The Burden of Blackness: Hoodies, 4a Curls and Other ‘African’ traits

I wore a hoodie to work on a rainy day nearly a decade ago. I was a nineteen year old girl working her first real job as a college student on summer break, naive to the racist perspectives others held of blackness. Upon arrival, a hispanic college looked at me as if she had seen a ghost, or burglar enter the store.

“You look black today,” she said with wide eyes.

I did not dignify the comment with a response, and instead walked to the bathroom to change into the sexy and so called sophisticated attire demanded of me by my employers. When I emerged, the same coworker said:

“Now, thats the Catherine I know.” She appeared proud of herself and unashamed of the sheer ignorance and prejudice spurted from her mouth just seconds ago.

Although I had been black in the months preceding this comment, my appearance—clad in mini skirts, high heels and straightened hair, veiled my blackness, rendering my skin color a backdrop to a figure passing as woman. To the world I was not even a girl, but in a certain attire I was “passable.”

This same dynamic presented itself last Saturday in an encounter with a prospective employer.

I was recently presented with a seasonal opportunity to work at a test-prep center. Excited to teach another writing class and embed strategy into my young pupils, I journeyed to my new place of employment on a Saturday afternoon. Fresh from a co-wash, I placed my 4a hair into two strand twists that looked similar to pigtails. When I arrived, I felt a weird, nervous-like energy that in its lack of subtly prepared me for what would come next. I set my phone and keys on a side desk as the principal whisked me into the back room and began showing me the books for the course. After he finished, it became obvious that they wished to confine me to this back room, despite blaming a “parent” for relocating my items to join me in a back closet to perform what I saw as a temperate task.

While in the book room I overheard my new coworkers who just moments ago spoke clearly and comfortably in English, converse in what I believe was Chinese. I stepped out of the room to ask a question and the chatter ceased. An Asian woman with dyed hair, of average build, dressed in jeans and a button up introduced herself to me and stood idly and awkwardly in front of me, the moment pregnant with something I should have been able to predict. What would come from her mouth would betray the contents of their coded conversation and place me alongside the many women of the black collective berated for their blackness. But before this woman could say anything the secretary blurted out the following:

“Don’t wear your hair like that when class starts” she stated bluntly.

Stunned, I maintained my composure and inquired.

“Like what?”

She responded,

“ It’s just that you look young. Parents need validation that we’ve hired qualified teachers,”

“So look old?” I said facetiously, which provoked a nervous laughter.

This conversation mirrors incalculable daily exchanges between black bodies, whites and other persons of color, throughout the globe. Although disguised as a joke or frivolous comment, the contents of exchanges like these unveil a serious matter consistent with the black body in professional settings. Furthermore, citing my “youth” as the conflict was merely a smokescreen for the true issue, my blackness.

Although the woman who interviewed me had blue hair, as an Asian woman she is seen as edgy and even relatable. Whereas a black woman with natural hair, disrupts the implementation of western standards in an environment where everyone presumably desires to become white.

Some may argue that my blackness must have been present at my interview, and thus could not be grounds for discrimination after the fact. This ideology reflects an inability or unwillingness to conceptualize racism. Yes, I was black at my interview. But clad in business professional clothing, with straightened hair pulled back, my blackness was “checked.” My physical appearance painted me as a person that happened to be black, not a black person.

Yet, how one wears their hair is never the sole factor in determining their racial affiliation. But to those seeking pseudo diversity hair often a factor in weeding out their need for an assimilatory environment. Conversely, some employees seeking diversity in image will hire the seemingly Afrocentric employee based on their appearance, to suggest acceptance where there is barely tolerance. I have a colleague that has long locks. She appears black and proud, but has been married to a white man who nearly forty years. Despite donning a natural and seemingly ethnic appearance, she possesses the lifestyle necessary to make her blackness merely an unchosen fate, non-contingent to her ideology. Just as the individual bearing “black” features will often be pressured to press down their edges or straighten their hair, the black person on a pseudo diverse environment welcomed for their African features are almost never as black as they seem on the outside. Afrocentric models are probably the most resounding example.

My two strand twists, parted and platted on my head did not expose my youth—it portrayed me as “ethnic” in an environment that wished to promote the same aesthetic with varying skin tones. This examples exposes diversity as insincere, as many seek the image of diversity, but in turn only wish to have different faces represent identical values. In these types of environments, blacks are to conceal their blackness, or slick down their edges and iron our their kinks to avoid making anyone uncomfortable.

To the more “liberal” environment that welcomes blacks with natural hairstyles, it is the articulation of black nationalist values that the black body must keep concealed. They must avoid sounding too proud, or being too courageous in an environment still contingent on their cowardice.

Be it physically or mentally, the western world demands that blacks exist only in the shadow of their blackness.

Refusing to curb my blackness, I resigned from the position hours later.

Following my resignation I received a response from the woman who hired me referencing  the incident as a “misunderstanding.” Her response would function to excuse her coworkers, citing their inability to speak english and parental desire for “ideal” teachers for their students as the causes for my warning. No where in her response was there an apology, but in every sentence she displayed an undying allegiance to her collective.

I needed this. Her intransigent allegiance, illustrated something we must nurture in our community. Too often we apologize or second guess ourselves and one another. We must neglect to fall for the western trap of blaming ourselves. Instead of falling, we must stand up for ourselves and our collective. We must stand for our right to be black in this acquired land. As a conscious collective, it matters not whether we are accepted, but respect is mandatory.

The truth is, we as blacks should not have to look outside of ourselves for employment. It is the impossibility of working for those who impose a self-proclaimed superiority over the black collective, that demands blacks to dilute their natural beauty to appease western conventionality. It is only in refusing to settle, and fall for the seduction of avarice that we take small strides towards freedom and self-determination.

In closing, I take pride in being a black woman born from the continent that nourishes the world with her resources. I also take pride in wearing the hair gifted to me by the African gods in any way that I please. The truth is, I know that how I wear my hair is not enough to end racism. It is not even a valid indicator of racial pride. But as I write this piece in a language forced upon my abducted ancestors and forced onto me by way of cyclical oppression, I also know that being told how to wear my hair is an assimilatory measure I can very much refuse.

They took our names, our language, and our ancestor’s wages. They’ve seized our communities, our children and much of our sanity. It is standing up in situations like these that disables our oppressors from taking our pride.

So while they may have offered me a comfortable supplementary income, my pride is not for sale. Thanks but no thanks.

Have you every experienced something like this? Share your story. It may help someone in need of the will to be strong.