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THE ROOT CAUSE

For African American women, hair still plays a central role in the social politics of beauty, power and acceptance.



Recently, I was sitting alone in the hotel restaurant where I had my breakfast when an elderly white woman made a beeline straight to me. I look up from my eggs to find her staring at me rather intently, so I smile; she then takes a deep breath and says, "I have spent half my life happy I am not a black woman because of all that you all go through with your hair."

Okay, before I continue this story, I gotta add my inner dialogue, which at this point of her statement is, "Really, Lord? Really! (FYI... that's how God and I get down in my inner dialogue). I want to eat my scrambled eggs and turkey sausage in peace, Jesus. It's early. I am so not in the mood for schooling elderly white women on the finer points of racial insensitivity today".

You know what, maybe if I blink, this will all be a dream. (blink) Nope, she's still here. Sigh.

BACK TO THE STORY

She then points to my hair (on that day, I was rocking Passion Twists) and says, "I have spent the other half of my life wishing I was a black woman so I could wear my hair in all of the styles that you get to wear your hair in. If I were to try to wear my hair like yours, I would look silly. But you guys can do so many different things with your hair".

Here's the thing: I was at the hotel for job training, so all I really wanted to do was eat my breakfast in peace without having to discuss the politics of Black hair in America with a stranger.

But she was STILL talking, so I continued to look at her as my food undoubtedly grew cold.

She then goes on to tell me how EASY it was for her to comb her children's hair and how she cannot fathom the amount of work, skill, and time that goes into maintaining black hair and how awesome Black women look with all of the varied styles that we have and how she is constantly amazed at how we are able to do it all.

I started eating in the middle of her last stanza. I may need my energy for my response.

And as I chew, I know I have three options.


Option One:

I could be annoyed.

But really, who does that help?

This woman is not trying to offend me; she's curious and, in her way, wants to share her experience while appreciating what she thinks I go through. Of course, she has NO IDEA. Nor could she ever UNDERSTAND the black hair journey in America is the navigation of societal landmines, big and small. Our hair journey is as much about self-love as it is about cultural pride, and it begins in the crib and ends in the grave. It has to because every piece of information outside of ourselves (and sometimes in our own community) tells us our natural God-given tresses are wrong or bad or should be closer to looking like hers.

More than likely, she had not noticed until recently my hair products were generally unavailable at most retail or convenience stores or hidden in an aisle NOT marked "Beauty," while hers were on vivid display and available ad nauseam. She probably does not realize that the early American invention of the comb and brush was created with her hair texture in mind, not mine. And because of those combs and brushes, a culture of capitulating Black hair by employing intense heat or harsh chemicals like lye to make it more "manageable" was born. She has no idea how many of us have lost our hair to perms, stressed edges, and heat in an attempt to make our tresses more palatable to American culture. She doesn't know why weaves or wigs sometimes feel easier than having to deal with a society where what is beautifully unique about us is considered a handicap. She likes the "cool" styles but doesn't carry the burden of possibly being fired, not hired, suspended from school, or not allowed to graduate because of her hair. I wonder if she knows even Oprah, a woman I suspect she admires, was told she would fail with her natural hair, and the fact that Oprah chose not to succumb was a radical act of self-love and that there are many black women with that same testimony.


Option Two:

It could be a teaching moment.

I could share my journey with her of learning to love myself and my hair just as God made me.

I could tell her for many Gen X black women growing up, there were tried and true rituals to getting our hair done. I remember leaning over my grandmother's kitchen sink as she washed my hair along with the rest of my cousins. Grandma was the family's resident hairdresser. I remember sitting at her kitchen table as she took the hot comb from the stove and pressed my hair, careful to get what she called "the kitchen", which was the hair around the nape of the neck and for whatever reason, always proved to have more tangle than the rest of the hair on my head.

I remember sitting between my mother's legs on Saturday mornings as she watched Soul Train and greased my scalp with a blue-green jar of Ultra-Sheen. This is how I grew up. This is how all of my cousins and friends grew up. All of us experiencing the same time-honored rituals carried out in love and care. I never once considered that any of it was foreign or different until, of course, elementary school.

I remember my white girlfriend in 4th grade wanting to touch my hair because she was so mystified by the texture. I remember her look of confusion and shock at learning I didn't wash my hair every day like she did when I stayed for a sleepover and pulled out my shower cap.

