For people of color, many moments in Netflix’s new series Dear White People feel instantly recognizable. But one in particular feels uncomfortably autobiographical for people of color with natural hair. The troubling scene comes in Dear White People's "Chapter II," which is dedicated to Winchester University’s resident Afro-ed reporter, Lionel (DeRon Horton).
Lionel heads to a theater kids' party to "find his label" after saying he doesn’t subscribe to calling himself gay. After a couple of brief flirtations with a Reeve Carney look-alike named Connor (Luke O'Sullivan), Lionel ends up going back to his new crush’s apartment, which Conor shares with his "roommate with benefits." Like most students at Winchester, both Connor and his kinda-girlfriend Becca (Taylor Foster) are white.
In a prelude to a threesome request, Becca plants her hand in Lionel’s Afro. Immediately, I cringe. And, yet, it gets worse. "You don’t mind, do you?" she asks while already combing through Lionel’s hair like it’s the scene of a crime on NCIS: Los Angeles. It is overwhelming how many reasons this is the worst question ever.
Just to start off, you should never touch a person of color’s hair, unless they ask you to. This is such a cut-and-dry rule, comedian Phoebe Robinson wrote an entire book about it. It’s alienating, exoticizing, and uncomfortable for the person whose space you’re invading. I know this because it happened to me throughout high school. I have Type 3c hair and dyed it bleach-blonde during my teens, which meant it drew all of the attention.
As someone who essentially went to high school with a 4,000-person Jersey Shore cast — no, really, my South Shore Staten Island high school has about 4,000 students in it — my platinum blonde Afro-Latina hair stood out. Girls I had never met would touch my hair in the bathroom between puffs of their cigarettes. Girls in my class who I was in no way friends with would pull my curls down to watch them bounce, drawling, "It’s like doll hair." Everyone just assumed I was fine with this and never really asked if it was okay. I would often mumble, "It’s fine," as I was so resigned to this happening.
That’s the other big reason Becca’s question was so awful. She doesn’t say, "Is it okay if I touch her hair?" She says, "You don’t mind, do you?" That version of the statement puts Lionel in the most awkward position, since Becca gives herself permission first and then asks Lionel to confirm her bad behavior is acceptable. So, he can either remain in an uncomfortable situation or tell his new friend to back off. Which door do you think a socially awkward person like Lionel chooses?
By the end of "Chapter II," Lionel asks his roommate and real crush Troy (Brandon P Bell) to give him a hair cut, lowering the chances of another person rooting around his Afro. I love Lionel's new, tighter style, but I really wish he didn't have to go through all this nonsense to get it.