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  • Dr. Donna M. Dopwell

Internalized Racism Explained By My Hair

Let me start by saying that I love my curly hair.

I love it short.


I love it long.



I love looking at pictures of my hair from when I was a child.



The point is: I love my hair. I have learned that doing almost nothing to it makes it look good (body lotion!). I love that it is the hair of neither of my parents, but still represents both. I love when the ocean breeze flows through my hair. I love when children play with my coils, pulling on them and squealing with joy when they bounce back. Fine, I'll admit that I do it too!


So if I think my hair is so awesome, why would I ever use it to explain internalized racism? Because the incident with the traffic stop that I mentioned in my recent blog post about racial trauma (https://www.drdonnamdopwell.com/post/the-traumas-of-being-non-white-in-the-united-states-my-perspective) is a perfect example of internalized racism.


To back up, let's define internalized racism. Essentially, this term refers to the process whereby having been exposed to signs and symbols within one's life which suggest that one is less than, one begins to buy into that suggestion without even realizing. So let's break down the process that brought me to this topic.


Growing up, I had a strong advocate for keeping my hair natural: my Mom. Mom's hair is naturally straight, so some might think that she would have advocated for me to look more like her. But that was never the case. Mom has always appreciated my hair in its natural form, and has been adamant whenever friends or family members suggested chemically straightening my hair to "control" it: that was NOT going to happen. So, step 1 in my journey toward internalized racism was that people around me thought my hair was unruly and needed to be tamed. I think that this could have taken root had my mother not been there to pull out the weeds being placed by others.


People have often looked at my hair with fascination: it was really thick, it was CRAZY curly. It wasn't only children who wanted to touch my hair and watch the curl bounce back. It was teenagers in my mostly-White high school and adults at work. I was often asked how I got my hair so curly. After a while I started saying, "First, I wake up. And then, I leave it alone!" Big smile.


My hair has also been seen as a sex object. Countless men and a number of women have told me in many different ways that my hair was alluring and attractive. People I didn't even know didn't seem to think it wrong to tell me what they would like to do with my hair in certain scenarios. I think it's one of the reasons that I spent a couple of years putting it up and hiding it. I wanted people to see me, not my hair. And I certainly didn't want to feel disgusted by their words, or worse, by myself, for having sexy hair.


At some point, I decided to embrace my hair for me. If people thought it was sexy, fine. Just don't touch unless I say it's okay. And don't think that by telling me nasty things you will have a shot with me. You won't. So I started putting my hair out and letting it just be as beautiful as can be. I learned over time that the time at which I put the body lotion in my hair determined whether it looked wavy or puffy, longer or shorter. So if I wanted looser curls, I would put the lotion in within one hour of shampooing and conditioning. If I wanted tighter curls, I would wait for the second or third hour. Did I mention that I LOVE my hair???


I travel by plane a fair amount of time. I generally like it. And since the TSA stopped digging into my hair a couple of years ago, I have enjoyed it that much more! What do I mean by digging into my hair? Glad you asked! One time, I had a bun in my hair. My hair had to be inspected by a female TSA representative. This particular representative did what she did with very little notice of me, and when she didn't find the... rifle?... drugs?... car keys?... in my hair she waved me away and went about her business. This representative was White.


The next time I flew, I decided that since they like to dig into my bun, I would leave my hair out. Well, this time, it was a rep of ostensible African descent who was required to dig into my hair. She gave me an apologetic look before doing her duty. She was trying to convey that she knew this was wrong and she wished she didn't have to do it. I gave her an understanding nod and turned so that she could get on with it. While she very gently touched my hair (thank you, whoever you are), I noticed that a White woman with a bouffant hairdo that had so much Aqua Net that a bullet couldn't penetrate just walked on passed without even so much as a glance her way.


These and other examples explain how my hair is a symbol of my otherness in U.S. society. And honestly, I never thought that I had internalized these symbols of my otherness until that traffic stop. My panic at having chosen to let my hair flow beautifully, my wondering if I should have put it into a ponytail or into some other less conspicuous style, my behaviors which indicated that I was viewing my hair through the lens of the White gaze...these are all signs of internalized racism. Instead of considering this a routine traffic stop and handing the officer my license, registration, and proof of insurance, I freaked out at the possibility that my hair would get me shot.


Perhaps that freak out seems silly to you. Maybe it would have, but then you read the rest of my story and you understand a bit better why I lost it and started shaking uncontrollably. I wish I had never felt the way I did that day. No one should have to. But it is a learned response, and one that I didn't even realize was lying dormant inside of me until that day I got pulled over. You've got to be taught to hate...yourself.


So we need advocates like my mother. We need people who do not fetishize our butts or our hips or our hair, but who believe that such things are beautiful as they are and need not be changed to suit Eurocentric standards of beauty or used to entice European American men. We need to not be the only people in the room saying, "Please don't touch my hair, " or "Yes it is naturally curly," or "I don't care if you don't like my hair." When we are alone, our voices overtime become smaller and smaller, until we don't even hear ourselves speaking anymore. I want women of color to know that they can style their hair however they want. But I also want them to recognize the beauty in their natural hair. And I don't want myself to ever lose that knowledge about my own.

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