I remember being huddled in front of a small mirror in my high school girls' locker room with a bevy of other black girls. We shared products and looks of acknowledgment as we tried to whip our hair into obedience after our mandatory swim class.

But that was where it began. The camaraderie, the secret tips…the "Ooh girl, your hair looks a hot mess, let me help you with that." It was the great equalizer. The thing we all knew we had in common. Our shared enemies were the weather, the rain, bad products, or anything that caused our hair to revert to its natural state.

In my late teens and into my thirties, the Beauty Salon became a place of refuge—the meeting place of our shared hair and cultural experience. With the rise of hip-hop and black pride, the term "bad hair" was finding its demise. And our hair "reverting" to its natural state instead became a welcome transition into our beauty and power. We donned dookie braids with Janet after Poetic Justice. We double-strand twisted, loc'd, and rocked a curly twist-out and afro-puffs. We embraced our natural hair with fervor and pride. All of us didn't go natural, but even if we chose to rock a weave, there was a different mindset about it. It was for convenience and ease, a way to rest our hair or showcase a different look, not because of shame.

Those things were happening within our community; another story was being told outside of our community. I remember in the '90s sitting in the hair and makeup trailer after booking a guest star role on a popular network show as a white stylist looked at my hair, mortified, wondering what she would do with it. This would become a familiar experience on every set; white hair stylists confounded and frightened by the black hair dilemma sitting in front of them. After one bad incident after another, I, like many other African American actresses, opted for a weave whenever we booked a show to save our hair from the trauma of inexperienced stylists and to accommodate the limited skillset we were sure to encounter.

And STILL, in the 21st Century, on sets all across America, male and female African American actors continue to experience an on-set stylist who has no idea how to do black hair. Often, African-American male actors have to get their hair cut in private barbershops off-set because barbers of color are rarely hired.

But that is too much to share before 9am. After all, I'm sure this elderly white woman came to my table to share her story and insight on what she deemed my predicament; she did not want to know the complex minutia of my journey. Not really.


Option Three:

I could tell my personal story.

As an African American woman, my hairstyles have run the gamut, from blow-dried and flat-ironed to rocking a weave to having braids (individual and corn-rolls), to all natural curly, to my latest, goddess locs and passion twists. The majority of my adult life lived with (flat-ironed) straight hair. So, I wasn't quite prepared for the effect my latest, more afro-trendy style (goddess-loc and passion twists) would have on my life.

Now, I was stared at or stopped in Trader Joe's, public parking lots, elevators, restaurants, grocery stores, and malls. Any public space. The stares were curiosity. The questions were "Can I touch it?" or "How often do you wash it?".

I understood the "Can I touch it?" question. When human beings see something uncommon to their experience, their first reaction is to reach out to touch it as a means of identification. But…No, you don't get to justify my hair via touch to make yourself more comfortable with my God-given difference.

It was actually the "How often do you wash it?" question that offended me and always felt like micro-aggressions of colonialism, a need to siphon my cultural norms through the lens of whiteness.

But I digress….

This generation of Millennials and Gen Z have taken the community Sista-Girl Hair Circle and made it virtual. One can fall down a rabbit hole of hair videos giving tips on hair health, hair maintenance, hair growth, and applying the latest styles. This current obsession with lace front wigs is a bit much, but with that, I am probably telling my age. Although Gen-Xers did not have the accessibility of a video archive of tutorials growing up, we had our mothers, girlfriends, cousins, aunties, and em'. Either way, black women get it in. We learn, we share, and we thrive.

Oh! Lest I forget!

Regarding the elderly white woman who came to my table and wanted to share her feelings about black hair with me, in the end, I chose option 4, the road most traveled: situational kindness.

That's when you share some wisdom but not the whole story because, at that moment, you don't have the time or emotional bandwidth to be queen sister mother earth teacher. Being Black in America can, at times, involve a seemingly never-ending act of making folk feel more comfortable with our presence, as well as being equipped with a pocket master class on blackness, ready to be gently administered at a moment's notice. And frankly, some days, you are just not in the mood.

But I write this for that woman who came up to me with a heart to understand something she didn't know couldn't be articulated in a five-minute conversation over breakfast. I write this for the reckoning we are going through as a nation, the effort to truly SEE each other, to learn and understand without judgment or shaming. This is my story; this is many women's stories. And now that you know it, I hope you will, make space for the truth of our journey, with the understanding that some of us have a very different American experience.


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