Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri – Review

Don't Touch My Hair

Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri is a powerful combination of memoir, history and political polemic. 

Woven into the braids of African hair is the story of pre-colonial Africa and through Emma’s personal experience and research in this book, we get to read the narratives of black people from that time to this.  

“As a practice, hairstyling has much to offer and opens up excitingly decolonized possibilities for better understanding the African past in order to shape a better collective future.”

Significance of metaphor

Three themes stand out for me.  First is the importance of recognising the significance of metaphor.   The first chapter, entitled ‘It’s only hair’, makes it clear that there is no ‘only’ about it.  

“From my earliest memories, my hair was presented as a problem that needed to be managed. The deeply entrenched idea of ‘managing’ black women’s hair operates as a powerful metaphor for societal control over our bodies at both micro and macro levels.”  

Within attitudes to black people’s natural hair, both from white and black people, is the history of colonialism with all the assumptions of black inferiority.  African hair, just as the Africans themselves, is seen as unruly and wild, in need of taming to make it more palatable to the white man.  And I do mean man as there is also something patriarchal in this notion of applying the civilising hand of reason and order to the wild nature of both blackness and woman. 

For Dabiri, hair is a living language.  “Our unique hair texture allows us to be the living embodiments of a complex visual language, the scope of its concerns social, technological, philosophical and spiritual – a visual language that was designed to be transmitted by our features.”  By dismissing the metaphor then we silence that language.  


Believing people on their terms

The second theme is the importance of believing people’s stories on their own terms, whatever the story.  I started to get interested in race and challenging my own white privilege, after I was called out by a friend of mine.  She is Jamaican and tried to tell me about an experience which she experienced as racism.  I dismissed her reading of the situation saying it was just personal and had nothing to do with race.  She called me out on that, and eventually I listened and started to educate myself.  When I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I am no longer talking to white people about race, I realised I had done precisely the thing that had stopped Eddo-Lodge from talking to white people about race, the penny finally dropped and my journey with challenging whiteness began. 

It is not up to us to determine where significance lies for somebody else.  During the recent row in cricket about the allegations of racism made by Azeem Rafiq, current and former England Captains, Joe Root and Michael Vaughan, came out to say that they are not racist and that they have never seen any racism*, whereas a chorus of Asian players said something else.  Maybe, just maybe, white people don’t see racism in the same way that people of colour do.  It is not up to white people to determine what is and isn’t racism.   It is never up to someone else to decide how you see something.  

At the same time as reading this book I was reading Natasha Lunn’s Conversations on Love.  In her conversation with writer Roxane Gay she learns that vital to maintaining a love relationship is “accepting and believing your partner’s feelings when they are different from your own, rather than trying to talk them out of them.” Listening to what someone is saying from their point of view, listening with empathy, is an act of love.  It is not just important for me as a white person to listen to the stories of black people because they are black and if I am to be a good anti-racist then that is what I am supposed to do.  I am listening because that is what love requires of me.  

We all bring our personal stories, histories, some personal, some systemic, to any situation.  To truly hear, to truly see the other, we have to listen to their story on their terms and listen for the significance that any situation has for them.  


Reclaiming your time as a radical act

The third element is about reclaiming your natural hair as a radical act of reclaiming your connection with your wild nature and with the earth.  

“But the terms ‘neat’ and ‘professional’ are both highly constructed, and to deem black people’s hair as it grows naturally from our heads neither neat not professional is incredibly revealing.”

Patriarchal capitalism requires that we are divorced from the earth and from our own wild animal natures.  To reconnect with the natural world and our own place in it, allows us to be in the flow of life.  The disconnection has allowed the desecration of the earth.  To reclaim our connection with our own wild natures is to move towards a world where we can heal the earth or at least stop destroying it.  

I feel the same way about reclaiming our menstrual cycles.  I know so many women whose cycles have been closed down by hormonal contraception and replacement therapies and I wonder what we lose by doing that, being able to act like quasi men.  What do we lose by losing that connection with our natural cycles, the cyclical nature of energy, corresponding to the cyclical nature of the moon and the tide and the seasons and of time generally?

“On a practical and basic level, reclaiming my time is rejecting a lifestyle that prevents us from doing our damn hair. Reclaiming my time is taking the time to practise self-care, time too often denied in a brutal world designed to grind us down.”

