At least that’s what I think when I’m preparing for another day at work after a trip to the hair salon. With a job that lacks diversity in the corporate office, it’s almost a given that there are very few who will understand etiquette when it comes to my black hair. Sometimes I inwardly chastise myself thinking:
You are being too sensitive. They don’t understand how you can make your hair do anything you like. How soft and powerful it is. How your hair is a part of you as much as your almond eyes, full buttercup lips, and round nose.
And then I realize how much it reveals about the comfortable bubble of white privilege. When the beauty standards are set at a level that reflects whiteness it’s difficult to compete. Even the method of classifying hair texture in our community starts with hair that is straight at the root. 1A is the “good hair” that boy in high school told you he likes. 4C is that shit that shrinks in knots and stresses you out so much, you relax it. We all know that 1 A is better than 4 Cs. Nobody likes that. It’s coarse. It’s stubborn. It’s forbidden in the annals of beauty history. It reminds them that we are different. That we don’t fit in. It makes them uncomfortable.
So why does it have to be so politicized? Why can’t my hair, just be hair? Hair that I get done every two weeks in a similar style, or a style that suits my fancy?
Because my hair is made political by the very fact that it is attached to my blackness. Because black, in racial terms, is the opposite of white. Because white is good and right, and black is spectacularly wrong.
So when I come in one day with coarse, curly hair, rolled at the edges, and come back over the weekend with hair as straight, smooth, and soft as a baby’s bottom, they marvel. They are curious. They crowd around and ask questions.
Nothing is wrong with their curiosity. Of course if they saw you with big, poofy hair one day, and short straight hair the next, they will have questions. Again. Why are you being so sensitive?
Because when one of their white peers comes in with a different look (hair dyed, permed (precisely right by Ogilve), cut, or in a ponytail) no one bats an eyelash. They compliment and move on. But with me and my black hair, it’s a spectacle.
WASP#1: Oh my God! Did you cut your hair?
ME: No, just straightened it.
WASP #1: Oh well it’s so cooool. (Her eyes light up as if she has just seen me pull a clown out of my ass.)
ME: Thank you.
WASP #1: How do you get it like that?
ME: A flat-iron and a comb.
One by one, the others flock around your desk as though you are a newborn baby just learning to recite the United States Constitution.
WASP #2: MY hair can’t do that. I have to get it permed to even have some type of curl, otherwise it’s just straight. When (other former black employee) was here, she would get her hair done and it would look the same three weeks later. I would ask her how, and she told me she wrapped it at night. If I tried that, I would look like I stuck my finger in a socket. It’s so cool how you all can do that!
*WASP #3 looks on in agreement, smiling an almost pitiful smile of faux admiration*
Me: Gives a slight smile and a forced laugh, then turns back to my computer.
They linger for a bit, still talking about how we get our hair to do what we want, and how they can’t do what they want because it’s so limp, or thin, or oily if they don’t wash it everyday. And I am cringing inside and yet, at war with myself for even feeling this way.
But this isn’t the first time they have gathered ’round to goggle at my hair.
They just don’t know. They don’t realize how it makes you feel. You can’t be the one that pokes their safe, white bubble, because then you will be characterized as the angry black woman. A militant who offended these poor white women who were only trying to pay me a compliment about my hair.
Compliments don’t make you feel dreadful. They don’t make you feel like an oddity, or an amusement, which by definition, means the joke’s on you. What they perceive as a compliment, becomes a back-handed insult they are oblivious to dealing. We wouldn’t let a black peer do that to us, so why let them?
We don’t want to stir up a storm just to educate people who couldn’t care less about our feelings, because protecting us or being sensitive to what we have been through and how we are regarded as a people, is not in their list of white priority. They may feign regret for their words and actions, but they will have a secret meeting about it later via text, or with company lawyers to make sure I don’t feel litigious.
And so, it continues. If I move on, the next black person to fill the quota will inevitably hear the same things and get the same reactions. It is a hurtful cycle to which we cannot react. Some of us dance, we pray, we write, we sing, we fry, dye and blow dry, we work ourselves to death, trying to prove that we should be laughing with them, and not be laughed at. Sometimes I think, maybe all this time they secretly wish their hair was like ours, while we are busy trying to make ours like theirs.
Like Zora Neale Hurston says, “Those that don’t got it, can’t show it, those that got it, can’t hide it.” We got it. We can’t hide it. We can’t hide our blackness, and because of that, we face ridicule for not being what they are. My hair, is a part of me.
In the future, if I come in with it sewed in, combed in, fro’d out, or loc’d up, I will have to prepare for the stare and the conversations that go the same every time. My forced laughter will turn into silence and my thank you will become a terse, “Thanks.” I won’t answer questions, or give explanations because sometimes acting in resistance is the only path to understanding when you are tired of talking. My hair and I are NOT a damn spectacle.