by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson
Oh irony of ironies.
Friday night, I’m checking the comments for my last post. I had already responded to some of the posters, which involved a small segue about hair and hair politics. After finally leaving work, I headed home, changed clothes, and went to catch up with my friend KJ.
Now, KJ is the type of friend everyone hopes to have in their crew – she is loyal, caring, sweet, socially conscious and wickedly intelligent. We also happen to share the same crazy sense of humor, so hanging out with her makes it impossible to focus on anything else. We decided to walk around my neighborhood and run some errands.
We end up looking for the Marshall’s inside of City Place Mall. As we enter the mall, lost in conversation, an older black woman with gorgeous, red-tinted twists approaches KJ and asks about her hair.
Now, this is not an unusual occurrence. KJ has some of the most enviable hair I have ever seen. Fraggle Rock like in nature, her mix of kinks and curls circle the crown of her head like a chestnut halo. Whenever I am out with KJ, I am accustomed to listening to the finer points of natural hair, how to care for it, and what hairdressers service the hair. So when this woman approached us, I figured it was one of those kind of conversations.
I quickly found out that I was wrong.
The woman asked Kim about her hair first, and then asked her why she went natural. Kim discussed her reasons for going natural, making the comment that she felt like she was wearing a wig by relaxing her hair.
The woman then asked if she had any problems with men finding her attractive because of her hair. As the woman continued, pressing the subject about men and their issues with her hair in general. She seemed very self-conscious about her hair, as she kept asking if it looked okay.
Just as I opened my mouth to tell her I thought her hair was beautiful, and suited her face well, she said, “These people in DC are so hair conscious. It’s like they don’t understand why you would want to wear your hair natural and express your blackness- it’s such a house nigga mentality.”
I was stunned.
Now, the non-verbal cues I had been getting from her made sense. The whole conversation, she had blocked her body away from me – even though she approached us from my side of the hallway, meaning she was naturally closer to me. She did not cast a glance my way during the entire conversation, even when KJ tried to include me by asking me direct questions and listening to my answers.
“I don’t understand why they act that way,” she continued, “I guess by conforming to society and keeping their hair relaxed, they feel as though they don’t have to deal with the realities of blackness… I’m from the North – I’ll be moving back there soon, where people don’t have as many hair issues.”
Meanwhile, still excluded from the conversation, I fumed. Did that heifer just imply I was a house nigga?
KJ gave the woman the address of natural salon nearby. The woman thanked her and left, not even sparing a glance at me.
“Sorry that took so long,” KJ said.
I explained to her I wasn’t mad about the length of the discussion – I was mad about being implicated as a house nigga because of my relaxed hair.
KJ agreed, pointing out the woman seemed a little imbalanced anyway – her questions to KJ about her hair were really ways to work into conversations about the actions of other black folks.
I had said nothing to the woman because this one literally came out of the blue – I have never been treated that way, ever. Especially not by another African-American. The rest of the evening, KJ and I discussed the issues surrounding that conversation. We broke it down into 5 main issues:
1. The assumption was being made that because I had relaxed hair, I did not share the same issues others faced being black in America.
I think that is the part of the exclusion that irritated me the most. That woman acted like she was a million miles away from her struggle, as if my relaxed hair some how bought me an honorary majority pass.
2. Her exclusion of me may have been a result of past reactions to her hair by other members of the community.
This may be the case – and yet I cannot swallow that explanation so easily. I had a horrible experience dealing with the color-struck family of an ex-boyfriend. However, I don’t act like everyone who can pass the brown paper bag test is suspect.
3. Neither relaxed nor natural hair can save you from someone else’s blacker-than-thou complex.
I have always felt completely comfortable being black (something that many of my peers tell me they could not say.) I attribute this to my parents teaching me to love and value my blackness, and to understand the black struggle BEFORE I hit the schoolyard. However, this does not mean that I have never been challenged on my blackness. My tight diction, combined with my lack of cultural or regional inflection has put me on the receiving end of quite a few “why do you talk so white” comments. KJ has been challenged because of her fair “light, bright, damn near white” skin. My best friend Jay has been challenged because he wears Vans and dates white girls. Another friend of mine was challenged because he bounces when he walks and listens to Alternative rock. All these challenges were originated from other black kids, casting a split second judgment to determine one’s “blackness.”
4. Blackness cannot be measured by appearance.
Everyone with dreds/locs/twists isn’t about the struggle. Sometimes, it is just a fashion statement. Wearing clothes from d.e.m.o. cannot give you blackness, just like wearing clothes from Pacific Sunwear will not take it away.
5. In-fighting creates no winners.
Black people (and I believe you can apply this to minorities in general) have enough problems without creating more issues by pointing fingers at each other.
KJ and I continued our evening, finished our shopping, and decided to grab dinner at a spot called Mandalay. Over curry tofu, a gram fritter salad, and an order of samosas we continued talking about the importance placed on hair in society. KJ also brought up some excellent points from the perspective of having natural hair. I was there one of the times a passerby had yelled to her “get a perm” – however, I had not known about her adventures in dating. Some men, she explained, would simply act as if she did not exist. Others met her with natural hair, and knew her reasons for choosing to wear her hair natural, but eventually pressed her to relax or straighten her hair. KJ is steeling herself for an upcoming family function. For that affair, she has agreed to straighten her hair (a decision largely influenced by older family members). The day after the event is over, she informs me, is the day she will begin to loc her hair.
Two tables away from us, a white girl flicked her long brown dreadlocks, and gestured to our waiter for more water.
This past Sunday, I was still fuming about the woman and her dismissive treatment. I listened to Bomani “D’Mite” Armah’s “Pimp/Preacher” track, something I always listen to when I feel like I am inhabiting two selves.
Why couldn’t I just let this one go, and chalk it up some random natural hair snob trying to make herself feel better at my expense?
I don’t know. It still bothers me.