Reclaiming the time to have your hair done is about reclaiming that depth of connection with another human, with the group, with your sisters, and with our own bodies.  Animals groom each other all the time, it is part of interdependence, of bonding, belonging, community.  Red tents were about hanging out with your sisters, reclaiming sorority, honouring and celebrating where you are in your cycle, not closing it off even to yourself so that you can be a good functioning capitalist worker, forever available.  Reclaiming that time is a radical act.

“Many women insist that their decision to go natural is not explicitly political. The fact that they even have to state this, however, shows how far from the norm black hair is still considered to be.”

There is tremendous richness in this book.  I look forward to reading her next one for a book group that I am part of from the end of this month.  


*they have since backtracked and are cooperating with the investigation into the allegations.  I am hoping it will be a good opportunity for soul-searching, not just in Yorkshire cricket but in society generally.  As a sport which spread round the world at the time of empire, and is still primarily played by former British colonies, cricket can be seen as a microcosm of colonialism generally.

The Value of Integration

The value of integration

I saw this sign in a warehouse directing people to ‘Inward Tipping’ and it got me thinking.  I have spent many years firstly training for, building up to, and then waiting for my assessment as a certified trainer in NVC.  Now that the event has taken place and I have been recommended, I find myself feeling a little lost.  I have so many plans to put in place, so many exciting projects to bring to the world, but nothing is flowing right now and I am contemplating instead the value of taking time to integrate.

The sign in the warehouse was in the area where work arrives on a lorry and is organised before being despatched back out again on different lorries.  This work is normally referred to as inbound or arrivals.  I have never seen it referred to as ‘Inward Tipping’ before.  Lorries come in, they are tipped, that is why it is referred to as tipping, but given that is also my surname, I was struck by the sign.

Going inward

At first I saw it as a description, I am introverted, I could relate to being an ‘inward Tipping’.  I am not generally shy, I just need a huge amount of solitude to balance out even a small amount of time spent in company.  That is why driving trucks at night has suited me for so long. I am being paid to think, to reconnect with myself and all that is.  As I set off on a journey of 2 hours or more, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief and can feel my head taking time to put itself back together after the busyness of outward life.  I read the sign initially as a celebration of that process.   A few days later, I was sitting in Quaker meeting.  I had done a night shift the night before and had not slept so found myself reading Advices and Queries to stay awake.  No. 3 includes the following lines: 

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. 

Twice in one paragraph it uses the word ‘inward’.  At that moment I experienced the sign, not as a description of how I am generally, but as an instruction of where I need to go now.

It is not enough to simply spend time alone, if all that time is spent beating yourself up about all the things that you are not doing.  You are not getting the value of going inward, if what you are thinking about is all the things that you need to do outward.  

Integration as active process

So how does one go about integrating?  For me it is about noticing which elements of life are coming to mind, and then fully experiencing everything that thought is trying to tell you.  Now, when I think about the assessment event and certification, I fully take time to celebrate all the work that has gone into it, the wonderful connections I have made and the beautiful sense of achievement of having chosen a path, worked for it and arrived at this stage with it.  When I think about the courses I am designing for women in male-dominated industry, I am not planning the specifics for now, I am encouraging myself to fully connect with the living energy of what I want to contribute – the experience of wholeness, of walking towards a new way of being with joy, of changing the world for the better through compassion, connection and choice.  Lesson plans, marketing strategies and sign up forms can wait.  For now, I am just hanging out in the beauty and joy of life so that when the time comes, I can move forward from a place of groundedness.

Free online mini-course “Banter or bullying: where do you draw your line?”

My new course is ready to go!  Banter or bullying: Where do you draw your line?

The topic of banter came up a lot in my interviews with young women – those little comments which could be a bit fun and flirty, but just don’t sound right at work, or they come from the wrong person or in the wrong context.  They might be ok in the pub but in a business meeting where you are the only woman, they undermine your authority and your confidence.

This course Banter or Bullying: Where do you draw your line?  is designed to help you trust your judgement in the moment that something didn’t sound right.  It also helps you feel grounded enough so that you can choose how to respond.

Using the skills of Nonviolent Communication, you will learn how to check in with yourself in any situation, to know exactly what it is you are longing for.  You will learn how to support yourself so that you don’t get that sense of panic and overwhelm when you hear something undermining.

Why improving diversity is a nonviolent act.

We think of diversity and inclusion as policies which organisations adopt to improve their demographic balance.  There are programmes to support and empower women, people of colour and people from the LGBTQI community and these are all to be welcomed.  For me, diversity goes way beyond a process for creating opportunities for marginalised groups.  For me, accepting and encouraging diversity is a nonviolent act.

