Black Girl Fireside Chats: Collaborator Spotlight!
So excited to share this week some of the content created by Mawiyah and I surrounding stories of having to challenge the “normalcy” of Whiteness and navigating what it’s like to feel constantly “othered” in social spaces. Below you’ll find first, Mawiyah’s post in full about a formational Halloween experience, and second, a post I wrote a few years ago about an othering experience I had at a party. I hope you enjoy:
A Halloween memory
I outgrew Halloween way too early. Somewhere around age 8 or 9, my parents asked me what I wanted to dress up as, whether I wanted to go trick-or-treating, and I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head. I think it was partly to do with the fact that none of my friends or peers from school lived in my neighborhood. During the elementary years, I attended private school, and then a public school with a magnet program on the other side of the district. I was a shy kid to begin with, and I didn’t click with the other kids on my cul-de-sac, so I was perfectly content to spend Halloween answering the door and passing out candy to the other kids.
I remember this moment so clearly. My dad and I were both in the living room, and when the doorbell rang, I would be the one to answer, while my dad supervised attentively from the couch. I opened the door, and there was a woman holding her young daughter, probably 2- or 3-years-old, in her arms. Her costume was something sweet and adorable, maybe a bumblebee with an antennae headband on top of her blond curls. “Hello, Happy Halloween,” I said. The woman returned my greeting, but her daughter was staring at me. “What’s that, Mommy?” “It’s a little girl, honey.” She was referring to me. I handed out the candy, and the woman politely accepted it. As they walked away from the door, her daughter was still asking her, “What was that, Mommy?”
I closed the door, as confused as the little girl. I wasn’t wearing a costume. I was very clearly a young girl, as the mother had said. I looked at my dad, my perplexed face revealing my question. My dad answered it, with a (sad? angry? cynical?) half-smile. “That little girl had never seen a black person before.”
Those who are other are told so in a hundred small ways every day. That day, I was told that white children need to be taught that black people are human too. That I am a little girl too.
I’ve been learning a lot this semester about racial/ethnic identity development in children and adolescents, and the very clear ways that children, teens and parents are reminded of their other status by teachers and textbooks and administrators in our schools. When I put together all I have learned (or failed to learn) in social work school, through the experience of living in North Carolina, through anti-racism workshops, and through my 27+ years of experience of mastering the behaviors and attitudes required to get ahead in predominantly white spaces and institutions… I’ve arrived at a point where I have a lot of feelings, and I have a lot that I want to say. In many ways, I am embarrassingly late to the conversation, but I am taking cues from others around me, as I search for a way to speak (or write) productively.
I am trying to chip away at it in small pieces. So this memory of Halloween is one small piece.
You can find more of Mawiyah’s writing here: https://eachlittlespark.wordpress.com/
"Do You Wash Your Hair?" ("Miley, What's Good?")
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a party at a friend’s house. Right before everyone got up to get food, a blonde girl came up to me and said “Oh my gosh, your hair is SO beautiful!” “Thanks!”, I said back. She then followed up with: “Do you wash it?” …..
*side eye emoji*
*looks around for hidden camera*
For everyone who’s missed the implication of her question, this woman has essentially just asked me if my hair is clean. Do I bathe? Do I participate in normal hygiene practices?
After glaring at her with the shade of a thousand redwoods, I slowly, and in my most condescending tone, managed a “…..yyyyyyeeeeeeaaaaahhhhhhh………” Upon realizing she had possibly offended me (while also being slightly confused as to how I’d been offended), she offered “—I mean, well I just meant like how?? Just cause it’s so—“
Now before I explain how I put her out of her misery, let me just make a couple comments here. First of all, “do you wash” and “how do you wash” are two VERY different questions. The first implies, as I said, that there is a good chance—good enough for me to ask—that you do not wash, which I shouldn’t have to point out is extremely insulting. The second question, though better because it at least assumes the premise that you DO wash your hair, is still problematic because –and let me make this very clear: IT. IS. NONE. OF. YOUR. BUSINESS. Bitch I don’t even know your name yet and you’re gonna come at me with questions about my cleansing habits? Fuck outta here.
