Hair As Identity Menu

Viewing all items for tag identity


Veiling: My Own Xenophobic Reactions

As you may know, I study hair as identity and while I typically write about hair itself, there are may other elements that relate to hair, the head and identity. For example, veiling.  I am quite ignorant about this topic but I picked up the book “What is veiling” by Sahar Amer to learn more.  Veiling refers to wearing a length of cloth to cover the head and shoulders and, sometimes, the face (Amer, 2014).  Here are different types of veils:


I’m going to reveal my own ignorance and say that many times when I see a veiled person (it’s usually a woman that I’ve seen), I immediately think she is either very religious or a very militant Muslim.  Yes, I admit it.  It is xenophobic, I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth.  I hope to always be authentic on this website and I encourage you to do the same.  Two caveats:  1) I’m working on it.  I’m not satisfied with thinking this way so I’m working to get better and have a broader, more inclusive mindset; 2) political correctness may enable us to “tolerate” each other but it will never lead to heart change and true understanding.  See “Rethinking political correctness” by Ely, Meyerson & Davidson (2006, Harvard Business Review).

Post 9/11, the pictures of women donning veils made me feel highly ambivalent.  On one hand, I recognize that many different peoples don veils.  In fact, the veil did not originate with Muslims, it originated in Ancient Mesopotamia in the 13th century BC (Amer, 2014).  Muslims, Jews and Christians alike don(ned) veils.  Apparently, the veil was used to distinguish married, chaste or concubined women from women who were prostitutes or considered morally loose.  It was considered dangerous for a women who should be wearing a veil to go without it or for a woman who shouldn’t be wearing a veil to dare wear it.  But, on the other hand, the media images of Muslim, women extremists, terrorists, donning veils and blowing themselves and others up had been seared into my mind.  It has become an implicit association, meaning a subconscious connection that I now draw between terrorism and the veil.

Can you relate?  Do you make this same implicit association?  Or, are you a Muslim woman who has been subjected to these ignorant associations?  Are you a Muslim woman who prefers not to veil because of the identity implications?  I would love to broach a measured conversation on this topic and explore how veiling impacts identity, especially in the workplace.

I look forward to hearing from you.

  • Thanks for leaving a comment, please keep it clean. HTML allowed is strong, code and a href.


The Disunited Nations (a.k.a My Hair)… by Petra E. Lewis

Kevin Ryan Headshot - Color

No one will mistake me for anything other than Black—my skin is a swirl of dark caramel and milk chocolate. My hair? That’s another story. One wonders, like the manna the Israelites picked up from the ground: What is it?

My ancestry is complicated, a thing of borne witness, handed down stories, and myth. The result: A head of hair that is beautiful, maddening, and complex—frequently all three at once. The vast majority of my ancestry is diasporally African (a mixture of Islanders from the Caribbean). My father’s mother, who we all called Mama (accentuating each of the “a”s in our pronunciation), died before my siblings were born. However, I saw her many times as a kid when I visited Trinidad.

Mama was a mixed woman, with curly, mid-shoulder-length hair—which meant it was far longer stretched out. Mama’s mother had emigrated from St. Vincent to Trinidad, and my father said that the father of Mama’s mother was one of two Scottish brothers, the Frasers (far more to that story, but that’s all I’ll say for now). Mama’s surname was French—Serrette—and her father was said to be the owner of a plantation, more than likely a cocoa plantation.  And it appears that, like Mama’s mother, her father was also mixed, from a family of very light-skinned creoles. Hence the handed down stories and myth I spoke about: What is true, and what is not—and where is Henry Louis Gates, Jr. when you need him?

On my mother’s side, her grandfather, Appa, was said to be a dougla—the name we give in Trinidad to people who are a mixture of Black and East Indian. My mom and all her siblings said Appa, a tall, curly-haired dandy, was the spitting image of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.  I took a genealogy test once that said that I have Asian in my background. However, it’s entirely possible that Appa phenotypically looked like a dougla, but was mixed with something else.

