*Natural Responses (The beginning)

In 2010, I decided to wear my hair natural. In 2011, I wrote about it. In March 2014, I decided to send it to a well-known blog, For Harriet. They “loved it.” 1200 likes reminded of what I was supposed to be doing here on this earth. Being myself and writing. While I’d definitely revise it if I were to submit it today, I recognize it as a nudge towards my path. Here’s that submission.

There have been many responses about my natural hair. The most common of which I have become accustomed to is the African-American cashier’s response.

“Twenty-two fifty two,” says the cashier.

Eyes gaze up towards my hair.

“Here ya go,” I reply as I remind her that we’re conducting business here.

Eyes dart back to our hands.

“Out of twenty-five?” she asks.

Our eyes briefly meet, then a quick glance to my hair.

“Yep,” I say.

She counts the change, and presses it into my hand, “Two dollars and forty-eight cents.”

She takes one last look, and says, “Your hair is cute.”

I’ve practiced what comes next. Big smile and then, “Thank you so much. That means a lot.”

I have grown used to these types of responses. The ones that end in “Your hair is cute” are always easy to receive. What I have not become used to are the reactions of individuals with whom the relationship is more intimate. The colleague, the friend or the in-law’s response is much more cherished, and subsequently when perceived as negative, much more hurtful.

The first uncomfortable conversation I had about my hair was at the university where I work. At the time, I was one of three African Americans in the College of Education. My two closest colleagues were white, middle-aged women who were self-proclaimed, progressive educators who had researched and taught complex concepts, such as white privilege and critical race theory. My co-workers had only seen my long, brown hair in a relaxed state; therefore, I felt it necessary to prepare them for the upcoming change. It went something like this:

Me:                 I decided to go natural.

Colleague 1:     YAY! I can’t wait to see what your hair is going to look like.

Colleague 2:     What’s that mean?

Colleague 1:     It means she’s going to wear her hair the way it grows, like um, Halle Berry. I bet it’s going to be pretty. This is going to be fun.

Colleague 1:     Oh, does that mean you’re going to have an afro?

Me:                 I don’t know. Cause I don’t know what it really looks like.

That wasn’t as bad as I thought. The conversation seemed supportive, inquisitive and possibly uplifting. However, that was the discussion that ensued when my hair was still relaxed.

It wasn’t until I wore my transition hairstyle of flexirods that Colleague 2 shared what seemed to be a concern:

Colleague 2:     Your hair looks nice, but I hope that it doesn’t get like Esparanza Spalding. Her hair is just obnoxious. I really don’t remember how I replied because quite honestly, I had no idea who Esparanza Spalding was; you see my musical taste only include rap and R&B. I had to Google this Esparanza Spalding person. To my surprise, Esparanza Spalding had the biggest and most gorgeous afro I had ever seen. What was obnoxious about this? In fact, how could hair be obnoxious? Unfortunately, the conversation had passed, and there was no reason to re-visit the topic.

Then, something strange happened.

Eight months later, when I was fully natural and sporting my teenie weenie afro (affectionately referred to as a TWA in the natural community), Colleague 2 and I had another hair conversation. I was describing how my youngest daughter likes to feel my hair and sometimes jokingly hides items in there. During this conversation, she asked me if she could feel my hair as well. I’m pretty open about this, so I agreed. Lo and behold, she said it again, almost verbatim, It feels…it feels, kinky. But I hope that it doesn’t get like Esparanza Spalding.

Her hair is just obnoxious.

I know. I know. This time I knew who Esperanza Spalding was. This time I knew exactly how much was implied in this singular comment. I had an opportunity most people would kill for. I had a “do-over.” You know the kind where you’re re-telling the story, and this time you say what you were really thinking?

I also know that an educator like my colleague, who is well-versed in and even teaches others about white privilege should be able to understand how her comments are situated in a history of racial oppression and expectation of beauty espoused by people who look like her. And given all of these factors, I, of all people should have been able to have an honest dialogue with Colleague 2 about this very subject.

But I didn’t.

Perhaps it was because I could not believe that Colleague 2 had said this not once, but twice, symbolizing a true thought of hers; a big afro is obnoxious. Perhaps twelve years at predominantly white institutions had taught me to hide initial responses to similar comments because I’ve learned the price for speaking candidly is sometimes not worth the lesson. Whatever the reason, I managed a quiet, “Hmmm.”

