"I don't want this to seem like it is about race," a white teacher told me while we collaborated on seating arrangements for students who were to start testing in the lab tomorrow. "But Kayla asked if she could sit somewhere other than behind Jameelah because she can't see anything around Jameelah's afro. I don't know what to tell her," she said, typing password after password into computer after computer to download needed software before the students came in and sang a unison chorus about how their computers don't work. I was on the other side. We were to start at the ends, download onto each computer as fast as we could, until we met in the middle - then we could go home. I was on computer number 4, and I stopped. I mean, I was so outdone by this teacher's statement, I forgot the passcode, I forgot the login, heck - all I could think of was how, just in the week prior, my daughter was first chair in flute, but not allowed to sit in the first chair because of her tall stature and her billowy clouds of beautiful black hair. That, and how I wanted to ctrl-alt-del my colleague Cassandra's words back into her mouth. But words were words, and thoughts were thoughts, and her debacle deserved a response.
I took a deep breath. "Cassandra," I started, "do you remember that time, in the staff meeting, where I moved away from Michelle because she kept swinging her long hair? And I was trying to eat the lunch I had to skip, and wanted none of her strings in my food?" Cassandra laughed. "Yes! Hilarious! So you get what I mean, right? It's not about race, right?" Ctrl. Alt. Del. Another deep breath. "Listen," I said, "The fact that people's hairs cause inconvenience to other folks sometimes is not about race. The fact that you laughed about my inconvenience toward white hair and are having an existential crisis over a white child's inconvenience toward black hair? And the fact that you expect Jameelah to sit in the back of the classroom because of the way her hair grows out of her head? And the fact that many black girls already stand in the mirror hating their hair because of what people say about it? THAT, miss lady, is about race." Cassandra started to cry. Ctrl-alt-kleenex.
Now, all of you see my cover photo and headshot, right? That hairstyle was on purpose. And you know what - I had a GOOD MIND to be photographed with said hair and an Adidas track suit, big hoop earrings, and a gold necklace with my husband's name on it. Also had a good mind to be photographed in front of a mural in the Soul District on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Why, you ask? Because the way my hair grows out of my head is just fine - in fact, it's so fine it defies gravity. it can be sculptured like a work of art. When my sister, or one of my sistagirls, is braiding it, that equates to hours of laughter, tears, gossip, news, and holistic intimacy that ties me back to a Motherland I've never known, yet yearn for. Home. The grandiose size of the earrings? They correlate with the size of the brain within the head, that holds the ears, that wear the hoops. And - what I am wearing has no bearing on the way I'm showing up and caring.
I felt the need to console Cassandra for a split second. I mean, dang, who wants their words to make anyone cry? Then I changed my mind about my assumed responsibility. See, I had absolutely nothing to do with Cassandra's ambivalence toward solving a challenge due to black hair. What I represented, however - a powerful black woman socially constructed to be feared - had everything to do with it. Her upbringing. Her life experiences. Messages fed to her. Messages fed to US. Messages that our Black skin, our Black hair, our noses and lips, our bodies, are property to be managed. I was not responsible for her tears, whatsoever. Who I WAS responsible to, in that moment, was Jameelah. Here I stood, with a Questlove pick in my hair, but looking more like Buckwheat, since the day was done and my beautiful blowout had shrunk. See, Jameelah was me. Jameelah IS me.
"So," I asked, heart beating faster and armpits starting to show my stress response - because that's what happens every time one racially micro-aggresses a person of color, "What are you going to do?" Cassandra blew her nose and opened the remaining laptops to configure. "Kayla can move," she said.