When it comes to describing my hair, I have taken to giving my ancestors their own signifiers: three avatars who I call Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip. There are days when it’s all love between those three: Sitting together on the verandah, laughing, playing dominoes, and lazily sipping on chai. Then there are days when my head becomes the site of a global war, as Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip claw and skirmish for territory, jockeying to become the victor who plants his flag in my scalp.

Even on my best hair days, the mixture of textures throughout my head marks each avatar’s dominance—or submission. The curls at the very front of my hair are my favorite section. I guess you can refer to them as: We are the World, where Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip seem to get along best. That part of my hair can sometimes be the most fragile, but the ringlets are perfect, long lasting, and very low maintenance.  Sanjay and Kunta coexist beautifully in a wide section right near each of my ears: thick, springy, perfect ringlets, with a smaller curl pattern that are prone to breakage when not handled properly.  The sides of my hair, towards the middle, is a love fest: Kunta and Chip as BFFs—more so on the right of my hair than the left; on the left, there are times when one of them seems to have taken offense at something, and thrown a tantrum.

Then you get to the end of the sides of my hair, rounding the corners to the back, where Sanjay and Kunta seemingly begin to raise their voices: the beginning of a brawl. The hair in that section doesn’t ringlet as much as it is a strange, thick bushy texture more akin to waves—and very prone to dryness.  The back topmost part of my hair—I guess you can call that the “crown”—is the section I call: Sanjay and Kunta are fighting.  Yes, Sanjay and Kunta are fighting. Full stop—as this posture of strife is a permanent state of affairs.  It’s also a weird, thick wavy something—and I’m pretty sure Chip sat that one out.

For a large swathe of the very back of my head, the trio seems to have called a truce—back to drinking chai, dominoes, and back slapping. The lower rung of my hair hangs in a veil of beautiful baby curls: Kunta and Sanjay finally BFFs. But just below that, wait for it… the section I call WW WTF!!! (Or World War What the Freak, as we’d like to keep this family friendly).

As most Black women know, the kitchen area of our hair is the one that most denotes us as African women.  Sometimes it curls and clumps into little balls; sometimes it’s kinky and springy—yet smooth, lying relatively flat; and sometimes it’s straight.

Depending on a number of factors (a topic for another post) that section of my hair can be either of the three—or a combination. My theory on WW WTF: I think Chip tried to jump into the mix, but Sanjay pummeled him—then (eyes narrowed, breathing heavily), Sanjay turned to square off once and for all with Kunta.  But Kunta wasn’t having it….  And so they fight, on, and on, and on…. Stretched, that section of my hair reaches shoulder length. Unstretched, extreme shrinkage keeps it clinging to the base of my neck, appearing as though it is less than an inch. It’s grown so long in the last year, it only recently occurred to me that what I really need to do is stretch it out and pin it up.

This post is the beginning of many on my head of hair: a beautiful, maddening, and complex thing, a gift from the mysterious, mixed-up, variety pack I call my ancestors. There are days when Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip are polite to a fault (“No, no, you go first kind sir. I insist.” “No, no, I’ll have none of it—I insist, dear old chap: you….”). Those days are glorious: My hair is everything I want it to be, I am brimming with confidence, and all is right in the world. Then there are days when an ugly, bitter war has broken out, flags are planted, and WW WTF is in particularly rare and embarrassing form, and I feel the very confidence drain from my body, as I try to get the rogue, mutinous sections of my hair to yield—knowing full well they’ll ignore me and any pressing business or social engagements that I may have…

Oh, yes, I can tell you stories…. I know you have some, too. What have your own experiences been with your hair in its various states (be it natural or chemically treated)? I would love to hear about your individual journeys. I know you each have so much to say.

Till next time: Love, Peace, and Hair Grease, my friends y amigas….


Petra E. Lewis is a writer, author, entrepreneur, Tastemaker, and Synergist who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The first novel in her trilogy, The Sons and Daughters of Ham, Book I: A Requiem debuts February 2014, .

