Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Yeah, You Ain't All That

Arrogant was a word often used to describe me in the past.

Blunt, crass and self-absorbed might have been thrown around as well. Some folks have called me cruel and a bully. I'm not proud of this, but those are the facts.

When it finally got through my head that maybe I wasn't walking the way I wanted to walk, I decided to start changing. Those of y'all who have tried to change some personality traits can imagine how I'm struggling with that task. But, as I struggle, I still progress.

But, with all my flaws, I do have some strengths. I used to believe one of those strengths was a lack of color bias. Growing up in New Orleans, you learn pretty quickly that color bias ain't a fantasy. Folks down here take "colorstruck" to a whole new level, and as a result dark-skinned folks, particularly little girls, can have a hard life. Until recently, I never saw myself as being affected by this. I've always liked a variety of women in all shapes, sizes and colors, so I never considered myself "colorstruck."

Then a friend of mine sent me this link and I had to re-evaluate my self image yet again.

If you click the link you'll find a photo gallery of black women who have made the transition from relaxed hair to natural hair. I like natural hair, my wife has a big ol' afro and I cornrow and twist it for her all the time. It's a quality time tradition we started when she was pregnant with my oldest son, and it's continued through the years.

I always assumed that I didn't have a hair preference. But, when I looked at those pictures, I found myself oddly drawn to the pictures with relaxed hair, even though the person in each photo was the same. I found myself thinking of the relaxed hair as "neater" or "prettier" and that's when I realized I had a problem.

The dreaded Sickness.

That's what my friend and I call it. That friend had the same reaction as me when she looked through the gallery despite the fact that she's transitioning to natural hair right now. We both know that black women's natural hair is neat and pretty and wonderful, but yet we couldn't honestly deny being drawn to the relaxed hair.

The Sickness is insidious in that way. Even if you take the time to educate yourself on the way European beauty standards have been foisted on vulnerable black people, you are still susceptible to that brainwashing. Just when you think you've eradicated all traces of Sickness from your mind, and you're congratulating yourself on that accomplishment, another manifestation of the Sickness will rear its ugly, pimpled head.

It was humbling and startling to come to the realization that I was carrying around this hidden bias. Not only did it remind me that I always have work to do if I want to reach my personal goals, it also made me wonder what other biases are lurking in my subconscious. Are there other forms of the Sickness hidden in the recesses of my poor brain that will only be revealed under stress? Will I be out with my kids one day chilling and then suddenly start regurgitating racist pap that would make Larry Elder proud? It's unnerving.

I guess I'll just have to forge ahead and trust my training in the rules of blackness to keep me safe in the future. It doesn't help that I've found out that most of my favorite movies from my youth were chock full of racist stereotypes as well.

Only the Good Lord knows what's in my mind...



Leigh C. said...

It's in all of us in one way or another, Big Man, the biases. It will most likely take another few centuries to overcome, but it begins with coming to realizations like the one you just had.

Now if only there were a road map for erasing this crap from one's brain...

LisaMJ said...

I feel ya Big Man, I know my mind is still pretty "colonized", for lack of a better word and though I try to push that stuff out of my head, it is hard. I think of it the way that one of my college profs defined the ideologies that we live within (as opposed to those in other societies) as being like water for a fish. Does a fish realize s/he is in water? Why on earth would it? They say knowing is half the battle, so I guess that is something but I still feel like the fish most of the time and often forget I'm in water and then every so often I'm like, 'good gravy, I'm in water'.

As for the hair thing, the closest I come to going natural is getting a perm, getting braids 2-3 months and leaving them in for 2-3 months once or twice a year. It is a struggle, b/c I know it would be better for my hair and maybe my psyche to be natural, but the idea intrigues and scares me all at the same time. And it doesn't help when white folks and some black men are like "well why do you bother straightening it, it seems like a lot of work for no reason." Like it just occured to me, and my Mom and my grandmom and so on, in a vacum to straighten our hair.

For years I had a Boondock's comic strip on the back of my door where Huey pontificates about snow and how beautiful it is, but wonders why he thinks it is, and if he would think it was so beautiful if it was brown. Then he wonders if it is some previously unrealized aspect of internalized racism and his friend looks at him and tells him that he doesn't know how much an hour of therapy costs but that will be his X-mas present to Huey. I go through that all the time.

LisaMJ said...

Meant to say get a perm, then get braids 2-3 weeks later and then leave them in for 2-3 months. Not that it's important.

I also wanted to say, that you seem like such a thoughtful, deep thinker, Big Man, and though I don't know you in real life and how one comes across on the page is very different than how one is in real life, I can't picture you being a bully. You seem like you really make an effort to be fair and to think things through. It just doesn't sound like you would be that sort of person.

Big Man said...


I'm damn near 30.

The me of today is far different from the me of 25, or 20, or 15.

I've been a bully and I've been bullied. I've acted like a coward, and I've brought out cowardice in others.

I've stolen, I've lied, cheated and hurt. And I've been kind and giving.

The person I am today is far different from the person I was in high school and college, but also not that different at all in some ways. I would hope it's like that for most of us. That we improve without losing the core character traits that make us unique.

LisaMJ said...

It takes a big man (no pun intended) to be so honest with and about one's self.

older_not_wiser said...

I'm old enough to remember when every black person, man or woman, in public life had conked hair. Natural hair was fit only for unsophisticated bumpkins. As LisaMJ points out, that idea didn't just pop into black people's heads one day. As many years ago as that time was, the existence of sites such as the one in the link shows that there is still much more to the reaction to relaxed vs. natural hair than simply fashion.

Even though the "stigma" of natural hair has faded today, the dominant media image of female beauty is still straight, flowing hair. Even if there were no racist undercurrent you'd still have to contend with that. And how about your mother? Did she straighten her hair when you were young? We tend to like what's familiar.

Go back to those pictures and look again at the "after" shots. Try to see what her natural 'do brings to each woman's looks that her relaxed hair didn't. Train your eye, and you may find your reaction to their straight hair fades a bit.

Also, to your larger point: Forewarned is forearmed. We all have ideas in our heads that slipped in when our rational minds weren't looking. The best defense against them is simply knowing that they may be there. They may have got in unnoticed, but they shouldn't be able to come out the same way.

Mr. Noface said...

I feel you big man. I noticed that same bias in myself when one of my sisters decided to go natural. It's astounding how deep some of these roots are.

Renee said...

I think that the important thing is that you noticed that you were still carrying this bias. So much of racism is internalized that often we don't realize that we have learned to believe bad things about Black people. Many unconsciously crave Whiteness to their own detriment and this helps keep up the racial divide. As long as we do not love ourselves and crave the ability to become something we are not, Blacks cannot advance.

Raving Black Lunatic