Q&A with DiverseU’s Sierra Pannell

First seen in Montana Kaimin / Illustration by Lindsey Sewell

Sierra Pannell and Jazzie Johnson presented at DiverseU this past Thursday as part of two days of presentations focusing on diversity and social issues. Their talk, “The Things My Hair Holds: A look into the meanings of Black Hair,” dove into the political and cultural importance of Black hair and the misunderstandings of it. We sat down with Pannell, a 21-year-old social work major who has been researching Black hair history since high school to talk about Black hair in Montana and her own personal journey with her hair.

Editor’s note: Interview has been edited for clarity.

Kaimin: Why did you feel like it was important to talk about Black hair?

Pannell: It was important because I didn’t even know the history of it until I started researching it. I thought this is something I didn’t even know for a long time, I’m sure white people aren’t going to know this. I think talking about discrimination and racism is super important. I think it’s also important to talk about hair and the microaggressions that people go through with their hair that white people don’t even think about.

Kaimin: What is the importance of Black hair to Black people?

Pannell: It’s a political thing, and it holds a lot of symbolism. It has been political since Africans were forced into America. It was determined by society. Black women historically had to wear their hair straight to get jobs in white spaces.

Kaimin: What does it mean to straighten your hair as a Black woman?

Pannell: The first time I made my mom by a straightener product, I sat in the kitchen for three hours. I will forever remember the sizzling and popping sound of straightening my hair when it was still damp. That’s what it sounds like for me trying to be like everyone else. To be like everyone else, I had to damage my hair.

Kaimin: How long does it take Black hair to recover from straightening?

Pannell: I straightened my hair from seventh grade until the end of my junior year. When I stopped straightening it, it wasn’t long anymore and the curls didn’t follow the curl pattern right. I’m still in the process of trying to figure out how to take care of my hair and get it longer, because it’s been this length for years.

Kaimin: How much time do you think that you spend on your hair in a week?

Pannell: Hours upon hours. It could be even more if I did deep conditioning every week, like I’m supposed to, and scalp massages. Deep conditioning can take me up to three hours because I have to let it sit in my hair. It’s a whole set thing that you have to do. It’s not like, “Oh my hair is kind of dirty, I need to get in the shower and wash it.” I have a whole half a day to just take care of my hair.

Kaimin: What is the cultural importance of Black hair?

Pannell: My mom did my hair and it was such a time of bonding. We would sit down, put on a Disney movie, and she would do my hair. Those were really fond memories for both of us. When I moved to Montana and I didn’t see anyone else with the kind of hair that I had, I had her stop doing my hair. Looking back on it, I’ve lost a really good connection with my mom. I’m an adult now, but I don’t have that [relationship] with anyone because I don’t know a lot of black people in Montana. It’s not like a camaraderie that you could have in bigger cities.

Kaimin: Why is it important for white people to educate themselves about Black hair?

Pannell: I understand white people don’t understand Black hair, but there are also a lot of different cultures and a lot of different ethnicities I don’t understand. But I don’t go up and ask them about it or ask them if I can touch their hair because I know what it feels like. I think it’s embedded in white society that you can take what you want.

Kaimin: Why is it not okay for white people to touch Black people’s hair?

Pannell: It is not ok because my hair is my personal space. I don’t even touch it that much because my style will frizz. If I don’t even try to touch my hair when it’s all styled, you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s very othering. I have sat down by people who I know and love, and then they start touching my hair. I literally felt like a dog.

Kaimin: What does it mean for you when you don’t have time to do your hair or are isolated from a larger Black hair community and do not have a ton of resources for your hair?

Pannell: I’ve cried so much about my hair. I can’t go into any store to get the products that I need for my hair. I have to try all these different products before I can find one that works for me. Without the right product, you think in your heart and soul, “My hair does not look good.” There are few products offered for my hair in Montana stores, and they are way more expensive than the other hair products.

Kaimin: What was one of the most striking things from your interviews of white people on campus about Black hair?

Pannell: One of the most striking things was about cultural appropriation of cornrows and dreads. People said, “It’s your hair, you can do with it whenever you want.” It’s true, I guess, but dreads and cornrows hold a lot of symbolism and a lot of history and white people often don’t know that. I feel like a lot of white people think that you can just take whatever you want, but there are things that are off-limits for everybody. For Black women who were told that their hair was not pretty for so long, and to straighten it, to now have white women hop on the hairstyles, it’s like “Oh, you want it now, and it’s okay for you to do it.” But historically, my own hair wasn’t okay.