Unfortunately, it’s not like this is a new thing for me. Being the only black girl in most of my social spheres for most of my life has led to innumerable inquiries, both polite and less so, about my hair and/or hygiene. But here’s the thing I want us to all understand: Black girls, or any other marginalized group for that matter, are not here to be your informational guides to how they live their lives. I have no obligation to explain to you the (often arduous) process of getting my hair done, or if it’s real, or how I maintain it, or how much of it is mine, etc. That’s none of your business, and you can have a seat. Transgendered people do not have to tell you if they’ve had “the surgery” yet. That’s none of your business, and you can have a seat. Hijabis do not have to tell you what’s under their hijab. That’s none of your business and you can have a seat. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be curious and ask about other people’s cultures or practices that differ from ours in order to expand our own perspectives. Curiosity is different. Curiosity is welcome. But certain curiosities can also be cured by Google. If you are REALLY that interested in how I get my hair done or how I clean it, Apple produces a lovely little pocket-sized computer that makes phone calls and everything! I'm sure most of you have one, feel free to use it. And if you do find yourself wanting to ask someone about themselves, all I ask is that you first make sure you’re doing so with respect. Like for example, a better way to go about this conversation would have been the following:
"Oh my gosh your hair is so beautiful!" "Thanks!" "Yeah wow, it's so intricate, taking care of it must be a lot of work"—
At that point, I could either choose to say "Yeah, it is" and end the conversation, OR if I wanted, I could go into all the things that I do to take care of my hair. Either way, she has expressed appreciation for my hair and admiration for how I maintain it, without low key accusing me of being unclean. See how easy that was?
ANYWAY, so we're still standing next to each other trynna get food after having this horribly awkward encounter, and I assume, in an attempt to ease the palpable if not suffocating tension, she starts to make small talk about the spread. As you may have guessed, I had ZERO interest in continuing any communication with this broad, but I noticed this super interesting thing happened: all of a sudden, even though this girl had totally been an idiot and offended me, I felt like I had to be nice to her to avoid being seen as (perhaps yet another) “unfriendly black girl.”
AND HEREIN LIES THE FUCKED UP THING ABOUT RACISM (well, one of them):
Something racist happens. Someone of color has been rightfully upset. But by some CRAZY twist of pure fuckery, the offended ends up being the one taking care of the offenders feelings, lest the offended be deemed as “having an attitude problem” or “not a team player” or “hyper-aggressive” or my personal favorite: the “Angry Black Woman”. So here I was, the only black girl at this party, I had just basically been called dirty by this bitch standing next to me, and I’m having to make dumbass quips about potato chips in order to avoid the Angry Black Woman stereotype. Ain’t that some shit. I cannot TELL you how many times I’ve heard a white person say, in one way or another, something like “I dunno, I just feel intimidated by black people, they’re kind of scary. I tried to say hi to a few of them once and they were unfriendly.” And I’m like, WELL DID YOU SAY SOME STUPID SHIT?! Did you walk up like “AY YO WASSUP PLAYAAAAA?!” and try to make a "cool" hand-shake happen that neither of you had previously agreed upon? Did you ask if watermelon was their favorite fruit? Did you ask if they make Kool-Aid at Thanksgiving? (Actual thing that happened on a Fox News segment) Did you ask them if they had a father? Did you use the N-word? DID YOU ASK THEM IF THEY WASH THEIR HAIR?! Lol LIKE. Come onnnnnnnnnn y’all it’s not hard. I know we’ve all been fucked over by this racist system our country’s been steeped in since its inception and it makes things weird but it doesn’t have to be. All you need is common sense and mutual respect. Maybe ask someone’s name first before diving into their hygienic routine. Maybe ask them what they like to do, what music they listen to, where they got their sweater. There are a LOT of ways to build bridges here people. Asking if someone washes their hair is not one of them.