Another missed opportunity occurred with a family member. Last December, my family and I traveled to my husband, Dwight’s hometown of Detroit for his cousin’s wedding. This visit was special not only because of the occasion, but also because we had not seen some of these family members for over five years. All of his family would be there.

We pulled up to my in-laws’ house at the same time as his aunts and cousins. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. You know the, oh, have you lost weight? And the, so tell me what do you do at your job? And, the girls are getting soooo big! comments. So far so good, I guess. No comments about my afro. Until, an aunt stopped me in the middle of the kitchen. She and her two sisters had worn very short, natural curly styles for at least ten years, so I didn’t really expect what came next. It went something like this:

Auntie:                        So, you went colored, huh?

Me:                                (chuckles nervously) Yeah, I guess so. You are a mess.

Auntie:                        Well, I went colored a long time ago, but you went aaallll the way.

This is one of those situations that your girlfriend re-tells, and you proceed to describe how you would have given Aunt So-and-So an African-American history lesson on how comments like these destroy our people’s self esteem. You would have also referred her to rent and view Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009) or at least re-visit Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) scene “Good and Bad Hair.” And if she’s not into popular culture films, perhaps she could read up on the issue through a couple of blogs because you love your natural hair.

But this is not what I said.

What I did was continue the conversation. Maybe it was because I was not as confident as I had thought when we first arrived. Maybe it was because of the intricate and delicate relationship that had developed between my in-laws and me. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the language to respectfully engage in the conversation. Whatever the reason, we continued with the pleasantries.

Auntie asked me what I was doing with my hair. I told her. She asked me if I performed this routine every night. I answered her. She told me it was “nice.” I thanked her. We went back to discussing what I do at my job.

*Originally published on For Harriet.

 

 

 

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35 thoughts on “*Natural Responses (The beginning)

  1. I’ve never had to deal with the politics of black girl hair so I can only imagine your pain. I really don’t have a preference with regards to natural vs ‘artificial’ hair. I do think it would be great if girls kept their hair natural while they’re still children because repetitive weaves and relaxing treatments mess with hairlines and hairlines are a big thing for me. Though as I say that, I realise that’s probably just another form of hair-shaming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually now prefer natural hair for everyone but it is hard not to judge other people’s hair choices. Ultimately people can and should do whatever they want. BUT I do see being natural as a healthier choice.

      Like

  2. Going natural was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have similar hair stories. My absolute favorite occurred when I went to work with twists for the first time. They were styled nicely, and I felt fly, but I was also ready for the what did you do to your hair questions. A coworker asked if my twists were dread locs. I said no. She said, “Good, ’cause those things are dreadful. They just make you look dirty.” I had to clutch my pearls and take a seat. She had to earn her pay that day — lots of filing, letters to type, orders to place, phones to answer. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know who was Esparanza Spalding either. Had to Google her as well :). I really thought you were going to let Colleague 2 have it with both barrels, but you took the “high road.” Good for you. You don’t need to defend who you are. I’m also natural now for 2 or 3 years. I wear my obnoxious afro. It’s funny though, but the Caucasians at my job love my hair. I found some products that work wonders. What you ask? Shea Moisture! It makes your hair soft and manageable. This is the first time that I went natural and have stayed natural this long. In the past my hair has been like straw: very dry and brittle. With Shea Moisture, I have no complaints.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! I took the “I can’t believe your a$$ said this, not once, but twice” road because today, I most certainly would engage in a different way. But you know, things like that never happen when you’re ready. I use the exact same product and have for the past six years. I use the one with the peach wrapping.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I haven’t googled the lady yet but I think you should be able to wear your hair anyway you want. People really shouldn`t make judgement calls on other people`s taste. I am a goth and get plenty of obnoxious comments and have even had things thrown at me, back in the day, so people need to grow up and get on with it. I have also had some very nice comments tho it`s not all bad. I like the reason behind your decision, to teach your girls to love themselves. That is a real winner and should be applauded. Hope you are having a great day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree! We’re all too judgmental about stuff that doesn’t even matter anyway. I can’t believe people used to throw things at you because of how you dressed! Thanks for reading and commenting! Hope you enjoy your day too 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful post! I’m loving the trend of more natural hairstyles. I drive Uber in the mornings and had a recent occasion to give a young woman a ride to a conference in the North Dallas area. I commented on how lovely I found her natural hair. (Definitely an Esperanza Spaulding do’)