Quakers are “called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’.”  We are asked to “Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war.” (Advices and Queries, no. 31).  The unconscious bias and privilege that we carry with us every day are part of that way of life which may contain the seeds of war.  Challenging them are acts of nonviolence.

Nonviolence in action

Nonviolence is not just the absence of physical violence, it is the presence of something different, something that Martin Luther King called justiceMarshall Rosenberg chose Nonviolent Communication as the name of his ground-breaking process to draw a link with Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance to oppression.  Underlying any violence, physical, verbal, emotional, is some kind of separation between you and me, between us and them.  When the group called ‘us’ looks different to the group called ‘them’, it makes it a lot easier to put that wall up and a lot harder to break it down.

Recognition of the shared humanity of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the foundation of diversity and inclusion work.  When we are each part of a greater whole called ‘us’ the divisions slip away.

The importance of history

To try and create a nonviolent and inclusive world from now will be an empty task without recognition of the violence of history.  The historic freedom to build that wall between us and them has always been indicative of, and constructive of, power relations.  The capacity to define who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, is the power to judge ‘them’ as lesser.  The one who tells the story of who is in and who is out has the power to exclude and banish from view those they do not consider to belong.  It is the power to dominate and it is profoundly violent.  

Wherever we choose to be now, we are not coming from the same place.  Women have only a few generations in the workplace behind them.  People from underprivileged backgrounds in the UK have only had access to the benefits of higher education and health care since the 2nd world war and the massive rise in tuition fees over the last decade has reversed that opportunity.  People from formerly colonised parts of the world or whose personal histories contain stories of forced migration, carry with them that experience of powerlessness.   The recent series It’s a Sin on UK television has vividly depicted just how recent it was that coming out at work would be tantamount to career suicide.  

Colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and policies which restrict access to good quality education and health care are all in themselves violent acts. Approaches to diversity which do not recognise the burden of history are merely surface dressing. 

Yes, diversity is a cornerstone of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and that is a good thing.  And it is so much more than shifting the demographic of your workforce.  It is an opportunity to shine a light on histories of domination and move towards a more peaceful and equitable future.

Image by Joshua J Cotten on Unsplash

Call out for interviewees!

Are you female, under 35 and working in a male-dominated field?

If so, I would love to hear from you.

I am developing some online personal development courses for young women in male-dominated industries and I would love to interview a few people to make sure that the courses are going to be as useful for women as they can be.  The courses will address confidence issues, working in or leading teams of men, building your network etc and I would love to know what would support you.

All I ask is half an hour of your time to have a chat about what you love about your job and what would make it more wonderful.

If you would like to be involved, email me at

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I look forward to hearing from you!


What is Nonviolent Communication?

What is Nonviolent Communication? 

NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, in the 1960s. On a purely practical level it is a series of steps to follow, to increase your understanding of why you are feeling and acting the way you are and to then understand the same in others. 

“With Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC helps us discover the depth of our own compassion. This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute, every day.” (From website of Center for Nonviolent Communication)

On a consciousness level it is about a commitment to deep connection with the self and with others and through that radically altering the way that humans relate to each other.  At its core it focusses on fundamental human needs and the understanding that in any situation all anyone is trying to do is meet their needs.  Once you become aware of what the need is that you or someone else is trying to meet, it is a lot easier to empathise and start to understand someone’s behaviour.  

Between those two poles of the practical and the conscious, there is where we all place ourselves as practitioners and trainers of Nonviolent Communication.  For me, rather than just telling somebody the importance of empathy in leadership, I like to give a very clear process for what that means and how it might happen.  It is a tool for self-connection so that in any situation you can understand your own motivations better and through that you can create the capacity within you to understand other people’s motivations better.  

What does NVC mean to me?

Where my interest lies, especially in the work I do in male-dominated industries, is in finding ways for people to communicate so that diversity and creating a more diverse team, is a lot less scary and just flows easily.  It is also about bringing our awareness to what is a choice and how much of the way things are – our typical habits and ways of relating to each other – are part of a pattern that can easily be changed, while still staying authentic.  For me it is about changing the small picture while always keeping an eye on the big picture.

How did I get into NVC?

I first heard about NVC while at a festival down in Dorset.  I didn’t go to the workshop but was intrigued by the name.  Then in 2014 I left a relationship and I knew that communication had been a serious issue for us.  I bought Marshall’s book and read it, ticking off all the things that he and I had done that contributed to the relationship not working!  From then I was hooked.  I went to my first course in 2015, started on the path to certification as a trainer in 2017 and would hopefully have certified in 2020 had COVID not got in the way.

