So You Want to Talk About Race (16 page)

BOOK: So You Want to Talk About Race
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Since the first black Americans were brought over as slaves, our bodies have not been our own. We were objects—property. Our bodies were curiosities and tools to be inspected and exploited. Our bodies were sources of judgment and shame. But they were never beautiful, and they were never our own.

Whatever respect we could get in White America came from how closely we could get our bodies to resemble
those of white people. If our mothers were raped by white men and we were born with lighter skin, we could almost be seen as attractive. If our hair was pressed stiff and straight with burning irons, or irreparably broken with toxic chemicals, we might be seen as a credit to our race—we were, after all, trying to be less black. And we tried to express ourselves within these rules, tried to
enjoy our bodies and our hair within these rules. But mostly, we have just wanted to go about our day without the reminder that our bodies and our hair are found “brutish” and “ugly” or “fascinating” and “exotic.” We still live in a country where our hair is seen as “wild,” as “unattractive,” as “unprofessional” as “ghetto.” We still live in a country where our hair can cost us jobs, even our place
in the military. We still live in a country where our hair determines how professional we seem, how respectable we seem—even how intelligent we seem. Our hair is used to help determine our place in a white supremacist society.

If you are not black, and you are tired of hair like mine being a mystery to you, there are a lot of ways to get to know more about our hair. You could ask why more black
people with black hair aren’t in more television shows and movies. You could ask why there are no “how-to’s” for our hair in your magazines. You could ask why our hair products have to take up one tiny section of a completely different aisle in the store. You could ask why our hair isn’t called beautiful, why our hairstyles aren’t the ones you are coveting. But instead, you assume you could just
touch it. Because it is not about equality or even understanding—it’s about reaffirming that nothing and nobody is beyond your grasp.

Or maybe it’s not that serious. Maybe you just want to know if my hair is as soft and fluffy as you imagined it to be. Trust me, it’s even softer. But you still don’t get to touch it—not without my permission. Because we still live in a world where little respect
and autonomy is granted to black people, where we are constantly reminded of how little control over our lives we have. So maybe for now you set your curiosity aside and allow someone the space to determine who does or does not touch their hair, without labeling them rude, sensitive, or divisive.

If you have a loving, trusting relationship with a black person and you are sure they won’t mind
if you asked to touch their hair, you can consider it. But
consider what you are asking. Even though it is just hair—dead piles of keratin—as long as our hair and our bodies are judged and controlled and violated by White Supremacy, it will always be so much more.

| twelve |
What are microaggressions?

. On your lips, you’d look like a clown.”

Jennifer said this to me at the end of the lunch period in our middle school. She was leaning against the wall, like a cool girl from television. Jennifer had a horizontally striped shirt that was all the rage in the early ’90s and slightly slouchy jeans that would only
in later years be called “mom jeans” but at the time were very “in.” She had skin that I’d seen in romantic novels referred to as “peaches and cream.” Her auburn hair was in a stylish bob. And on her lips was a beautiful shade of red lipstick.

My mom had just allowed me to begin wearing lipstick the beginning of that seventh-grade year. But with all of my mom’s lectures on the importance of “natural”
looking makeup, I knew without asking that I would not be able to leave my house with a bright red shade on my lips. In all honesty, I’d never really thought about wearing red lipstick before, but seeing my too-cool classmate donning the shade informed me that I had been missing out on all that makeup had to offer.

I had walked over to Jennifer, pulled by her beauty. I tugged my yellow jacket
that I used to hide my belly a little tighter over my body. My too-tight jeans made zipping noises and my chubby thighs rubbed together. I patted down the top of my relaxed hair with an inch of puffy roots. Jennifer was everything I was not, but I loved her lipstick, so we finally had something in common.

“I really like that lipstick,” I said, trying to sound like I wasn’t nervous, like Jennifer
and I talked every day, “I wish my mom would let me wear a color like that.”

Jennifer looked at me, smiled briefly, and then said, “Well, you shouldn’t wear red lipstick anyway. On your lips, you’d look like a clown.”

I broke into a cold sweat immediately. “Oh, yeah, heheh,” I tried to laugh, “I guess you’re right. My big lips.”

I pinched my lips together, trying to draw them into my mouth.
“Ok, see ya,” I said with faked nonchalance and turned and walked away, patting my hair and tightening my jacket once again.

I didn’t wear red lipstick until after I graduated high school. And not because of my mom.

I patted my hair all of the time because of all of the times my hair had been referred to as “poufy.” Nothing bad was meant by it, nobody was trying to hurt. It was just an acknowledgement
that in a time where people were literally coating their strands in silicone, my hair’s volume was a noticeable and unpleasant contrast.

