My best friend LaMecca and I have very different hair. This is not at all surprising, considering I am of Chinese descent and she is of German and African-American descent. I did not understand, however, what “different” meant in the context of hair until we became roommates during our senior year of high school.
LaMecca’s natural hair is something of a wonder to me since I have only ever dealt with my own stubbornly straight and boring locks that require daily washing to fend off impending limpness and greasiness. Hers, on the other hand, form a veritable cloud of rebellious curls, some more tightly wound than others, refusing to completely surrender to gravity. The curls were, however, tamed pretty effectively by a straightener and so it was not until we started living together, after a whole year of knowing her, that I first saw her natural hair.
Roommatehood introduced me finally to the arduous behind-the-scenes process of drying and straightening required after she washed her hair (which only needed to happen on a biweekly basis, much to my amazement). As someone who spent minimal effort in styling hair, too lazy to ever curl or clip anything, I was so, so puzzled by this. Why on earth would she voluntarily spend hours and hours applying intense heat to flatten out her otherwise fabulous hair?
Soon I internalized a goal to get her to wear her hair out naturally. She very adamantly refused such an idea – “I look CRAZY” and “It’s so freakin’ huge” were common among her rebuttals every time I brought it up. It took nearly two more months of me pestering until she finally brought her mane (I use this word fondly) into the public eye. Even then, she only agreed after I, with her permission, had posted a picture of her with natural hair on Facebook that garnered a considerable number of likes (which, as we all know, is the ultimate modern mark of support). With this extra, mostly superficial push from social media on top of my persistent pleas, LaMecca began to tentatively wear her hair curly.
That wasn’t the only significant outcome of the saga. It was through her hair that I realized my problematic misunderstanding of the word “different” as it related not only to hair but also to larger issues of culture and race. I approached our differences in hair with the view that fairness meant equal treatment. I had always taken the least-effort approach to my hair; accordingly, I thought that must be the best option for her as well. After all, frequent straightening must have been doing some serious, lasting damage. I just let my hair do whatever it wanted to (which was, more often than not, nothing at all). My fully black junior year roommate had done the same with her tiny, tight coils, so when it came to LaMecca, it seemed only logical that her mixed-race hair should undergo the same treatment. In these ways I projected my idea of one-size-fits-all to our different hair. How much more problematic, then, are such one-size-fits-all assumptions applied entire different cultures?
The parallels between my behavior and larger social patterns don’t end there. Beyond assuming what was right for another individual whose experience on this front differed significantly from my own, I became motivated further by the desire to prove that I was right. This underlying error was reinforced every time LaMecca wistfully noted how easily I dealt with my hair, to which I responded in my head, “You could just do this too.” And when she began wearing her hair naturally for more extended periods of time, I counted it a small personal victory in showing her the “right” way. How often are the rights and wrongs of society decided in a similar fashion, resulting ultimately from self-righteousness instead of understanding?
As the months wore on, I came to fully accept that she does in fact have a much more complex hair situation than I do. Yes, I was ignorant for telling myself otherwise, but it was mostly out of naiveté – surely all people could have low maintenance hair if they really wanted to be lazy about it! Life would be too cruel if some were simply destined to have a tough time with their hair! But alas, though her hair has probably gotten healthier to some extent, it is apparent to me now that solution for me is not the solution for her. There are loads more products on the market with varying levels of effectiveness for her, whereas my hair stays pretty much the same regardless of treatment. Morning hair that emerges with creative shapes cannot be as quickly fixed or hidden for her. I never have to think about the sheer volume of my hair exceeding that of my head and how that looks. Or getting a haircut and imagining its different curly and straight lengths. Or having to consider the effects of the weather on the hair I’d like to wear that day.
At the same time, I was still frustrated any time she – or anyone else – said, “I love your perfect Asian hair. I wish I had it.” I had finally realized that I had an easier time with the hair on my head than most, but I also realized that comparing the relative difficulty or ease of something like hair indicated a larger problem about our view of difference.
Due to difference, we humans do not have equal struggles with our hair, as I had so naïvely assumed for the sake of convenience. Due to difference, we have unequalstruggles with our hair, but that doesn’t mean others’ hair should be ranked as desirable or undesirable relative to our own.
Likewise, we humans do not have equal struggles throughout our lives, as so many of us assume for the sake of convenience. Due to difference, we have unequal struggles in all kinds of ways, but that doesn’t mean our lives should be ranked as desirable or undesirable relative to others’. Difference defines human lives to be irreproducible, and no one has fully grappled with another’s trials, or has the right to assign their experience to be better or worse. In the presence of such difference, it is our responsibility to learn and respect, not to compare and project. Fairness does not mean equal treatment– I now believe that fairness instead indicates proportional treatment.
LaMecca and I both have lovely hair, but dealing with hers is much more complex a process, whereas my best bet is to just let nature do its thing. I can respect the choices she makes for hers since she’s the one that actually lives with it, but I should also expect her to not paint my hair as ideal. To desire someone else’s experience is irrelevant if it only serves to diminish the value of one’s own – LaMecca will never have my sleek Asian locks, I will never have her glorious challenge of mixed-chick curls, and both of us will just keep dealing with our own beautiful hair.