Crossing the Line from Labels to Identity
The following post was originally hosted on Just Pursuits, by my friend, and business partner, Jessica Petty.
As Bryana Clover and I continued to tackle subject matter related to race, I pitched the idea of exploring labels and how they impact our conversations. With the census this year, I was investigating racial categories and how we assign labels to others, and to ourselves. With all my sources assembled, I had the electronic postman deliver my message to Bry. Ding, she had new mail.
Ding, new message reply. How about moving past labels and let’s write about identity?
Identity? At first glance, this felt similar to labels but as I pondered my own identity, and not just the boxes I check, I found that it was a bit too personal. There were parts of my identity that I share broadly and parts that I only share with people I trust.
I didn’t want to say no to Bry and her identity challenge, so I did what any good Southern descendent of WASPs would do. I stalled. I hemmed. I hawed.
Ding, draft attached. Bry went there. As I guessed, identity is way more personal than labels.
Her words pierced me. Labels are about groups and categories, but identities are about people and layers of life. Judgement of your identity is the ultimate wound. It says… “we see you and you are not welcome. We don’t like you or respect you or value anything you bring to us. Go and don’t try to come back here again unless you have changed. And by change, we mean ‘be like us’”.
Hair. When I first sat down to reflect on how my identity has shaped me throughout my life and my career, the first thing I thought about was my hair. Black women’s identity and their relationship with their hairstyle is intrinsically linked. One cannot exist without the other. When it comes to hair, most men and women can relate. Most people of all races agonize over how to style it, and in some cases how not to lose it. But not all hair is created equal.
In an article titled, “Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair”, Tabora A. Johnson and Teiahsha Bankhead discuss an in-depth overview of the history of Black hair. For centuries, from the continent of Africa to America, Black hair has been a symbol of cultural identity, spirituality, character, and beauty. In the 17thcentury, when Europeans began stealing men, women and children from their homeland in mass numbers, they sought ways to further dehumanize them by shaving off their hair. It was a symbolic removal of African culture. To further dehumanize them, Europeans used unfavorable, demeaning descriptions in reference to African hair. Enslaved men and women either had to shave their heads or cover their hair. This evolved into African beauty being racialized, and European looks and hairstyles being the accepted image of beauty.
As a young bi-racial girl, I subconsciously found ways to assimilate into the dominant white spaces I was in. Part of that assimilation was me begging my mom to chemically relax my hair every 6-8 weeks so it could be “straight”. Throughout my childhood, and into adulthood, I spent thousands of dollars to continue suppressing my natural hair texture. I brought this into the workplace. Right out of college, I started working for a white-male dominated company in a white-male dominated industry. My first sales territory was in the south, and prior to moving, I received “the talk” from my father about the specific towns that I was not to stop in for gas (as they were not safe for people of color). Racism does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter where you live, all of us in America are impacted in some way by Her racist foundation, past, and present. I grew up in the midwest, and this was the first time “the talk” was about towns I was to avoid because the KKK was still active. While I was mostly excited about this new adventure, moving far from the safety of my home for the first time as a young woman was already somewhat scary, and my race further compounded that anxiety.
While I didn’t feel I had much in common with my customers, they welcomed me into my territory, essentially took me under their wing, and taught me a lot about the industry. But, there were a number of conversations that included inappropriate comments about “black plant workers”. They would assure me not to take offense, and that I was different. At the time, I didn’t understand how “I was different”. And while it’s not my job to psychoanalyze the racism of my customers, it likely had a lot to do with proximity. Perhaps I was one of the few black people they knew. Was I different because I challenged their narrow perceptions of what it meant to be black? I was internalizing all of these interactions, without recognizing it at the time, which were telling me to cater to the dominant culture I was working within, in order to strive, to be accepted, and to be successful.
So, what does all of this have to do with hair? There is an underlying message for people of color in a white dominated society. Blend in. Be like us. Look like us. Act like us. Adia Harvey Wingfield describes the plight of people of color in the workplace: “Minority professionals tread cautiously to avoid upsetting the majority group’s sensibilities. They can be visibly black, but don’t want to be perceived as stereotypically black. For example, a black female candidate for a law firm who chemically straightens her hair, is in a nuclear family structure, and resides in a predominantly white neighborhood signals a fealty to (often unspoken) racial norms. She does so in a way that an equally qualified black woman candidate who wears dreadlocks, has a history of pushing for racial change in the legal field, is a single mother and lives in the inner city does not.”
As I have matured in my personal acceptance and the embracing of my racial identity despite the dominant culture norms, one of the physical ways I have expressed this “coming home” is through my journey to “going natural”. The discontinuation of chemically relaxing my hair and wearing it natural in all its glory. My journey to unapologetically living an authentic life has not always been easy, and it is just that. A journey. There is something sweet and liberating about it. I am celebrating my blackness, and I’m proud of it!