What Exactly Can a White Man Safely Say About a Black Woman’s Hair?

Race Manners: Every woman likes to be told she’s beautiful, right? Of course, it’s not that simple. Here are three tips for staying out of trouble. 

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2. Compliment, Don’t Query

Following a compliment with an interrogation (“How do you get it like that? Who styled it? How long will it look that way? How do you wash it?”) can make a woman who was feeling appreciated switch to feeling antagonized in a matter of seconds.

“There’s a lot of curiosity about our hair, but I think that if you have a close friend that’s black, that’s where the questions should start,” says Wilson.

3. Consider the Context

Keeping in mind a general sensitivity toward people who don’t like to be put on the spot—especially when that would mean having their racial differences highlighted—keep your compliments between you and the owner of the hair, and don’t make a scene with your praise. Keep this in mind especially in situations in which her race and gender make her a minority (think classroom or boardroom versus coffee shop). Remember that there’s a chance she styled her hair for ease, not for attention, and likely doesn’t want to publicly discuss her routine, any more than you want to detail the qualities of your favorite two-in-one shampoo-conditioner in the middle of your day. 

Again, everyone (or almost everyone) loves a compliment. Hopefully, with these tips in mind, you can deliver them with a little more confidence.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.

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