Why do African Hair Braiders Single Me Out?

One of the benefits of living in New York is that you can find pretty much any food, consumer good, or service that you’re looking for. If you walk down the iconic 125th Street in Harlem as a black woman with natural hair, one particular service will stick out to you. Glare you in the face. Shout at you.

Hair braiders.

Regardless of the temperature, how I’m dressed, how fast I’m walking, whether I’m smiling or scowling, one thing remains constant whenever I walk along 125th street: I am approached by a minimum of 3 hair braiders shouting for my attention. Many of these women are African immigrants, their braiding shops small entities tucked in between McDonald’s and Rainbow, or housed in the basement or rear of one of Harlem’s giant beauty supply stores. As an African immigrant myself, I respect their hustle. Braids are a hot commodity in these parts, and particularly in the summer, as large box braids, Havana twists, and Senegalese twists can be seen sported by celebrities and common folk alike (I’m still waiting for Lady O to rock some waist length braids though, she knows she wants to!). With 2-4 braiders conquering each head, these small shops are a great option for people who want a fairly quick, low maintenance, and affordable protective style.

So what’s my beef?

These women–my sisters and aunties–overwhelmingly target me and other ladies who have decided to wear their hair in its natural state. Imagine this scenario: three women walk down from Frederick Douglass Blvd to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd (one avenue). The first has relaxed hair, in a bob, that is cute but obviously not fresh. The second has a long weave, poorly blended with visible tracks. The third has kinky hair, a carefully defined twist out with a pretty flower pinned in the corner.

9 times out of 10 (I’ve walked down 125th street hundreds of times), the hair braiders will harass woman #3. Me. Never the woman with the bob, and (to my dismay) not the woman with the sad weave. I use harass because the conversation/verbal attack often goes like this:

Hair braiding miss?
No thank you (smiles).
Excuse me miss, I SAID hair braiding!
I’m ok thanks
BUT MISS, HELLO, HAIR BRAIDING!!!

No means no. In every context. So when I say no the first time, either because I’m on my way somewhere (who actually randomly decides to braid their hair at 4pm on a Tuesday?) or I happen to like my hair that day, I really mean no. When I first experienced this I had to seriously reflect the moment I got home. Was my hair busted? Was my kitchen unbrushed? Did my updo really look like an updon’t? After the next five or so times, I realized that it had nothing to do with my hair. Regardless of whether my hair was freshly washed and styled in a twistout, an old puff, fro’ed out, or pinned up elegantly, I was equally and always asked if I wanted my hair braided, and then emphatically reproached when I declined.

If it wasn’t me, then it had to be them. What is it about my kinky hair that makes the hair braiders on 125th street believe that I am in immediate and dire need of their services? Obviously it wasn’t the kind of hairstyle, nor the quality, so it must’ve been the state of my hair. Being West African I know how most of my people feel about natural hair. Natural hair is reserved for school girls and is kept uniformly cropped in a low cut. The only adult Nigerian women I’d ever seen with braided or twisted hair (without extensions) until recent times were the actresses portraying house girls in Nollywood films. So most people in the motherland don’t think it’s the move. When I went to Nigeria two years ago, my cousins were thoroughly confused about my “Afro” (it was a twist out) and why I didn’t relax my hair like everyone else. Thankfully I made progress with them and a few have since gone natural, but I have a feeling that many of my aunties on 125th still see my hair as unmanageable, undesirable, and unsightly, and assume that I want to–or even worse, that I need to–put my kinks into braids.

One of these days when I actually do have a few minutes free time, I plan on stopping an African hair braider and asking her why she singled me out of the crowd of twenty women who walked by. Maybe I have a welcoming face. Maybe they can tell I’m West African by my wide nose and fluffy cheeks. But I have a strong sense that it’s because of my hair and only my hair, which is cause for a serious discussion about perceptions of kinky hair among African women, whether they are immigrants or several generations removed. Seeing as the convo will take a while, I might as well get my hair braided.

Do hair braiders, or African women in general, still see natural hair as an element that needs to be both tamed and hidden? Are braided styles disproportionately advertised to the natural hair community?

*Sidenote: I love braids. We have no beef. When installed and maintained correctly, they can be a fantastic protective style. I wore kinky twists while transitioning, Senegalese twists in year 2, and Havana twists in year 3. I just don’t want to have my hair braided every day. I also think weaves are a great protective style, until this happens.

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Comments

  1. Oh how true this is. I live in Kenya, and sometimes, I’ll pass on going to the salon for a manicure because I know the stylist will take one look at my natural hair and bother me for half an hour about having it braided or blow dried till its as straight as it can be!

  2. Just had a similar experience with the dominican salon. Took my girls to get a wash and blow. The lady keeps coming to me asking if I wanted to DO my hair as well… ummm no I’m good (not to mention I’m loving my high bun today).
    125th street is notorious for the braiding hollas but I never looked at it as them suggesting my hair was unkempt. Smh ignorance is bliss lol
    seriously though ladies don’t let the non naturals sway you we have healthy beautiful hair that God gave us. My head is held high!

