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Growing up Irish and Black: 'It was the attention my hair provoked - it wasn't good attention'

Emma Dabiri speaks to us about her first book, Don’t Touch My Hair.

One of the first rhymes I heard was: “Eeny meeeny miny moe. Catch a nigger by da toe.” Who, or what in the hell was “nigger”, I wondered? I soon learned… Irishness is synonymous with whiteness, it seemed. Whiteness is “pure” and doesn’t extend to brown girls, even those who can trace their Irish ancestry back to the 10th century.

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GROWING UP IN Ireland, Emma Dabiri’s skin and hair were a topic of discussion for strangers. In the mostly white Ireland of the 1980s, a girl like Dabiri (whose father is Nigerian and mother is Irish) with brown skin was a subject of interest – and people didn’t care whether it might bother her to have her appearance so openly scrutinised.

Dabiri now lives in London, where she is a lecturer in African Studies at SOAS University of London, as well as a PHd student. Inspired by her own changing relationship with her appearance, she has written a book, Don’t Touch My Hair, which interrogates the topic of hair and its relationship with not just the individual, but with society, culture and African history.

While the book begins with the story of Dabiri’s childhood, it moves into a space where she discusses everything from how people treat the offspring of Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé to the cultural significance of the cornrow. It’s a fascinating must-read that reflects not just the changes that have taken place in Irish society, but the changes that still must take place.

The book shows that while today’s Ireland may be more multicultural than the Ireland Dabiri grew up in, that does not mean society treats people of different skin colours – or hair textures – the same. 

Don’t Touch My Hair was recently called ‘groundbreaking’ by the Guardian, in a review that underlined how the book has power in making people feel seen. “It’s very surreal actually, to see those kind of reviews so it’s not something I’ve experienced before,” says Dabiri when TheJournal.ie chats to her over the phone in London.

“I grew up in a very white environment and my hair texture was a big deal, so the beginning of this was that, and isolation I experienced as a result of racial difference – but that was mostly represented through my hair,” she says.

So I had a long relationship with hating my hair and battling against my hair to try and make it look like the hair that is all around me, which naturally was very far from my hair. So I had to do some very wild and wonderful things to not so wonderful things, to achieve that.

As she outlines in the book, she has 4C hair, one of the curliest types of hair. Like all the other types, 4C requires its own specific care – it’s not to be washed every day, for example, and needs its own moisturising routine. Like straight hair, it has its own needs.

But when Dabiri was growing up, she was surrounded by people with no idea what to do with 4C hair, and as the book outlines this coloured her view of herself and her beauty. She chemically straightened her hair for years, before going for the ‘big chop’ and having most of it cut off when she was pregnant with her son.

From there, she grew it out into its own natural style, which she wears in whatever way she chooses – braided, or perhaps blow-dried straight. Her choice.

“It was very much ‘this is the way a little girl looks’ and hair was very much part of that, and I was far outside the boundaries of that,” she says of her childhood. “It was the attention my hair provoked – it wasn’t good attention. It wasn’t ‘oh my god, gorgeous’ – they were like ‘wtf – how do you get your hair like that, what’s wrong with it?’”

Skin colour

These younger years led to her academic interest in the topic of hair and what it means to both people and wider society. When it comes to the relationship between race and hair, Dabiri says that people “tend to think about race in terms of skin colour only”.

However, she believes for people of African descent, hair is more significant than skin colour. There are, after all, people in the world who are brown-skinned but who do not have the same hair textures as those of African descent. 

What she makes clear in the book is that she isn’t casting judgement on anyone who does chemically straighten their hair, or wear a weave or do something else that isn’t considered ‘natural’.

This isn’t a book touting the natural hair movement as the be-all- and end-all, but rather exploring natural hair as part of a world where people change, straighten and braid their hair for a variety of reasons. There is no ‘ultimate’ hairstyle for Black hair. But, as Dabiri points out, across the world people of colour have been targeted, abused, and cast out because of hair texture discrimination.

