But I didn’t always think so.
For many women, hair is a visual marker of race. I don’t know if this is true for me; I suspect mine is a little more visually ambiguous, which would be a good thing, because I really don’t identify with any particular race. “What are you?” a question I’m asked often, is most likely to receive the response, “I’m Muslim,” than any reply involving race.
It is because of this that I bring up my hair, because I’m so distant from race that I’m not at all passionate in its regards, and I have a hard time writing about things I don’t care for, and so I kind of need a little bit of help to open up about it. Race, after all, is not what I feel. It’s not something that exists until I step outside, when others decide for me where I belong.
Race is a social construct more than a phenomenon of nature, and what dictates who belongs to what race is, surprisingly enough, rarely geography. Oftentimes it’s drawn depending on how one looks more than where one is from; sometimes it’s even dependent on cultural divisions. We’ve been inconsistent historically on who is to be considered “white.” Germans, at least in the United States, obtained “whiteness” later than the English, Greeks, and Italians. The Irish had to actually adjust into “whiteness.” All these “races,” however, are of drastically different cultures, but over assimilation these distinctions had been forgotten. It all became a part of “white culture”–not Irish culture or Greek culture or German culture.
Outside of “whiteness” we are defined by it. There is a hierarchy in which minorities are most recognizable. Blacks and Asians are most commonly listed as examples of minorities. Hispanics come closer, Arabs are mentioned even less often. Native Americans are pretty much invisible. Even without having assimilated, even with clearer distinctions between cultures, we are grouped into one class–“non-white.”
In examining what it means to be white in the United States, the definition of race becomes more and more obscure. It is an appearance, a social class, almost a way of thought.
Must we, the “rest of us,” like those who came before us–like the Germans and the Irish–who were not at once considered “white”… must we lose our differences to be considered “more white”? What is the price of being accepted?
While race may be obscure, the effects of racism and a visually arranged hierarchy are blatantly harmful.
I distinctly remember sitting in my second grade classroom and running my fingers through the light brown hair of one of my friends. It slid from my hand like water. She didn’t have nearly as much of it as I did, and I would think wistfully of how easy it was for her to manage, how quickly she could whip it into a ponytail. My hair was so abundant the scrunchy wouldn’t make it tightly enough around the circumference, and the bit of the scrunchy that was left too short to circulate around the thickness of my hair again would cause the whole thing to come undone. If I did manage to tighten it enough, the weight of my hair would pull it down.
To keep my hair up, I would really have to put all of it up (nothing hanging like a ponytail to drag it down) or wear it in a half-ponytail, with only the crown lifted. My mother tried to braid it often, but I didn’t like braids. I didn’t mind half of it up, but because children are a little sloppy–and the fact that my hair itself is difficult to manage wasn’t much help either–I would create tangles between the two layers by neglecting to piece out wandering strands before I tied it. This was painful to undo and created nightmarish dreadlocks.
And so, it was kept loose.
At home I stood in front of my bathroom mirror. When I was certain my mother wasn’t looking, I reached into my hair and pulled out a handful of it. I did this repeatedly, attempting in vain to thin it out.
I’m not sure exactly what it was that made me do this. I didn’t care about physical appearances. I climbed trees under the sun when other girls stood watching from beneath rooftops, fearing the light would tan them. I didn’t feel the need to be thin (though to be fair, this may be because I naturally am) or the pressure to constantly find physical characteristics of which I disapproved so no one would think I was stuck-up. (Girls bonded over their “imperfections.”) It was strange, then, that I had declared a war against my hair.
My glossy, abundant, thick-textured, tumbling, stormy waves were not “white” enough.
Beginning from the forth grade I was told constantly that I had beautiful hair. Women would come up behind me and run their fingers through it, amazed. “Sorry, I just had to touch it. It’s so shiny! Is it real?” Beginning from high school, men would exclaim in astonished tones, “You have beautiful hair!” (A man has yet to question whether or not it’s real.) These things happened when I left it the way it is.
And yet I continued to straighten it with a flat iron. It wasn’t the curls I minded. It was the frizz. And straightening evened it out. Straightening made it easier to get it trimmed. Straightening made me less of a spectacle. Straightening made me closer to conventionally beautiful–the kind of beautiful that people don’t even mention because it’s just that obvious.
Because along with the extravagant compliments, (“Your hair looks like a Raphaelite painting!”) there was also extravagantly scathing scorn–maybe even more often than not, since kids are, you know, cruel. “You should chop it all off!” a girl at my middle school sneered viciously. “I’d never keep my hair like that!” another, believing I was out of earshot, whispered to her friend as the two walked to class behind me.
It wasn’t only the beauty standards that were blaring obstacles but what they represented and–even more hurtful, as I later came to experience–the denial of these struggles from those who were privileged. ex. “It’s rare that anyone of your race is so pretty.”
“That’s because you have a normalized view of what’s pretty based on white-centrism.”
“No, seriously, foreign people who are really pretty are rare.”
But my favorite is, “Of course she’ll get in instead of me, she’s a minority.”
OR, it might be because I’m smarter than you. Just an idea.
In retrospect, it seems that any group who makes an effort of abandoning differences and conforming into the standards of a majority instead of maintaining its diversity gets to be digested into “whiteness.” And that is a little bit disturbing. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed model of the American woman is practically an icon of international recognition. Other countries have their own. The “ideal” internationally advertised American woman doesn’t look too different from the French or Aussie one. Deciding to assimilate individually isn’t it itself negative, but this structure that exists, almost invisibly, and this demand for everyone in minority groups to assimilate is no doubt potentially destructive.