So You Want to Talk About Race (15 page)

BOOK: So You Want to Talk About Race
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That doesn’t seem fair on the surface, that we’d have to wait for a better world before we can start borrowing and adapting from other cultures with abandon. And it does not seem fair to those who feel that other cultures can take from white culture without
the same risk of being labeled appropriative. But what actually is not fair, is the expectation that a dominant culture can just take and enjoy and profit from the beauty and art and creation of an oppressed culture, without taking on any of the pain and oppression people of that culture had to survive while creating it.

But who defines what is sacred to a culture? Who defines what was born of
struggle? Who defines what is off limits? This is where things get complicated. What is offensive to one person in a marginalized culture, is not offensive to another. Some practices have been shared with white culture so long, and the emotional connection to the founding culture is so
far changed, that for most, the question of appropriation is moot. And this is where the anxiety lies, because
when you are trying to not appropriate a culture, but also trying to live in a diverse world, it can be hard to know what is or is not going to offend. And it can also be hard to be a part of the oppressed culture, and stand up for your ownership over your cultural art and practices, and know that other people from your culture may disagree with you and give permission for what is sacred to you
to be used and changed.

However this debate plays out for the individual situations you may find yourself in, know that it cannot end well if it does not start with enough respect for the marginalized culture in question to listen when somebody says “this hurts me.” And if that means that your conscience won’t allow you to dress as a geisha for Halloween, know that even then, in the grand scheme
of things—you are not the victim.

| eleven |
Why can’t I touch your hair?

I
LOVE MY HAIR
. I
T’S FLUFFY AND CURLY AND BIG
. I’
VE
spent years nurturing it to glory; so much care and so many products and hours of YouTube tutorials have left me with hair that I love more than I love candy or cheesecake. I love taking selfies of my hair and talking about my hair, and if you ask, I will probably let you touch it because it’s very, very
soft. But I wasn’t prepared to be talking about my hair on the first day of my new job.

I had worked my ass off for a promotion. It was a coveted new position with the company I worked for. I’d beaten out hundreds of my coworkers (and even a few of the managers) for this role, and after weeks of interviews and sleepless nights, I’d accepted the role and was finally meeting my new team. The rest
of the team flew in from around the country for our initial training. We met for dinner and drinks that first evening at a local restaurant.

In a team of over twenty, I was the only black person at the table. But it didn’t really bother me. I was used to that working in the tech industry in Seattle. That’s the way it was.

We talked about our respective hometowns, about our families, and about
our excitement over our new jobs. I was smiling and laughing with my teammates when the director of our division—my boss’s boss—spoke loudly from across the long table.

“Is that your real hair?” he asked.

I heard his voice but his words didn’t really register as I was in the middle of conversation with a coworker about his hometown in the South. But people had stopped talking and I realized
that the director had been talking to me.

I turned my head toward him. “Hmm?” I asked.

“I said, is that your real hair?” he repeated.

If it was possible for a silent table to get even more silent, that is what happened. Everyone stared at me with curiosity while I tried to figure out the best way to answer this question. I decided to go with simplicity.

“Yes, it is,” I answered. Hoping that
would be the end of it.

“I’m glad it’s not one of those weaves,” he continued on, giving approval to my personal beauty choice, “Those are so expensive and really bad for your hair.”

Oh my god, why? Why was this happening to me? What prank television show was I on?

I smiled weakly, “Yeah, hair can be a big deal to some people.” Hoping it would suffice.

Then came the question I was dreading.

“Have you seen that Chris Rock movie about hair?”

No, I haven’t seen that Chris Rock movie about hair. I don’t need to see a Chris Rock movie about black hair when I have my own head of black hair for reference. But if I had $1 for every white person who has asked me if I’ve seen that movie and then proceeded to educate me on the problems with my own damn hair and the black hair industry I’d
have enough money to keep myself in Indian Remy for life.

A coworker joined in, “I saw that movie, too. Those chemicals people put in their hair are very dangerous!” She looked at me with both concern and fascination.

I just sat there in silence, reminding myself that I needed this damn job so I needed to just smile at this man and maybe have another drink.

“Spending hundreds of dollars a month
on your hair. You got bills to pay! It’s ridiculous!” he continued, oblivious to my great discomfort. I couldn’t say any more. I felt like if I were to open my mouth, I might wail. So I just pleasantly stared until my next drink arrived and my director got bored and moved conversation back to the teammate sitting next to him.

Every month of my childhood, my mom would slather my hair and scalp
with burning chemicals. As the chemical solution worked to break the bonds of the curls in my hair, along with removing the top layers of skin on my scalp, I would try not to cry. “It hurts!” I would complain to my mother, to which my mother would reply, “Do you want it straight or not?”