  • Sandi Webster

    Petra, I so understand the hair thing and sympathize. I, too, come from an “unidentifiable” Jamaican ancestral tree that plays out in my hair. I was constantly frustrated with my “thicker than most” hair until I cut it off in sixth grade (whupping followed!) – I’ve not had long hair since. My grandmother would take all day to “chiney bump” my hair and then I would wake up the next day with wet hair after sleeping on a wet pillow. Right after that, I started to use a pressing comb to straighten my hair – all in the hopes of gaining consistency and decrease maintenance. It gave me a lot of flexibility between my natural states until one bout at the beach when I was 28 made me convert to a perm. A perm is my ancestral hair equalizer the same way my short haircut is time equalizer, meaning it makes everything look and feel the same and I can be out of my house in 15 minutes because I simply need a brush. Not to mention, I think I look simply fab this way.

  • Petra Lewis

    Hi Sandi: Thanks for this. And, yes–you do look fabulous! Didn’t realize that you had had it for this long (no pun intended : ). Can’t imagine you in anything but short hair!

  • Thanks for leaving a comment, please keep it clean. HTML allowed is strong, code and a href.


Facial Hair and Identity: A Male Perspective

As I was shaving my face this morning I thought of Tina Opie’s post on hair and identity. She raises some interesting questions. From a male perspective, I know that the expectation in a professional setting is to either be clean-shaven or if we choose to wear a beard/mustache, the expectation is that it be neatly trimmed.

Hello everyone,

I recently wrote a Post on facial hair and I am delighted to publish commentary that I received.  Mr. Amir Reza wrote an interesting personal piece on his experience with facial hair.   Here it is; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

“Men and Facial Hair” by Amir Reza

As I was shaving my face this morning I thought of Tina Opie’s post on hair and identity. She raises some interesting questions. From a male perspective, I know that the expectation in a professional setting is to either be clean-shaven or if we choose to wear a beard/mustache, the expectation is that it be neatly trimmed. I recall when I stopped shaving a few years ago during vacation and decided not to shave before returning to work – that period when your beard hasn’t fully grown in and you are not clean-shaven is interesting – there were colleagues that loved the facial hair and others that didn’t care for it. There wasn’t much in between. Most everyone had an opinion one way or another. There were many questions; was I going to grow it indefinitely? Would I consider a goatee? What did others think about my new look?

Mr. Reza sporting a beard

There were also joking comments about my identity as a Middle Eastern American and what facial hair meant in light of the stereotypical terrorist suspect. This makes me think of that period after September 11, 2001 when the Department of Homeland Security instituted color-coded threat levels and profiling of Middle Easterners (in particular young men) was prevalent. I recall half-jokingly commenting to my friends that if the color code was “orange” or higher I would definitely shave, lest I be profiled as “one of them.” Maz Jobrani (an Iranian-American comedian) has a funny segment on this topic – “you don’t want to be Middle Eastern and show up at the airport with a beard!” (watch here minute 3:50 of this youtube video ).

Returning to Opie’s blog on facial hair, it seems that facial hair is a political & social matter for men, whether you are running for office or trying to navigate society (east or west). As for me, I ended up shaving my beard/mustache eventually, not because of my colleagues’ comments, but because my two-year old daughter didn’t want to kiss me because I was too itchy!

Mr. Reza sans beard

What do you all think?  Please share any thoughts that Mr. Reza’s story triggered in your mind.  Thanks for reading!

  • Thanks for leaving a comment, please keep it clean. HTML allowed is strong, code and a href.


First Day at Work with TWA

Yesterday was my first day back to work with my TWA (teeny weeny afro). I was a bit nervous because as one of a few Black professors on a predominantly White campus, I stand out. In the past, my dreadlocks drew quite colorful commentary and was one of my distinguishing traits. I was nervous because I knew that my hair would draw comments. Most of my colleagues were quite gracious although, I had my share of shocked responses complete with “WHAT DID YOU DO?!!”.

I am so proud of myself for not letting others’ responses dictate how I feel about myself. Of course, I want to be perceived as an attractive person. Yet, when I look in the mirror that is what I see. I am learning to detach opinion of self from opinions of others. Others’ opinions do indeed matter but they are not central to my identity. Believe me, as a self-professed people-pleaser, this is a HUGE step for me.

