I tell her that I’ve had a crush on him since kindergarten. I am 7, so this is a lifetime of unrequited love. Her expression is stuck somewhere between sympathy and dismay.
“But he’s white. You’re black.”
I feel caught. The need to apologize fills my throat with grief, but the words will not come.
“What about him?” she asks, pointing to a boy whose skin is as brown as mine.
“I don’t like him, though,” I say.
“White people marry white people and black people marry black people. You should like him.”
I know she is wrong, but lunch is over and it’s time to get in line.
He’s hysterically laughing and showing the video to more of his friends. I’m standing right beside them. I feel like I’m sliding to the back of the room, only the wall never comes. I tell myself that this video is actually funny, and I’m being sensitive, and I know he’s not a racist because we’re friends.
“Watermelon and fried chicken!” he’s bellowing along with the music. “Dude, these are your people!”
I feel like everyone is laughing. It’s really only him, but he’s the loudest one in the room.
The hair stylist applies the thick white paste to one section of hair at a time. The tingle has turned into a burn, but I know that the longer I can stave off the urge to dump my head into a toilet, the straighter my roots will be.
“You okay?” my stylist asks.
“Yeah,” I say breathlessly — at this point, I’m diverting the energy I use for breathing to not screaming.
“I’m almost done — ”
“Okay.” I cut her off because I have no patience for this lie.
She sprays the water on my scalp. The places where the relaxer has eroded flesh sting, but for the most part, the burning subsides. Once she’s done, we move back to her chair. I look at my reflection and let the usual wave of disappointment pass. Relaxer does not completely take to my hair texture — rather than eradicating the curls, it lengthens them. It’s something.
She proceeds to blow dry and iron the insurgence away. When she’s done, I feel pretty. I pay almost $200 for this service. I leave the salon, my confidence too thin to deal with Florida’s humidity. As I wait for the bus, I can almost feel each strand of flattened hair inflating with moisture, curving this way and that. By the time I get to my dorm room, the frizz is irreperable.
I wash my hair and go to sleep.
I know where this class discussion is going, but I don’t know where to look. I’m one of two black people in the room, and the other is sitting behind me. It will be too obvious if we make eye contact right now. All of a sudden, I am aware that the conversation is turning toward me. I don’t mean that in a philosophical sense — this woman has literally turned in her chair and is now looking at me.
“I mean, my mom grew up in poverty and worked her way out of it. If you feel like black people are ‘underprivileged’ or whatever, then you can go into the schools and help them, right? I mean, you guys can do something about it. So what are you guys going to do about it?”
I have lost count of how many times I’ve been put in this situation. The one where I have suddenly and bewilderingly been elected to speak on behalf of black America without my knowledge or consent. The one where everyone is looking at me with such forceful expectation. Was this not the point of every “you’re black, so they’re going to assume etc.,” and “you’re a black woman, so they’re going to assume etc. AND etc.,” and “you’ve got to be better than everyone else if you even want to have a chance” conversation I ever had growing up? Even so, I am, once again, flustered.
One of my white classmates — let’s call her G — is sitting out of my accuser’s sightline and is mouthing “I’M SO SORRY” at me over and over while shaking her head and widening her eyes to a point that almost makes no sense. I find this to be a hilariously endearing gesture.
I explain that institutionalized racism is not a problem that black people can (or should) solve, and then I stop because I have no more to give. G and the other white members of my cohort proceed to do what I’m only just now realizing I’ve always wanted.
They say all we want to say, so that we don’t have to.
I am encouraged. That mitigates the crushing sensation of despair this small thing has awakened in me.
There was the
boy who, after spending the entire night talking only to me and offering to give me a ride home, said that his parents would never let him date a black girl
multitude that called me oreo
boy who looked me in the face and said that he just didn’t find black women attractive
first reading of The Bluest Eye
moment it dawned on me that Jesus was definitely, definitely brown, he came out of heaven brown
time my president was Black
morning I prayed and God’s answer was, cut off your hair, child
day the birther won the election
meeting when I responded in a sarcastic tone and my colleague told me not to get ghetto
shock of standing in front of a room full of white children who proclaimed that racism wasn’t real
comment or two on my profile picture saying “LMAO Aunt Jemima”
realization that the punchline of the joke was that a man was big and black and scary
fruitless indignation at the police officer who searched my purse but not anyone else’s
insult beneath the compliment that I wasn’t like other black people
discovery that the thing that made me pretty was the lightness of my brown
day my son was born
ultrasound technician’s announcement that I was having a daughter.
My therapist asks me how I’m doing, and I don’t even know where to begin.
How do I explain the catharsis of watching Danai Gurira crouching on the roof of a speeding car, red dress billowing behind her, spear clenched in her hand?
The joy in seeing so much brown — dark brown — skin at once and in that way?
The waves of realization that, first, I have been attending movies buried in armor for my entire life, second, I didn’t have to wear it this time, and, third, it is so much easier to breathe when you are not wearing armor?
The awe of listening on the very next day to a white pastor spend the majority of his sermon saying in no uncertain terms that implicit bias is not only real but pervasive and insidious, and who illustrated those points through an anecdote about his own insensitive blunders?
It was like attending the coming out party of the most open secret I’ve ever tried my hardest not to keep.
It was like getting the Big Chop in front of an audience of people who have been trying to tell me for at least two decades that I am stunning, my hair is stunning, my face is stunning, my nose is stunning, my eyes, my lips, the darkness of my brown is stunning, so, yes girl, I have the face for this buzz cut okay.
“I’m still riding the high of watching Black Panther this weekend. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was life changing,” I say.
She nods knowingly and starts praising Malcolm X.
“No, no, not the — the Marvel movie.”
She doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
It’s okay though because we’re really here to discuss my alarming insecurity and compulsion to fix everything.
I mean… You win some, you lose some.