your own dinner, that makes you an idiot.  If you want me to split the check with you, you need to be upfront about it when we make plans.  Calling me a “roots sister” makes you sound silly, but shouldn’t be code for anything.

I decided to add my own public service announcement to the mix:


¹  And we especially get to play with our hair today, on National Afro Day!    Happy 4th, everybody!

13 thoughts on “Oh, and that “steel wool” reference? Check it.

  1. Oy, the things people say and think. In response to your post (and video!) I really want to share a piece from one of my classmates in my recent writing workshop, but it won’t be online till later this week. I’ll try to remember to come back here and point it out after it goes live. 🙂

    Happy Fourth!


  2. Oh! You have hit on two of my favorite pet peeves in one post.

    It amazes me how so many feel incredibly comfortable with commenting on my hair, Black and white. I went natural with a near Angela Davis worthy afro for about three months a few years ago. That was a big todo. When I couldn’t deal with the daily maintenance anymore (for my hair an afro was fives times more work) and I went back to perming it was another uproar. It came down to my literally cursing someone out on why I need to justify a damn thing to anyone about my hair for the “conversation” to cease. In addition, I don’t care if you see fives bug in my hair, unless you are my hair stylist, you better say something to me first before putting your hands in it.

    If I dollar for each time I was told how well I speak! And the richness I would obtain if paid for repeated occurrences of the following:

    “Where did you learn to speak so well?”
    “Where did YOU learn to speak so well?”
    “In school of course.”
    “And what makes you think it was any different for me?”

    Worse, many really do not understand why I am offended by their compliments. They don’t see that their “surprise” sheds light on their preconceived assumptions that I (a person of color), could not hold an intelligent conversation. As though the use of proper English by a Black person is as near mythological as the unicorn.


    1. Yes, the hair comments are interesting. Of course I don’t mind when someone tells me I look great … but that’s really the point, right? If you don’t have something complimentary to say, just keep it to yourself. Feh. When I first cut off my hair, it was a HUGE deal … for pretty much everyone around me. Same thing when I started to grow it out. I get where all the crazy comes from (at least in part), but I’m so over it. It’s just my hair, and I’m just doing with it what I want, so can it please stop being a big deal?

      As for the “articulate” nonsense, I could have retired as 25 if I had $5 for every time someone commented on the way I talk. My typical convo is a little different from yours:

      “You speak so well!”
      “Thank you. So do you.”
      ” … ” spluttering while they stop themselves from coming right out and saying the line I gave the guy in my movie … spluttering a little more when they realize that their question is totally racist.

      And then I just walk away.

      I think it’s the wonder of an American black person speaking good English that messes with these people’s minds. Think how many folks ask you if you’re from the Caribbean. And then there are the crazies who ask if I’m British. Seriously, people? Such foolishness!


  3. Thank you. I love your public sevice announcement. I hate that any of us have encountered this ridiculousness, but thank you for addressing it. I’ve been so mad at times that I can’t even form words of response.

    For me, the worst is actually the thoughtless things I heard from people in my own neighborhood while trying to navigate the already prickly road of growing up. A small part of me wanted to do what was necessary to fit in and have “friends.” As an adult, despite the pain, I’m glad I kept writing and speaking the way I did, and embracing the arts that I wanted to embrace. Why do so many of the “worlds” have to find something wrong with me the way I am as an individual? Or refuse to see me as as individual? In the end there is really only one world.

    Thanks again for adding your voice of reason to this.

    PS: I’ve got to get to Lisa’s classmate’s piece in the IWL anthology!


    1. Hi Ré — I get this so often, but it still amazes me. Shouldn’t we be old enough as a world to be past all this by now? You know, not in some phony “post racial” way, but in an actual, I would never have to hear another comment about the way I speak because it would never sound strange or “non-black” to anyone.

      Hope you’ve had a chance to read Maria’s piece. It’s really wonderful.


  4. speak!!! same goes for Asian skin/hair–like silk (remember those damn Silkience ads?), or rice, or…you get the picture. I once took a bus from NYC to Boston when I was young (read: years ago)–for the entire duration of the bus ride, a small child in the seat behind me had her hands in my hair the entire time. I don’t think she had ever seen Asian hair before. Her mom didn’t stop her. My mom didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything.


    1. Whoa, had forgotten about Silkience. And that kid on the bus would have driven me crazy … and had her hands slapped until she got the message! I’m loving what I’ve read of your blog so far! I might have to try your alphabet-memoir activity!


  5. Just what I needed today! I nodded and laughed and nodded again. You have hit on many points of contention for us natural, “well-spoken” gals. I was told once that I created my locks by using mud and water. When I said that it wasn’t how I locked my hair, the woman (a colleague) told me that she had been to Africa, so she knows how it’s done. Then she went into questioning why I hadn’t been to Africa though I’d been to other countries outside of the U.S. It’s so ignorant that it’s laughable – but only way after the fact. Thanks for addressing this.


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