You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I’m not a person who reads Glamour. And yet, that’s where I first learned to take care of my hair. I have thick and curly Jewish hair, the kind that should never be touched by a hairbrush. Ideally someone would’ve told me that in my teens, but instead I learned it from a magazine, in my early 40s, after decades of brush-induced frizz.
Having gone most of my life without knowing how to take care of my own hair, I like to think I’m pretty attentive about hair care now. But, as I’ve learned, not so much. For example, the conversation that happened a few years ago with my then co-worker and now friend Ha’Londra. She’d been wearing her hair in a chin-length bob for the few months I’d known her, but now it was a lot shorter.
I said, “Your hair looks good like that. Did you get a haircut?”
She replied, “No, I just stopped straightening it.”
At which point I panicked because I didn’t really know what she was talking about. How could her hair get that much shorter just by not being straightened? My face did a series of awkward expressions as I struggled for something to say. Predictably, we changed the topic.
I had a lot to learn about black hair and microaggressions—and I got to work learning. If you’re white, it might sound strange at first to think of me not understanding my friend’s hair, and the resulting panic and withdrawal, as microaggressions. How can that be when I’d never intentionally be aggressive or harmful to her?
Racial microaggressions are “the everyday slights, insults, indignities, and invalidations delivered toward people of color because of their visible racial/ethnic minority characteristics,” as defined by Professor Derald Wing Sue is his book Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence. Because that definition contains the term “aggression” it can seem misleading; it’s very important that the list includes invalidations.
My lack of understanding, and my withdrawal to protect myself, was invalidating. And in the context of American culture, it could signal that I thought Ha’Londra’s hair was scary or weird. (I don’t, but that doesn’t actually matter as much as how I act.)
Invalidations often stem from implicit bias, that is: thoughts and feelings that we’re unaware of. For example if you’re a lesbian or bi or queer woman in a relationship with a woman and you have kids, you’ve probably run into the implicit bias that lesbians don’t have children. Straight people might even know consciously that many lesbians have children, but because for most of their lives they weren’t exposed to lesbian families with children on TV, in movies, in their neighborhoods—they might unconsciously assume any lesbian they meet is childless.
If you have kids and have dealt with someone’s shock and awkwardness when you mention your kids, you know how invalidating this can be. It can call to mind the campaigns against gays and lesbians adopting and raising kids, opinions about queer folk being bad parents or “turning their kids gay.” In the moment, for the straight person trying to recover from having assumed you didn’t have kids, that exchange can seem like a small thing—but for you it can bring up years or decades of struggle and pain. It’s the same with microagressions about black hair.
In her excellent book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo writes, “If you are white, there’s a good chance that I know almost as much about your hair as you do. … Because your hair is everywhere. In every movie and television show. There are detailed how-to’s in every fashion magazine… But it is very likely, if you are not black, that you know very little about my hair.”
I live in this country but hadn’t taken the time to understand very much about black culture, lives and bodies. And yes, that’s because I grew up in a culture that taught me as a white person not to learn about black lives—but that doesn’t take away my responsibility.
Is it just about hair? Of course not. But if, as a white person, I think about all the times I didn’t learn anything about black hair, I start to see the scope of everything else I haven’t learned and I can go looking for that information.
This doesn’t have to be hard or painful. Researchers have found that exposure to counter-stereotypic examples does reduce implicit bias—including when that exposure is in fiction! That’s a main reason I’ve got a fifteen-year-old, comic-book-loving, interracial couple in my forthcoming 2019 young adult novel, In the Silences. And it’s a reason I routinely seek out books by authors of color (I recently finished Hurricane Child and it’s the sweetest pre-teen lesbian crush story ever) and watch shows and movies with casts of color.
I also look at lists of microagressions so I can understand and avoid them. (Here’s a good, short list of racial microaggressions if you’re curious: https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf.) And I keep practicing seeing the deep humanity of people who are different from me and staying present, especially when I panic.
Raised on world mythology, fantasy novels, comic books and magic, Rachel is the author of multiple queer & trans young adult novels, including the award-winning Being Emily—the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. Rachel is a nonbinary lesbian, writer, speaker, marketing consultant, all around geek and avid gamer. She teaches at the Loft Literary Center an annual class/game for teens called, “I’m Gaming as I Write This.” For more information visit: www.rachelgold.com.
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