And I did want my hair straight. While my mom preferred my hair in its naturally curly kinky state, I wanted
long, straight hair. I wanted the hair I saw on shampoo commercials, the hair I saw in magazines, the hair that boys would want to run
their fingers through. I didn’t want my stiff, coarse hair that didn’t move in the breeze. I didn’t want my hair that kids called nappy and ugly. I wanted to be a beautiful girl, and beautiful girls did not have hair like mine. So every month I tried to burn the
blackness out of my hair, and I would then run a hot comb over it, ignoring the stench of burning protein while trying to avoid further injury to my bleeding and scabbed scalp.

And still my hair didn’t sway in the breeze, and it never grew below my shoulders without breaking off in burned clumps.

But I didn’t have money for the best solution, the solution of just covering up my hair that refused
to be beautiful with long flowing hair of unknown origin. So I had to settle for stiff hair burned, sprayed, and pinned into poor replicas of the styles I saw in magazines. By the time I reached the age of thirty, I had no memory of what my natural hair looked like, all I knew was the disappointment I felt when I looked in the mirror.

When natural hair started to become popular again, I took
a leap and cut my chemically processed hair off. I was not comfortable with very short hair, and spent that entire year feeling self-conscious. But I love a project, and I made loving my hair a personal goal. I set to it and succeeded. And as my hair grew out into fluffy coils I was finally proud of what I saw when I looked in the mirror. My hair still wasn’t what I saw in commercials or in magazines,
but it was mine—no longer dictated by the preferences of White America—and it was beautiful.

And after decades of pain associated with my hair, after decades of self-consciously patting it down after it became too “poufy” in the rain, after decades of damage and
manipulation, after finally breaking free from the expectations, after resisting the pressure to conform, my hair was still a source
of shame. Here was my director singling me out, in front of my coworkers, not to shame me, but to shame other black women for making different choices than I was now making. To shame other black women for spending a lot of money to not have to have the embarrassing and demeaning conversation I was now being forced to have. He wanted me to know that he approved of my hair, hair that, finally, was
existing outside of his beauty norms. But still, he thought that my hair, growing on my head, from my body, was within his jurisdiction. Still, my hair would be a tool of oppression, even if it was to belittle other black women. My hair still existed for his use. Even then, even in a state as removed from whiteness as it could be, my hair was not my own.

I
F YOU ARE WHITE, THERE

S A GOOD CHANCE
THAT
I know almost as much about your hair as you do. I know how to wash and condition it, I know all the different styles you can use. I know about mousse and hairspray and fishtail braids and that sea salt spray you can use to create that “tousled” look. I know about all the brushes and combs and the teasing and blowouts. Because your hair is everywhere. In every movie and television show. There
are detailed how-to’s in every fashion magazine. The hair of a famous white woman can become a style sensation. I remember “The Rachel.” Because your hair is “good” hair. Your hair is the hair represented in the haircare aisles at stores. Your hair is the shining example of health in the shampoo commercials.

But it is very likely, if you are not black, that you know very little about my hair.
You do not know about my pomades and co-wash, my Denmans and hot combs, my bantu knots and braid-outs. You don’t know why I need so many bobby pins, why I put oil over my hair, why wash day is indeed an entire day. Because my hair is not the stuff of commercials or of fashion fantasy. My hair is a mystery on my head, just beyond your reach.

I catch people staring longingly at my curls, wanting
desperately to make that reach. If I know and like the person, and if I’m in a good mood and my style can withstand it, I’ll sometimes offer up a feel to a curious friend. “It’s okay, you can touch it,” I say, quickly adding, “But don’t get any ideas.” But often, I don’t let people touch my hair. Those who do without asking will receive a range of responses, depending on how safe I feel to speak
out. But you will never ever get a smile from me for it. I’ve had clerks touch my hair at stores, servers touch my hair at restaurants, bosses touch my hair at company parties. And it is never okay, because they never got permission.

I’m not the only black person who has a special dislike for uninvited hair touching. When I asked my friends of color what some of their least favorite microaggressions
were, hair touching came up time and time again with my black friends. We do not like it. And it’s happening far too often.

Hair is, biologically, dead the moment it begins to grow out of your head. It has no feelings, no sentience. To cut off our hair would not cause us any physical pain. So why is hair-touching such a big deal? Here are some reasons.

Touching anybody anywhere
without their permission or a damn good reason is just not okay.
We teach our kids about personal space for a reason. If you wouldn’t walk up and touch a random person on the back why would you touch their hair? Don’t touch people who do not want to be touched.

It’s weird.
Hair is growing out of somebody’s body, coated in different beauty products and a fair amount of sweat and
oil. Touching someone else’s hair is weird and gross. Everybody seems to get that when someone else’s hair is found anywhere—on a seat, on a hotel pillow, in your food—anywhere except on the head of a black person.

Hands are dirty.
You didn’t wash them. Get them and all their germs away from the hair that is literally inches from my face.

Curls are precious.
That
hairstyle that you are trying to send your hands into took more time than your life is worth (okay, not really… but try me and see). Stranger hands bring frizz and destroy curl patterns, and I will not have it.

It is a continuation of the lack of respect for the basic humanity and bodily autonomy of black Americans that is endemic throughout White Supremacy.
Allow me to elaborate.

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