Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri

The Blurb On The Back:

Straightened.  Stigmatised.  “Tamed”.  Celebrated.  Fetishised.  Forever misunderstood.

Black hair is never ‘just hair’.  It’s time we understood why.

Recent years have seen the conversation around black hair reach tipping point, yet detractors still proclaim “It’s only hair!” when it never is.  This book is about why black hair matters and how it can be viewed as a blueprint for decolonisation.  Emma Dabiri takes us from pre-colonial Africa, through the Harlem Renaissance, Black Power and into today’s Natural Hair Movement, the Cultural Appropriation Wars and beyond.

Touching on everything from women’s solidarity and friendship, to forgotten African scholars, to the dubious provenance of Kim Kardashian’s braids, Don’t Touch My Hair proves that far from being only hair, black hairstyling culture can be understood as an allegory for black oppression and, ultimately, liberation. 

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR by Emma Dabiri from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Emma Dabiri is a teaching fellow in the Africa Department at SOAs and a Visual Sociology PhD researcher at Goldsmith’s College.  This passionate, fascinating and very interesting book uses black hair as the basis for examining racial attitudes, colonial attitudes, double standards and how it damages Black people and mixes Dabiri’s personal experience with history, sociology, and anthropology to produce a nuanced, thought-provoking read.

I picked up this book because I had been completely ignorant about the politics and discrimination surrounding Black hair until I caught a programme on Radio 4 where a group of Black women discussed their experiences.  It made me pay attention to news stories about Black students being suspended from school for their hairstyles and Black workers being held to unfair standards of dress in the workplace when it comes to having “professional” hair.  So when I saw that Dabiri (who I had previously come across following her work presenting BACK IN TIME FOR BRIXTON) had pulled together a book that brings together the fact and context to this discrimination (including the historical roots for the same and how prejudice has been internalised within the Black community) I was very keen to check it out.

Dabiri (who has bi-racial heritage – Irish mother, Yoruba father) uses her own experiences of comments on her body and her hair (which is 4b on the hair scale and so seen as not being ‘good’ both inside and outside the Black community) to add a personal touch to the book.  Some of the stories she shares of racism she has received are genuinely shocking – the more so for how casually the offensive words are said.  She mixes these into an exploration of attitudes towards Black hair, including attitudes within the community, which takes in (inevitably) slavery and the slave trade and historical European attitudes towards Africa (together with a useful summary of African learning and civilisations). 

My favourite section in the book is one towards the end that discuss braiding techniques within African communities – particularly where Dabiri draws connections to advanced mathematical techniques to rebut accusations that African people did not have a knowledge of mathematics.  However I also very much enjoyed the sections that discussed relaxing techniques and how they were sold to Black people (including discussions of a number of Black-owned businesses that specialised in Black hair products and how their owners became millionaires – not least because Dabiri goes deeper into looking what they did with that money) and the sections which discuss Black people’s own attitudes towards very “kinky” hair and how this internalises discrimination. 

Dabiri is at her most damning when she discusses how white people appropriate Black hairstyles and culture and are celebrated for it while Black people are condemned.  I am not particularly switched onto this type of thing so although I had known how Madonna appropriated the Ballroom scene for the Vogue video, I did not know about some of what she had written about it.  Likewise I don’t follow the Kardashians so did not know how they appropriated Black culture and nor did I know of the difference in comments given to Beyonce’s daughter (who has “kinky” hair) and those made about Kim Kardashian’s daughter.  I genuinely found these sections shocking because although social media brings out the trashiest, nastiest people, for people to say things like that about kids is genuinely appalling.

Dabiri writes in a clear, accessible way when setting out complicated theories so that the same are easy to follow.  My only observation (and it is an observation more than a criticism) is that she sometimes brings in more text speak/slang expressions and because they are used so sparingly, they stood out and seemed really artificial.  I am not sure whether it was to make the text more accessible or light-hearted, but it just didn’t seem needed to me in the context of the rest of the book.

This apart, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it to be an eye-opening read that has really made me think about how Black hair is depicted and talked about and what the history of that is.  I definitely recommend checking it out if you have any interest in the subject because it has really made me re-appraise my own opinions and knowledge.  

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