Now it is the process I turn to make sense of myself, to understand why something has bothered me, to delve deeper into the core beliefs which underlie the surface behaviour and to empathise better with others.  I love the simplicity of the model combined with the depth that it makes possible.  We are all a work in progress, but I am very grateful to have found the process that works for me.

Image by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

What is Patriarchy?

Patriarchy is a term which pits women against men and women who are willing to call themselves feminists against those who are not.  In fact, the word itself is often the reason for that unwillingness as so many women, like me, know so many lovely men. So let me make this really clear: patriarchy is not about men.  Well, it is not just about men.  So what is patriarchy?

There is so much I could write about patriarchy and over the course of these blog posts I probably will. 

To me, patriarchy is  a system of domination characterised by violence in word and deed, and by the separation of humans from each other, from the natural world, and from their own feelings and needs.

It is a system where judgement and blame are the norm and compassion and connection are discouraged.  It is a system where most suffer financially and everyone suffers personally.

A brief history of patriarchy

Patriarchy means ‘rule by the father’.  It is a system which grew up where the father was the head of the household, all property and power were held in his hands and he passed it all on to his children.  I highlight the word ‘his’ because once the paternity of a man’s children became paramount, women had to be controlled to guarantee that no other man should have access to her.  It was at this point that domination and control became embedded in the system.  This is not the universal or natural order of things, it is historically contingent.  Basically, it just grew up in some places and it spread.  (See Miki Kashtan Why Patriarchy is not about Men)

What patriarchy does not mean 

Patriarchy does not mean that all men have life easier than all women.  It does not mean that there are no other issues of suffering or inequality in the world.  It certainly does not mean that men do not suffer at the hands of patriarchy, quite the opposite.

“I do not want to smash the patriarchy.  I want to be the open, clear and gentle space where it can put down all its weapons and weep its generations of grief.”  Shanti Zimmerman.

I love this quote from Shanti Zimmerman.  Smashing anything brings with it the energy of violence.  To dismantle a violent system by using violence is counter-productive.  Violence does violence to those who perpetrate it just as much as it does to the victims of it (I will write about the work I have done with people who have committed violence elsewhere and working with military veterans is an area of work I would love to stretch into).  To dismantle a system of domination we have to use the tools of nonviolence: compassion, connection, understanding and before all that, grief.


The Political is Personal

Second wave feminism told us that the personal is political  – what happens in the home is reflective of what is going on in society as a whole.  It reminds us that the domestic arrangements that we have always taken for granted are in fact a political statement of how current thinking says that things ought to be.

The political is also personal. 

We internalise the messages that we receive from outside to such an extent that we don’t realise how much we recreate the very systems that we, on the surface, challenge with every fibre of our being.

Once in a webinar where the panellists were all people of colour who practise Nonviolent Communication (, a woman of African descent said that she remembered a time where she had her hand up in class and when two white people then put their hands up, she put hers down.  Noticing herself doing it was the first time she realised just how much the systemic racism in the culture where she lived had colonised her actions.

I felt really moved and sad when I heard that as I started to imagine the journey that she must have taken from being that young girl in the classroom, into the woman at peace in her own power that I witness now.  In his book Natives , Akala tells of his experience of being a boy racialised as black who kept his hand up, and the abuse he subsequently received from his teachers.  I can understand the motivation to play the role that is expected, to keep your hand down, for your own peace and safety.

Have you ever noticed on quiz shows where if there is a team of both men and women and neither of them know the answer, how often the woman says, “Oh I don’t know, you choose”?  I am aware whenever I park an articulated lorry, I am carrying with me generations of voices that tell me that women have no spatial awareness and that I should not be able to do this task.  There have been days when I wanted to agree with them, when I have had enough of the mental fight and I just want to settle into the ease of conforming to stereotype.

This is where my work lies – in the intersection of the political and the personal.  My passion is to tell the truth about the messages which underlie our behaviour, to make the unconscious conscious, so that we can shine a light onto it and change it for the better.

Central to this is kindness. 

As soon as the word ‘diversity’ is mentioned, those in positions of structural privilege – white people, men, people with degrees – instantly feel on their guard, fearful that they are going to make a faux pas, show their underlying privilege or -ism, or simply that they, that we, are going to lose something, our access to jobs or resources.  Before all that, before we think about what it might look like in practice to shift society, we simply have to listen with kindness to the voices of those who are marginalised, and hold ourselves with kindness as we notice our reaction.  Then we can hear each other from a place of connection.