Hair Stories: (Ron)

Interview by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Joana Meurkens

In a society that values whiteness and one’s ability to approximate it, hair can be a battleground. In Hair Stories, we wrestle with what it means to love yourself through your relationship with hair and others’ perception of it. Through interviews with our editors, contributors and community members, we journey through what beauty means in different cultures and the narratives woven into our locs. Where do our hair preferences and grievances come from? What does our hair tell us about our family history, our culture, our people? In this series, we interview and photograph people from different diasporas, to get the root of their hair story. We ask them; what does your hair symbolize to you? 

In Part Three of Hair Stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing my fiancé Ron Collins. Conversations around Blackness, self-love and hair care connected us from the very beginning of our relationship. And as we begin our family together, I felt inspired to learn more about Ron’s hair journey, especially as we are both beginning to analyze our own complex relationships to our hair, how we were raised, and what values we want to pass on to our children. In this interview, Ron digs deep into his relationship with his hair, his masculinity, and his Blackness.

“Men wore their hair naturally, either in dreads or close cut, but most of the women in my family wore their hair relaxed. I asked myself, how come I can’t relax my hair and why do they relax it? I started to notice how gender played a role in the expectations of hair management for Black people.”

I’m Black. My family has been in the D.C, Maryland, Virginia area for decades and I grew up just outside D.C in Prince George’s County. My father comes from a big family of six families. My mother grew up in Southeast D.C, which is a historically Black area of the city but when my grandparents bought the house that area was inhabited by white folks. Prior to that, my mother and her family all lived in a one bedroom apartment together. Growing up in this area, I’ve felt like an observer to the gentrification that’s occurred. Displacement hasn’t affected me personally, I grew up with a lot of resources in the suburbs of D.C, but I was still conscious of the struggles my family faced. I was never shielded from the hardships of life. 

Growing up, I’d go to family reunions often where close to 100 family members gathered for cookouts. We had hay sack races, played horseshoe and all of the country games that were so fun and different for me as a suburban kid. I can’t speak for every only child, but I was very to myself and also felt like a spectator… I watched how people around me behaved. Being amongst a lot of family, I loved seeing the diversity in our lineage… be that in racial mixtures or just the gradients of hair types and skin color. Thankfully I never experienced firsthand or noticed colorism within my family, although it’s so pervasive in the Black community. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I started to question why most women in my family relaxed their hair while the men didn’t. Men wore their hair naturally, either in dreads or close cut, but most of the women in my family wore their hair relaxed. I asked myself, how come I can’t relax my hair and why do they relax it? I started to notice how gender played a role in the expectations of hair management for Black people. 

If you let people dictate it, there definitely is such a thing as good or bad hair. The finer the better, the coarser the worser. With Black hair, the whole objective is to manage it, especially for women. The main lesson is to do something with it…. wherever that be perming it, relaxing it, shaving it, you just have to do something. 

When I was in elementary and middle school, it was about fitting in. All I did with my hair then was get hair cuts. Interestingly enough, the music I listened to and the culture that accompanied it played a big role in how I styled my hair. I’d been playing the trumpet since elementary school, so I always had a soft spot for jazz and classical music, but up until freshman year of high school I mostly listened to Hip-hop. That played a huge role in how I styled my hair and how I dressed. I’d be hanging out at the mall playing videos with my cut off shirts, ear piercing and chain. Sophomore year I started listening to metal, rock, and electronic music. The culture accompanying those genres were so different and influenced me to change it up. Anime was also huge, as was the Hawaiian shirt trend. I started dying my hair different colors, using waxes and gels, bleaching it, you name it. I was definitely that alternative Black kid, but since I went to a predominately Black arts high school, there were other kids like me. It felt like a place where you could be different. There were only a few instances where I was fucked with. I remember being a senior, standing outside my car when a bunch of freshman boys started throwing coins at my car. I’m so confident on my own that I’m not looking for approval, but it made me excited to get out of high school and seek out people who got me. 

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I actually started to grow out my hair and learn to take care of it. When you start letting it grow out, you realize your hair can’t do things that other people’s hair can. That’s where the whole good and bad thing comes in. But adulthood made me come into my own in many ways. I started learning about my hair like I learned about everything else. You learn how to take care of yourself and eventually your hair comes into that equation. I realized what I was doing to my hair in terms of toxicity, which made me take a second to reflect on why I was doing the things I was doing. Why had I become that alternative kid? I didn’t feel like I was running away from anything because Black kids can experiment too. But I just realized all that bleaching and dying wasn’t good for my health. That was also when I started applying for jobs and kept hearing the importance of being “clean cut”. For white men that might mean being shaved and getting spiffy, but for Black men there’s another connotation. For Black people it means, “clean up you animal.” There’s a lot of pressure to get rid of the coils and the curls in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. I realized that I was penalized for having a certain type of hair, so I took it upon myself to learn how to take care of my hair and look “presentable” without compromising my sense of self. 

My hair is all about hydration. If it’s oiled and moisturized then it’s happy. It’s pretty low maintenance, but it’s just a lot of hair. My partner when I was in my mid 20s had a lot of hair care knowledge and made me spray bottles with ⅔ warm water, ⅓ leave-in conditioner. I experienced a big shift in my early 20s to focusing on hair care, thinking about it like soil in a garden. Right now I don’t do any other styles with it other than combing it out. The curl pattern is very tight so it’s not going to puff. People assume that if you have an afro or tight coarse hair then it’s all the same, but it’s not. If I were to straighten it, it would be to my shoulders, but the coils are tight. I’m not the “Afro” type. I’m more of the “Black Caesar” type. 

Black people often hear that they’re not Black enough or they’re too Black. That’s very much reflected in how others view our hair and how we view ourselves. People discriminate on what they consider “high maintenance”. Or when your hair looks really good, it can be a bougie natural kind of thing, leading to praise which doesn’t seem like it’s the kind of praise that’s legitimate. It’s similar to what women face. I did have a horrific experience with TSA at the airport. A TSA person checked my hair and hadn’t changed gloves. I’m thinking to myself, he put his hands on people’s bodies, in their crotches and then  go right to touching my hair. It felt so dirty. You don’t have the mindset to change your gloves? The lack of care and the blatant discrimination was so disrespectful. I felt angry, almost like an attack on my personhood. 

As a Black man in this country, I’m expected to keep my hair clean and cut. Black women have to deal with another beast of discrimination and expectations from white supremacy. People judge you for having short hair because you’re moving away from the white patriarchal model of what it means to be a woman. If it’s not long and voluptuous, if it’s not all of these “Nubian” “exotic” things, you get judged. I think it’s much harder for women. They can’t just clean-cut it and walk away. They have to do so much. And when they try other styles, they get called out for being “fake”. As a Black man, I never had to experience that. 

I want to teach our kids to learn to love their hair. The earlier you get to know it, the better. You get used to it, you take care of it early on and everyone else just sounds foolish. I’m curious to learn their hair type, it’ll be such a personal journey for them and for me as their father. I’m excited for all the scalp massages and head rubs. Hair and scalp care is such a beautiful intimate way to connect with someone you love. 

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