We’ll see how I do the first day of classes when I stand before a hundred plus students! 🙂
NOTE: The video of my Big Chop is still being edited but I will post it and still pictures as soon as they are available. Please stay tuned, comment and pass the blog along to others. Thanks! Tina

    Congrats on your TWA

  • Thanks for leaving a comment, please keep it clean. HTML allowed is strong, code and a href.


Brazilian Blowout

Last night my husband and I watched a fascinating episode of Dr. Gates’ “Black in Latin America” on PBS ( episode focused on Brazil, specifically Salvador, Bahia.This city is the third largest in Brazil (behind São PauloandRio de Janeiro).Dr. Gates was drawn to investigate Salvador because upwards of 80% of the population has Black African heritage.This is not surprising because Brazil had the largest Atlantic Trade slave population in the world at a whopping FIVE MILLION SLAVES.This was ten times the number of slaves deposited onto the soil of the United States of America.

Given the high number of slaves, it was almost inevitable that there would be a lot of “race mixing” and the resulting rainbow hue of people.And with mixed race, you KNOW there are varying hair textures.I was thrilled when Dr. Gates visited a hair salon renowned for teaching women how to embrace their natural hair texture.This is in stark contrast to the famed hair treatment known as the “Brazilian Blowout” which is reputed to have originated in Brazil.The hair treatment is renowned for giving people shiny, bouncy, frizz-free hair and works best when applied to chemically treated hair according to this website:

But, STOP!Recent media coverage ( and suggests that the hair treatment contains formaldehyde which is hazardous to your health.Why would such an unsafe hair treatment have originated in Brazil? The above MSNBC article “Hazardous for Health?Roots of Brazilian Blowout” quotes Ms Eliza Larkin Nascimento[1] as saying, “There is a racist culture in Brazil, and one of its expressions is a beauty standard that values what is European.Discrimination in Brazil rides a lot on appearance — on facial features, on hair texture. Hair is a great focus, a great symbol”.

Wow, we are all sisters confronting many of the same issues.

[1] Ms. Nascimento is director of IPEAFRO (LOVE that “AFRO” is part of the acronym!) an organization that concentrates on Afro-Brazilian studies.

  • Thanks for leaving a comment, please keep it clean. HTML allowed is strong, code and a href.


Me, my head scarf and I

Yesterday, as I prepared to hit the gym, I had an interesting hair experience. I had to decide whether or not to wear a headscarf to the gym. The thing is, the gym is located at the college where I work and I often see my colleagues and students at the gym. This may seem like a small issue but I had a flurry of ambivalent thoughts. On one hand, I said to myself, “Who cares what people think? Girl, you better protect your hair! You know if you don’t wear a scarf your hair will get sweated out and you’ll have to tighten up your edges all over again.” On the other hand, “You are one of a handful of black female (or male) professors here. People already have preconceived notions why are you helping to confirm them? Why in the world are you going to walk around looking like a mammy?

(I found this image at

Yes, I went there. Picanniny, mammy, ghetto. These words darted into my mind before I could control the onslaught. Then, I wondered how the simple act of wearing a protective scarf had become endowed with such negative connotations. Hmm, was it because, shriek to self, white women don’t wear headscarves when they work out!!!? That is, was my aversion to headscarves because of my personal opinion or because of societal messaging that it was unacceptable because it was different from the norm? Isn’t wearing a head scarf while working out similar to wearing a swim cap when swimming (I won’t even get into the fact that I can’t find a swim cap that fits all of my dreadlocks! I need to invent that!)?
I am not saying that I would sport a head scarf to the mall, to work. Wait, I’ve seen beautiful head wraps at work so there are definitely different types of scarves. I’m realizing that my visceral response to head scarves is because they emphasize racial identity. In an environment where there are not a lot of people like me (according to the PhD Project, less than 5% of business professors are of color), I want to stand out because of my competence and sparkling personality (haha) NOT my choice of accessories. Woo-hah, self-discovery! I love when I’m writing and I gain insight into myself right on the spot. What are your thoughts about head scarves? Have you ever worn one to work? Do you wear them in public? Why or why not? How did people respond?
  • Thanks for leaving a comment, please keep it clean. HTML allowed is strong, code and a href.