    But, I wasn’t ready for the scene awaiting me at the conference – dozens of African American women sporting all manner of natural hairstyles exiting there cars and milling around the entrance to the building. I was mesmerized. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. I guess I looked pretty silly with my mouth hanging open. I glanced in my mirror to see my passenger’s smile, “Yeah, it’s a conference on natural hair,” she explained before exiting my car. Brilliant!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How funny! It is a hair-raising experience to see us all in one place (no pun intended). Sometimes I wished I hadn’t made the decision when it became so trendy. It was a fluke really. I was doing it to show my daughters how to love themselves and their hair and then all of a sudden everyone was doing it lol. I guess either way, mission accomplished. So glad you were able to revel in a sea of natural beauties 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you for sharing this with us Kathy! I stopped immediately when I read “Esparanza Spalding” and google it….like you I’m blown away with the beauty of her hair. I’m so sorry that you went through these unpleasant moments with friends and family. I think natural is absolutely gorgeous. I should go natural for the cause. You see, us white girls have issues with hair too. We often color, flat iron, etc. and cause horrible damage to look a certain way when we should just let our hair do it’s thing. But, of course, my Mom would be the first to say “What did you do to your hair? I see grey!” Love the article and of course you know I adore you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Lennon! Isn’t that fro lovely??? Girl, it’s okay. I’m totally over it. I’ve been natural for about six years now and have literally do not care what anyone has to say. I noticed that too, about white chicks. I wonder why we can’t all just be ourselves – society, I guess? Thanks again! And I you know the feeling’s mutual ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so weird too Kelley because there have been so many more comments that I could categorize. Like, what black men have said or what black friends have said. I always think about a friend who told me it was easy for me because I “have that good stuff.” I was like wha? No. Stop. Thanks for reading. So glad you liked it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. There is a cultural bias to be nice. To not make the situation uncomfortable.
    So when someone says something I KNOW is wrong or hurtful, its like having to climb a wall to respond by pointing it out.

    Add in any form of self doubt about the situation and I never met a woman who wasn’t carrying a lot of self doubt, and its nearly impossible to respond to people who say ridiculous things.

    I revel though in the tiny number of moments where I have stood up for myself. Its the empowering thing.

    I hope that next time tell your colleague you love Esparanza Spalding’s hair and you wonder if she knows why she doesn’t. But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t. We are all in sympathy with those moments we wish we had said something because we all have them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I so agree about the “cultural bias.” I just always wonder why it’s not seen as rude for the other person who began the rudeness, you know? The self-doubt is what I was trying to get at, so I’m glad you mentioned it. It is hard to meet people where they are, especially if where they are is steeped in ignorance (not meant negatively), but literally if it’s steeped in not knowing or understanding a situation…that’s hard to cope with. Luckily, I don’t work there anymore. But the person I am today would most definitely know how to engage 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think the last time I relaxed my hair was in the mid to late 90s. Nothing relaxing about the process- I remember times when my hair took on the texture and elasticity of chewing gum- like you could pull and stretch it- gross!

    I hate those kick yourself moments when you know you should have said something more- particularly with your colleague. Oh, and I hate when people touch my hair!

    Great article Kathy!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. How did your hair begin to feel like chewing gum??? Yeah, those moments are the absolute worse, but today’s Kathy never lets those moments happen 😉 Today, if I have something to say, then it’s coming out. Thanks for those kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Re:chewing gum- that is what literally happened- bits got damaged by the chemicsls and turned into something unlike human hair haha. Closest description is the sensation of stretching chewing gum. Well done to today’s Kathy! I have those moments – most recent being an encounter with an older male colleague at work who on seeing me tidy the work kitchen bench after using it remarked ‘you must be a good house wife’ wtf? I was absolutely too stunned and let myself down with a lame reply 😕

        Liked by 1 person

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