  3. I am from South Africa (born, bread, and I think I will die here). I have the same problem, my friends and colleagues have straightened hair and weaves. Whenever we are going somewhere I am approached by braiders to come braid my hair. Little do they know that I went natural because I hate having someone’s hands on my head, only I am allowed. I understand their hassle but it annoys me because if I wanted to do anything I would approach them.

  4. I am from west africa (born and raised) until i wandered to France in my teenage years.
    Same here, may be even worst: when walking with friends, the braiders would single me out asking if i wanted my hair braided. After a few nos, they would ask if i wanted it dreaded. So yeah natural hair is just a state affiliated to not caring so you have to do some: braids or anything that would turn the bush into an actual style.
    I wore a fade for years and didn’t get that eye until i decided i wanted to change and let my hair grow. First braid set, my hair was blowdried and when i dared to complain about the heat and the small tooth comb, the woman just answered “You’re the one who cut your hair and doesn’t relax” as in “You are sooooo gonna pay for that”!…Needless to say, that was the last of it and i switched salons.
    On the same topic a nice lady who braided me once in Senegal told me she thought my hair was beautiful (she never had a relaxer on her hair so that might have something to do with it)
    “my” stylist only listens to what i want because i tip (bribe) her so much and still she’s trying to push the relaxer as my hair is getting bigger.
    My male cousin asked my SO a few months ago why he wasn’t telling me to get a weave (mind you i’ve never liked weaves, they’re just not me)and how he could let me parade streets with my hair like that. Guess it’s about state of mind, what is considered to be the norm and marketing opportunities… Hair out and free = you might wanna do some to it

    1. Wow you brought up so many additional issues! Hairstylists pressuring you to relax, men doing the usual and trying to butt into our lives because they think they know best. Sheesh!

  5. When I was 7 months natural the braider told me to come with a relaxer next time so it can be easier to braid. I told her I wasn’t relaxing my hair anymore. She still tried to convince me to do it, if only for a few seconds. Plus! The way she yankd on my hair I’m just I happy that I have all my hair and edges.

  6. I thought I was the only one who noticed that. When I was relaxed, hair braiders on 125th only said something to me when I walked extra close to them, and they usually didn’t even rise from whatever they were sitting on or move from their spot. But once I started transitioning and it was clear that I had a head of half-natural, half-straight hair (around month 6) they started yelling at me from *everywhere* – in the train station ACROSS the station, approaching me on the sidewalk, occasionally literally stopping me from walking. I’m like, “Does my hair really look that scruffy?” But eventually I realized no, either they think that natural hair is just naturally scruffy and needs to have something “done” to it or Kiki’s theory is true and they just realize that I am far more likely to randomly decide to get my hair braided at 2 pm on a Tuesday than the chick with the fresh relaxer or the chick with the booty-length weave.

  7. Could it be that they are approaching you because they know that you have the freedom to actually get your hair braided in that moment if you choose and therefore you are a more likely sale then the others? Speaking as a woman with relaxed hair but a lover of braided styles, I have to carefully plan when I will get my braids – I don’t want it when my hair is freshly permed because that’s a waste of money and this style is good for at least 1 month. Between the woman who is clearly so attached to the booty length weave that she’s holding on to it even when the hair is clearly not trying to hold on to her and the woman who has her hair life scheduled on a 8 week rotation that you just might could but most likely won’t fit into and the natural sister, I would say you win everytime.. take it as a compliment that you are not enslaved into hair bondage like the others…so in short, you still in first place!

    1. Interesting perspective! Natural women do have more freedom than relaxed women to switch up their hairstyle, so maybe we make up more of the hair braiding market.

  8. “BUT MISS, HELLO, HAIR BRAIDING!!!” LOL! Wow. I loved this…I forgot about how bad it was over there till the day of that event at Carol’s Daughter. I think between the train station and the store, I got hollered at by two African Hair Braiders. It would seem that it’s more that it’s advertised to the natural community- you’re natural and in touch with your “motherland” roots so surely you must like, want and need braids. It may very well also be what you said due to the fact that wearing ones hair out in a fro or anything other than cropped is something that they just don’t do. I must say, those walks do make for some comedy though.

  9. Am from East Africa and natural hair is common among primary or high school kids and whenever you pass by the hair braiding shops the women always call you out. It is something am used to. I think African women are just not yet sold on the idea of embracing your hair and wearing as it is.

    1. Interesting to know that it happens in some parts of Africa as well, so it’s a cultural/socially normal practice that the braiders brought along with them from their home countries. I will definitely be on the lookout next time I go

  10. Wait. Is this braid for free? Hook me up. As a Nigerian mama, I think the belief of my African sisters is that, as a black woman, your hair should be in braids to look elegant. I wear my hair natural and may I say that I loooove it. Thanks to Klassy Kinks. I believe with time, my sisters will come to terms that wearing your hair natural is the most elegant out there. Just saying.

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