My hair and my lips were not the only part of me that was too much. I had taken on quite a babyish voice a few years earlier, after all of the jokes about how my loudness was so “typical for a black girl”—I didn’t know what that meant, because I was the only
black girl at my school, but I knew it wasn’t good. My butt was also too big, that was made very clear with references to hip-hop songs glorifying large butts that were often recited to me by smiling classmates.

I would be having a good day, lost in my imagination, and bam—I’d be hit with a comment that would remind me that I was not allowed to get comfortable. I couldn’t walk comfortably, I
couldn’t talk comfortably, I couldn’t sit without patting my hair, I couldn’t smile without worrying about how large my lips looked.

In spite of all of this, I did really love school. I was a bright kid who enjoyed learning. I was in the advanced program in middle school and finished the last two years of high school at the local community college to get a head start on college credit. I had
been obsessed with getting into a good college. By ninth grade, I had an entire row on my bookshelf dedicated to college brochures. I wasn’t the only one, other kids in the advanced classes were just as obsessed with college as I was.

At first, my eyes would light up when kids would start talking about college. Finally, something we all had in common. After hanging around the periphery of such
talk for a few weeks, I finally decided to join in. I began rattling off the colleges that I had hoped to go to when a student cut me off and said, “I mean, you don’t have to try that hard anyway do you? You’re black, you don’t even have to do well in school to get into college. You don’t even have to be in this class.”

He looked at me matter-of-factly when he said this, no malice in his eyes.
The other kids in the group just sort of nodded to themselves as if this kid had said something as plainly true as “the earth is round.” And although it hadn’t been explicitly said, the message was clear, “You don’t belong here.” Even in this group of nerds, this group of people who loved the same boring books and random facts and all raced to be the first to answer the same questions in school
as me, I didn’t belong. Because I was black.

I would like to say that this is when I stopped caring what other people think, that this was when I stopped trying to fit in. But I was a fifteen-year-old girl, and I was so lonely. So I kept trying. I kept trying to make friends and build community and every time I thought I’d made progress, someone would deflate all of the air out of my dream.

But as painful as it was, I didn’t know that it was wrong. I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be treated this way. I was pretty sure that I was the problem. Because nobody came to my defense, hell, nobody batted an eye when these things were said to me. They weren’t a big deal, just small comments, little jokes. I shouldn’t be so sensitive. It was all in my head. If I just found a way to have
less things wrong with me, these bothersome comments would stop. So I smiled less, ate less, laughed less, and spoke in a whisper.

My senior year I had been invited to a scholarship conference at a local university for promising students of color. I was very nervous. By then, almost all group social interaction sent me into a spiral of anxiety and depression—and I didn’t know any of these kids
at the conference. What if I fit in even less than I did at school? I almost didn’t go, but the lure of a possible scholarship helped strengthen my resolve.

I arrived at the hotel conference room. Inside there were hundreds of black and brown students. More kids of color than I’d ever previously seen combined. I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise. Kids were laughing in loud, open-mouthed
guffaws. Everybody was using their outdoor voice. People were slapping each other on the arm as they talked. Everybody looked like old friends. I looked at the long tables that students were seated at, like a school cafeteria. My stomach clenched. I hated school cafeterias. Nothing lets you know that you are going to die alone like when you try to find a seat in a school cafeteria and everyone avoids
eye contact like you are walking flatulence. I edged closer to the tables and scanned the room, trying to look for open seats without making eye contact, so that nobody would have the chance to reject me by looking away.

After a few moments I heard a voice next to me, but it didn’t really register. Then I heard it again.

“Hey! Come on. Are you going to sit or what?”

She was talking to me. I
sat down gratefully next to her. She introduced herself and asked my name. “Ijeoma,” I answered quietly.

“What?” she yelled over the din of the room.

I was going to have to use my real voice in here. “Ijeoma,” I answered again, loudly.

One of the college program administrators began his welcoming speech. After a few minutes of rules and expectations, along with a congratulation for our current
and future academic success, the administrator finally said the words that three hundred black and brown kids had been waiting for him to say.

“We have pizza for everyone.”

There was an immediate dash to the table piled high with pizza boxes behind the administrators. Kids advanced upon that pizza like there was a winning lottery ticket at the bottom of every slice. But I didn’t. Because I was
a fat kid. I wasn’t just a fat kid; I was a fat black kid. And I knew that rushing to eat the pizza that I so desperately wanted would confirm what was insinuated the many times I’d heard people say, “well at least you’re black, they think fat women are attractive.” What hadn’t been said, but had been meant was, “It’s not okay to be fat, but it’s the most we can expect from a black girl.”

