“You should just say thank you.”

That’s what my neighbor said.  One of my we-always-chat-at-the-bus-stop neighbors complimented my hair.  You don’t know this because I haven’t gotten around to posting about it, but I’ve been spending a fairly shameful amount of time playing with my hair these last few months.  That day, my hair was cuter than cute (if I do say so myself): curly-curly, shiny, bouncy.  Just generally fun.

My neighbor complimented me and I thanked her.  She asked where I’d gotten my hair done, and I said I did it myself (she asks this question every time she comments on my hair, gets the same answer every time, but always asks again, clearly she is unconvinced that I have the skill to manage my own hair).

“Sure,” she said.  “You got that nice, good hair.”

Let me just state plainly: I don’t have good hair, I have fabulous hair. Outrageously fabulous, in fact.  I know it and have known it for many years.  I do not, however, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, have what my neighbor thinks of when she says “good hair.”  When she says that, she means I have hair that isn’t kinky, hair that is more like “white people’s hair” than the stereotype of black hair.  What I actually have is super, ultra, beyond-the-beyond kinky hair.  I am queen of the nappiness and proud of it.  If my hair weren’t so delightfully kinky, it wouldn’t let me do half the things I do with it, and in particular it wouldn’t let me rock my ginormous Cleopatra Jones afro when the mood hits me.  And that would be a sin and a shame.

But no, I don’t have “good” hair, and I said as much to my neighbor.  She just shook her head.  “Yes you do,” she insisted.  “That nice coolie hair.”

?!?!

I’d never heard that term before.  Never heard it, but was certain that it couldn’t mean anything good, that it was surely a back-handed compliment grown out of pejorative slang.  Pretty sure I never wanted to be described as having coolie hair.

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“Oh, you must not be from the Caribbean.”  She gave my hair another once-over.  “That’s what you got, that nice coolie hair.”

“I really don’t know what that means, but my hair is as kinky as it could possibly be.”

“Don’t worry about understanding. You should just say thank you.  If someone tells you you got that coolie hair, you should just say thank you.”

Happily, the bus came then, and she and I never sit together on the bus, so I could stop having this conversation.  It left a bad taste in my mouth.  My only association for the word “coolie” was a negative one, a racial slur for people of Asian descent, and I knew that, whatever my neighbor meant (clearly she thought she was saying something nice), I wasn’t going to like it.  When I got to work, I went online and looked it up: 

“In the formerly British Caribbean countries, coolie hair is a slightly looser curl that’s usually really shiny.”

“Coolie hair is a mixture between Indian & black.  The reason for the name came from the coolie man which is Indian.”

Yeah.  Just as I feared.

And I should just say thank you?  Really?  I know.  I know.  She didn’t mean anything bad by any of the things she said about my hair.  She was complimenting me.  I know that.  And I know that two minutes at the bus stop is hardly the place for a cultural history teachable moment.  I know.  I know.  Still.  I should just say thank you?  Doesn’t the answer have to be yes?  If  I’m not going to explain to my neighbor why “coolie hair” is offensive to me, if  I’m not going to go into a long rant about the history and hate of “good hair,” don’t I need to just shut up and accept her comment in the spirit it was offered?  Yeah, I don’ t know.  That still leaves the bad taste in my mouth.

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3 thoughts on ““You should just say thank you.”

  1. molly

    This sounds like somebody to avoid. Sounds like one of those, “I’m not a racist, but…” people. Linguists have even studied them: Van Dijk T. A. (1999), Discourse and the Denial of Racism. In A. Jaworski / N. Coupland (eds.), The Discourse Reader. London and NY: Routledge, pp. 541-558.
    Congratulations on your great hair.
    I have thin hair that is thinning. I am a woman with a receding hairline. But I like what hair I have, more than some other parts of my imperfect body. Being blond is less of a big deal in Italy than it used to be before the migration wave from ex Soviet bloc countries, but I still get compliments on the color.
    And I always get asked if I dye it. Could your bus stop lady be terribly, terribly jealous? Just another reason to avoid her.

  2. It may not have been a teachable moment, but I’m glad you wrote about it. More and more, I’m convinced that communicating may be the best we can do in the face of so much continuing cluelessness.

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