What’s the Right Word?

A while back, I was trying to figure out how to refer succinctly to the hair texture typical of black people–very fine and very tightly curled. I was notably unsuccessful.

My interest stems from a desire to get more brown faces into popular fiction. Currently, with occasional exceptions, main characters are white unless there is a specific reason for them to be otherwise in both books and movies. If a writer does not specify a character’s race, he or she is likely to be depicted as white in cover art and movie adaptations.

One book I’m working on now is set in a largely post-racial society, which means I’m free to make any character any color I want without worrying that I might depict a certain racial identity wrong. But I can’t describe them as “black” because that is a cultural construct they don’t have. Instead, if I want readers to picture a character as black, I have to describe his or her appearance.

But I don’t want to devote too much time and space to describing the skin color of every single character, even those whose appearances are very brief–I can’t produce text that seems obsessed with something I’m trying to make beside the point. So, I thought I could vary which physical details I use to get the point across and occasionally describe hair texture alone.

And the problem is that all the adjectives for “black” hair texture are either racial descriptors (black, African, negroid) or are politically charged (nappy, kinky, woolly) or depend on the reader already knowing the character is black (natural–after all, my hair is natural, too, as I do not dye or cut it, but since my ancestors are Italian and Irish, it is not the texture I’m talking about). I asked around to see if I could find better adjectives, and it appears there are none.

It appears that there is actually no socially acceptable English word for the hair texture of a huge portion of humanity. The closest we can come is either to give a long-winded description or to indicate the person’s race and leave their hair to the imagination.

How is it that there are millions of people who cannot name their own natural hair texture? As if there were something wrong with looking like that?

So, I’m putting out a call–if your hair is fine, dense, and very tightly curled, such that you look as though some of your ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa, please suggest an adjective for your hair texture that you are comfortable with.

And then I will use that word.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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