“Where’d you get that hair?”
I’ve heard that question all of my life. Picture me: complexion so light that only a redhead would be fairer. Freckles. And kinky hair, red during my youth, now faded to the color of lint mixed with white.
So what’s the real question when a total stranger asks “where’d you get that hair?
Growing up in the 1960’s, I’m thinking the real question is “what race are you?” In those days, no one doubted that privilege was determined by your race: where you lived, where you went to school, where you sat on the bus. And in turn, where you lived, where you sent to school and where you sat on the bus influenced how far you could get in our upwardly-mobile society, whether you could go to college and what college that would be, whether you would end up drafted and fighting in Vietnam.
These are the responses I developed roughly in chronological order:
- No, I did not put my finger in an electrical socket (said without reflecting the faux-jovial mood of the inquisitor),
- No, I did not have a bad perm (again, said with deadly seriousness),
- My scalp,
- It grows this way,
- What business is it of yours?
- What, you writing a book? (I learned that one from my ex-husband, the New Yorker),
- And where did that hair hanging from your scalp like over-cooked spaghetti come from?
- I’m Irish (the truth but oddly enough not very satisfying to most people). When they’d respond, “I didn’t know Irish people had hair like that,” I’d say, “I wouldn’t brag about being ignorant if I was you.”
- Let me explain hair to you. Your hair is round. My hair is flat. If my flat hair strand thins as it grows out, it makes an angle because of the different stresses on each side of the strand. You did pass physics, you do understand what I’m talking about? (One of my personal favorites.)
- A long, long time ago, the Normans invaded Ireland. Before they came to Ireland, my Norman ancestors lived in northern Italy at the same time the Moors were there. Then I look at the inquisitor like he should be able to put it all together by himself because if he had listened to junior high school world history, he would, in fact, have all the information he needs. Usually, the response is a blank look. (Another personal favorite.)
You’ll note over time my responses have become increasing belligerent.
Some of the other responses have included being told I look “high yellow”, “redbone” and like an “albino negress.” Nowadays, people just say “I thought you were black.”
Many, many people don’t talk to me at all; they stare from a distance. I’d seen that look in their faces all my life but I didn’t know what caused it. It’s as if they just smelled something nasty. One day about thirty years ago, I was walking down the street with a black friend of mine who grew up in Alabama. A man gave us that look and my friend said something under his breath, some response he used when confronted with the phenomenon he’d grown up with. And I blurted out “Is that guy a racist?” like an excited kid identifying a zoo specimen. I realized for the first time how insidious racism was. I had been swimming in it all my life and hadn’t even noticed because I was so accustomed to it.
I’m here to tell you that even in 2015 United States of America it’s a lot nicer to be treated like a white person than it is to be treated like a black person.
So why is my genetic composition important to some people? I believe it’s fear-driven. It’s the old “haves versus have-nots”. Some people draw the line at race, at what you look like. Because appearance is an easy distinction to make. And when they see someone like me, the distinction is not so easy and they become anxious. They’re afraid I might get something I’m not entitled to, something they should get instead.
I’ve tried to blend off and on over the years (and thus avoid the question). In so doing, I put my scalp and hair through the rigors of straightening (which is literally melting your hair chemically), curling irons (melting with heat), curlers and pins, potions and goo of all kind.
Now I wear it natural and short. Not because I necessarily like the look, but because I’ve made a truce with my hair. I just don’t have the inclination to screw around with it anymore. If someone doesn’t like me because of my hair, then they can leave the room. I’m fine with that.
I like to think I’ve become the matriarch of my own little tribe (I imagine most grandmothers do). My beautiful grandchildren are a mixture of Irish, Puerto Rican and Yup’ik Eskimo. There are blue eyes, amber green eyes and brown eyes, one blonde and one brunet and one with almost black hair, straight hair, wild Maid Marian hair and “the hair” (as it’s known in my family) and they run around screaming ecstatically at the holidays just like any other group of cousins because in may family, they are all “haves.”
My grandchildren have grandparents who dote on them, parents who love and support them. They have food, shelter, clothing, video games and way too many dogs. And their potential is limited only by their own imaginations because in our little tribe, we are loved and cherished for our uniqueness.
Were that only true for everyone.