"Yeah, them things itched!"
I smiled, for this is what happens to me with braids, and a tiny part of me feared it was some sort of psychosomatic allergic reaction to my embracing another black hairstyle! How twisted hair and race are to me. But actually, it's not just me. Billy went on,
"And I didn't like the way people treated me when I wore them." He proceeded to tell the story of how he when out to eat with a white girlfriend when he had braids. The server refused to look at Billy, or even address him directly when he ordered food. He says he'd noticed a very slight disdain in the looks he received from people, as though they were immediately more suspicious of him with the braids. More afraid of him. Despite the fact that (as he says) his skin isn't that dark, he's small, and he's soft-spoken.
"All of that didn't matter when I had braids. It was like I'd automatically done 5-10 and was thinkin' about armed robbery next."
Now, for women of color (including ambiguously mixed women), I haven't noticed that we are seen as dangerous according to our hair--that seems to be a black male thing. It's no secret, however, that our intelligence and beauty are read through our hair.
It reminds me of when I was about to graduate from college and met with an alumnus for a networking event. He snarled something about affirmative action and told me, "You'd better tone down that hair if you want to get a good job."
I'm sure people still think the worst of racism, the blatant/obvious/physical, has passed or is passing. But I tell you that some of the most painful things in life are very quiet indeed; they are the sinister subtleties that we allow to live beside us because they appear too harmless for us to do anything about. You cannot pass a law that demands men be attracted to women with natural hair. You cannot pass a law that bans sideways glances at braids.