I was
so hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day. I was just as hungry as every other kid cramming entire slices of pepperoni pizza into their mouths. The pizza smelled so good. I looked at all my options and worked out a plan. Vegetarian pizza. I would grab a single slice of vegetarian pizza. Then, even though I’d still be a fat black girl with pizza, I’d look like I was at least trying not to be. I walked over
to the vegetarian pizza, there was no rush to these boxes. I opened a box and looked for a reasonable slice—one big enough so that I wouldn’t pass out from low blood sugar within the hour, and one small enough to let people know that I already understood I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying it.

As I reached for a piece, the girl who had invited me to sit next to her reached for a slice next to it.
Then she drew her hand back as if it had bit her.

“Salad pizza?” she looked up at a nearby friend and shouted, “Girl look. They got salad pizza over here. Ha! I’m not eating salad pizza.”

She walked off toward the pepperoni. Another kid shook his head and chuckled, “Salad pizza,” to himself.

I closed the lid on the box, walked over to the pepperoni pizza, and grabbed two giant slices. And I
ate, in public, without fear, for the first time in years.

Not once in the two days I was at the conference did anybody make fun of my name. Not once in the two-day conference did anybody even glance at my hair. Not once in the two-day conference was I aware of the loudness of my voice or the size of my ass. Not once in the two-day conference did anybody question the academic achievements that
had brought me there—we were all there because we were smart kids who had worked very hard. For two days I got to feel like the majority of my classmates had felt almost every day, like a complete human being.

I don’t know how to describe what those two days were like for me except to say that I hadn’t known before then that there was so much air to breathe.

? The mom or dad who finds a way to cut you to the quick right when you are feeling happy or proud or comfortable? “Nice to see you’re finally trying,” or “That’s a lovely dress. I can’t even see how much weight you gained.” The remark that seems harmless on the surface? The small sting that comes out of nowhere and is repeated over and over, for your entire life? That is what racial
microaggressions are like, except instead of a passive-aggressive parent, it’s the entire world, in all aspects of your life, and very rarely is it said with any misguided love.

Microaggressions are small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group, and here we are going to talk about
racial microaggressions—insults and indignities perpetrated against people of color. But microagressions are more than just annoyances. The cumulative effect of these constant reminders that you are “less than” does real psychological damage. Regular exposure to microaggressions causes a person of color to feel isolated and invalidated. The inability to predict where and when a microaggression may
occur leads to hypervigilance, which can then lead to anxiety disorders and depression. Studies have shown that people subjected to higher levels of microaggressions are more likely to exhibit the mental and physical symptoms of depression.

As harmful as microaggressions can be, they are very hard to address in real life. Why? Because they are very hard to see.

Microaggressions are small (hence,
the “micro”) and can be easily explained away.
It is very easy to dismiss a small offense as a misunderstanding or simple mistake.

Microaggressions are cumulative.
On their own, each microaggression doesn’t seem like a big deal. But just like one random bee sting might not be a big deal, a few random bee stings every day of your life will have a definite impact on the quality of your life, and
your overall relationship with bees.

Microaggressions are perpetrated by many different people.
Because each microaggression is just one sting perpetrated by a different person, it is hard to address with each individual person without (1) becoming very exhausted, and (2) being written off as hypersensitive.

Many people do not consciously know that they are perpetrating a microaggression against
Much of our oppressive actions are done in complete ignorance of their effect, or subconsciously—where we aren’t fully aware of why we are acting aggressively toward someone. This is often the case with microaggressions. Rarely does somebody perpetrating one say to themselves, “I’m going to find a small way to hurt this person.”

Having established that microaggressions are hard to see,
let’s take a look at some of the ways in which they can show up in everyday conversations for people of color.

“Are you the first person in your family to graduate from college?”

“Are you an affirmative action hire?”

“Wow, you speak really English really well.”

“You aren’t like other black people.”

“I thought Asian people eat a lot of rice.”

“Why do black people give their kids such funny

“That’s so ghetto.”

“Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?”

“You listen to opera? I thought you were black.”

“Wow, you’re so articulate.”

“Your name is too difficult for me. Do you have a nickname?”

“Where are you from? No… I mean, where are your parents from? I mean… where is your name from?”

“Is the baby-daddy in the picture?”

“You have really big eyes for an Asian person.”

“Why are you complaining? I thought Chinese people loved homework.”

“Welcome to America.”

“Do your kids all have the same dad?”

BOOK: So You Want to Talk About Race
12.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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