She cites the example of the South African students at Pretoria High School in 2016 who were told their natural hair had to be straightened and that they were not allowed afros. The school was criticised over its ‘stone age’ views.

Dabiri says she has had many people over the years trying to touch her hair without permission. She likens it to being petted as though she was an animal.

“It felt to me even as a young age very charged, you know the way you would pet an animal or dog. I wouldn’t even pet an animal without asking the owner’s permission, but I find it really strange that with human beings, people will without asking essentially ‘pet’ your hair texture. And sometimes as I got older people would ask but they wouldn’t be waiting for permission, even while I was in the process of saying ‘no’, their hand would be in my hair.

When you say ‘this isn’t cool’ it’s very much then you’re like this ‘angry black person’ and people are like ‘oh my god, you are so rude – I didn’t mean anything by it’. It’s performing these tropes.

She says what she came to realise, and did not know as a child, is this behaviour “is so tied up in that history of black people not having autonomy over our own body”. It’s connected to how, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were ‘human zoos’, where people were displayed like animals because of their skin colour and features. 

Dabiri’s experience makes you think – if you are white, how would you feel if someone came up and started touching your hair without permission? And how does the race of the person tie into your reaction to this?

She posits – what would happen if a black man did this to a white woman? “I don’t think he would have another five minutes before he is arrested,” she says.

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‘Suppressed knowledge’

Dabiri says a lot of her interest in the past comes from “wanting to understand where we are now – because I think people often leave out the historical context”.

So when we look at something like, say, cultural appropriation, the past helps us show that it “isn’t just really superficial and people being overly sensitive”, as she puts it.

“Even when Obama was first elected there was this idea we were or are living in a post-racial ideal – race was a thing that was ‘solved’ in the 60s with the civil rights movement,” says Dabiri. But that wasn’t the case, and in recent years we have seen US police brutality gained global attention, which led to the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dabiri’s book is about history, and the kind that you probably didn’t read in your history book. She reminds us that history is written by people with their own idea of place, time, and incident, and that colonialism can colour what is put in history books.

For example, “a lot of these [African countries'] societies that we were really quick to dismiss as primitive actually have really socially progressive ways of organised society,” says Dabiri. The idea of African women being “inherently oppressed” is taken apart in her book, as are the colonialist assumptions people might have about gender. 

“Even people of African descent often aren’t necessarily familiar with all of the ideas that are in the book,” she adds, describing a lot of it as “suppressed knowledge”.

shutterstock_1169549029 Source: Shutterstock/Red Confidential

As she writes from an Irish perspective, Dabiri includes some Irish vernacular and slang in her book. It’s one of a few things that makes it stand out from other writing on race and hair – it doesn’t come from a US or even UK perspective.

“I personally was excited that this got to be grounded in Ireland,” says Dabiri. “Even in the UK the same things happen – language and tropes tend to come from America… It’s such a dominant culture and popular culture.”

I intentionally left in Dublin slang like ‘auld ones’ – you would never see that in a book [like this].

“A lot of the current language around activism and identity is taken from America rather than letting our own organic versions develop,” she says. “I find that a little bit sad in a way.”

Her next challenge is to finish her PHd, but she also aims to write some fiction. A woman with “incredibly and possibly slightly unusually diverse interests”, Dabiri is not someone to be hemmed in by what people think of her.

Whether it’s fiction, fact, or academic work, she can and will do it – and always from her perspective as a Black Irish person. It’s a perspective that it is easy to say is ‘needed’ in a tone that might feel like a pat on the head. But it is needed – Ireland is home to millions of different and distinct voices, but some have been heard more clearly than others.

A book like Don’t Touch My Hair helps to give a voice to people who haven’t been heard enough yet – no matter how loudly they have been speaking. At last, society and culture is beginning to tune in.

Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri is published by Paul Allen and is out now.

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