By Shelby A. Thomas
The year is 2002 and I have a towel on my head.
I am standing in front of my bathroom mirror. I am swaying from side to side as the towel swings down my back. I am spinning in circles as the towel twirls behind me.
I am pretending this (long, smooth, straight) towel is my hair.
I completed my elementary, middle, and high school education within the same public school district, each institution located within mere miles of one another. It is a highly-rated district, one that my loving parents specifically chose for my siblings and me in order to provide us all with a solid education. I thoroughly enjoyed school and I still do. I attribute much of my desire to learn and the value I place on education to the incredibly inspirational teachers and classmates that I met in these very schools.
Like many highly-rated school districts—not all of them—the student body was predominantly made up of white students. (I encourage you to look at the Center for American Progress’ report entitled Unequal Education: Federal Loophole Enables Lower Spending on Students of Color to read up on why this discrepancy exists).
This meant a few different things for me:
In elementary school it meant that I was acutely aware that no one else only two other students walking the hallways had brown skin and curls/kinks/coils that resembled mine. It meant that when we studied Martin Luther King Jr., I pretended like I didn’t notice the turned heads and wide eyes staring at me as if I were an alien. It meant that my eyebrows would raise in confusion whenever I noticed how my friends said the word “black.” Why did they always whisper it? Why did it sound like a forbidden curse word on their tongue?
We were kids, and there were a lot of things about identity and sensitivity and the world that we hadn’t yet discovered. I know that, but these experiences stuck with me and they stung at times and before I knew it…I replaced the towel on my head with chemical relaxer so that my hair would be straight like my classmates’. I could finally fit in. Now I wouldn’t feel so different.
Let me be clear that I was a very happy kid, really. But looking back, I know I was confused about who I was and how I was perceived by others. I wanted straight hair the same way I wanted Lunchables or Lisa Frank folders. I just wanted to fit in and at the time my dilemma seemed simple.
Over the years I would hear the following words from my peers, many of whom were close friends—words that would prove just how simple my feelings were not:
“You’re hair is crunchy.”
“Does your hair itch?
“You’re an oreo.”
“You’re not like other black people, you’re actually really cool!”
“Ugly black girl.”
“Why do you act so white?”
“I wish I could just bull*%$! my way through school and say I’m black on my college application so I could just go wherever I want.”
These comments (I could provide the first and last names of each and every person who said them…some things you don’t just forget), among many others, made me realize that many people had extremely biased, ignorant, and incomplete perceptions about me and my race. These statements made me recognize that being “color blind” was not only allowing others’ misconceptions to live on, but I was denying who I was. I was ignoring the blackness that I now couldn’t be more proud of.
Before her freshman year of high school, my younger sister chopped off her long dreadlocks, deciding to rock a curly, kinky, beautiful fro. I admired her independence and confidence. As proud as I felt of her, I knew I wasn’t secure enough within myself to do the same at that point. I wondered if there would be a day where I felt comfortable enough to rock my natural texture.
Well, the day came earlier this month. It actually came almost two years ago, but I wanted to give myself the time to grow out my hair a little. I have nothing against protective styles like braids, twists, weaves, or clip-ins. I don’t even have anything against relaxers. Having the option to switch up one’s hair style and wear their tresses however they feel most confident is so important and it is really fun! There are confident, proud, admirable, inspirational women with all types of hair styles.
For me specifically, chemical straightening made it hard for me to retain length or maintain healthy hair. And personally, my chemically damaged ends were born from a time when I was really lost, more lost than my young mind was capable of realizing at the time.
So I cut them off.
Honestly, it wasn’t the dramatic event that I thought it would be. It was exciting and freeing, but it wasn’t dramatic. It felt more like I was becoming the person who I always was. I am now learning about my natural, kinky texture more and more each day and I am loving it. I am sure I will wear different styles in the future from time to time, but I am proud to know that I have and will continue to embrace the person that I am in every sense. I am happy that those insecure feelings are no longer relevant to who I am. As those straightened ends fell to the floor, so did my desire to be anything other than my authentic self, and this lesson extends far beyond my hair.
I also want to be clear about something:
I wouldn’t change a second of my schooling experience. The environment that I have described—the one that caused me to question my identity at times, the one where I was challenged emotionally, the one where I didn’t always feel free to discuss or express my blackness—is the same place where I discovered my identity, where I developed the confidence to express myselfopenly, to defend my truths, and to embrace my blackness wholly and fully.
It was here that I made countless positive memories and friendships, some of which I am confident will last a lifetime. This is my home and my experiences here have helped shape the person I am: An open-minded, strong, imperfect, intelligent, black young woman with a life and support system overflowing with love. I am truly blessed.
My advice to me and you: EMBRACE YOURSELF. Remember how unique you are and cherish all of your exceptional qualities. Also listen to those around you and be empathetic. Recognize that other people have different experiences that you may not relate to and be sensitive. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and have difficult conversations. Be open to forming a new way of thinking that you may not have previously considered. Let’s listen with love and we may be surprised about how willing others are to do the same.
Have you experienced micro-aggressions targeting your natural hair? How did you handle it? Share below!
Shelby A. Thomas