Identity & Cultural Bridges
Dr. MelindaJoy Mingo was a guest on the Get Control Of Your Life podcast. It’s #25 on the topic of identity. (Click here if you missed it!) We recorded the podcast around a time that I asked MJ a dreaded question, one that is a ‘bit tiring’ to women of color. After being taken aback and laughing, she had a gracious response. Then she wrote this article:
My friend Deb asked me the ultimate question that most Black women will understand…”Is that your real hair?” My unspoken thought was “Here we go again with the ‘hair thing’ and did she just reach over and touch my hair without asking for my permission!’ Now I must tell you that Deb and I have been friends for years but…,the ‘hair question’ – well, it touched a nerve.
Yes, the proverbial question about Black hair. While it is a bit funny that a simple question can ignite such intense emotions, I learned a lot about myself from my response, and what God was teaching me. (not Deb)
I was polite after I swallowed hard and said “Girl, if I was going to wear extensions, weaves, braids, wigs, clip ons, snap ons, sew ons, etc., it would look better than this mess! This IS my hair.”
My friend looked at me with all the sincerity and innocence of a little lamb and said, “Should I not have asked you that question?”
As I think back over my intense response, I realize that it wasn’t really the question of hair. If I am honest, it is a deeper issue of my journey in the area of embracing my identity and coming to a place of valuing who I really am – not the perception that I want people to have about me.
Okay, so here are my humble reflections about that brief dialogue between my wonderful friend and myself:
It’s really not so much the issue of hair as it is that I just wonder why some of my white and black acquaintances think Black women really do not have “hair” and that any type of hair that looks pretty decent must be a weave, wig, etc., especially if it is long hair. I can’t express the hundreds of times people have asked ‘Is that your hair?’ And no I don’t think that I have beautiful hair.
Within our own Black culture, there has always been so much discussion about a woman’s identity based on her hair. Some of the comments such as ”She has good hair—meaning it is not curly kinky, but pretty straight.’ or ‘she must be mixed because her hair is really pretty’.
Throughout the decades, Black women were not allowed to wear certain hair styles such as braids, twists, or Bantu Knots if tthey were in a highly visible profession such as a TV anchorwoman, a flight attendant, and the list goes on. Some women were actually asked to change their hairstyles to assimilate into the dominant culture which would mean straighter sleek looking styles.
Now that people like the new “Afrocentric” hairstyles (more natural), and they have become more accepted in society, Black women who still relax or perm their hair are said to like “creamy crack” which is a name assigned to harsh chemicals necessary to straighten their hair. It has been such a discussion within our own Black community that there have been documentaries made about our hair such as “Good Hair” by Chris Rock which is highly entertaining and all so true. But I have come to understand the historical perspective associated with Black women having to cover their heads during the slavery era or were made fun of in the earlier movies which portrayed Black women as nannies and maids only. While I respect all of that, I can wear my hair as I please so what’s the real issue for me?
The REAL issue is that in the past I have not had much value for myself and I allowed wounded feelings and hurts to be masked over and not deal with the real internal issues.
Why is my identity so tied to what anyone thinks about my hair: anyway be it kinky, curly, flat ironed, pressed on the stove, natural, etc.? Well, my friends, I think it’s because I had an opportunity years ago to get an amazing executive national position with a firm that I loved and was one of two top candidates out of 500. During the final interview I was told that clients would not relate to me because I did not have blond hair and blue eyes and my hair was too natural and a bit puffy. I know it sounds crazy and I changed the color of my hair to blonde and bought some green contacts and still didn’t get the job. So immature of me right?
As foolish as it may sound, I learned we have to move past ignorance and internal wounding to be who we really and not live in the past even if we experience similar situations in our present.
I also realize that I don’t need to get angry with or hurt people with my words or actions who don’t know about my personal journeys. Nothing in my past life has anything to do with my friend Deb asking me a simple question, and actually giving me a great compliment about my hair at the same time.
My friend and I had a great fun conversation about the hair thing and then we watched a movie, ate popcorn, laughed, and just hung out as friends.
I have a few takeaways about allowing myself to be a cultural learning bridge for others:
- Some people are afraid to ask “sensitive” cultural questions because they don’t want to be offensive. We have to realize that sometimes people just want to know an answer to something and won’t learn proactive ways to interact with diverse cultures if they don’t have friends who are willing to be “learning bridges.”
- I am willing to allow my friends to make a “mistake” while also learning from me, and learning about myself in the process.
- If something is disrespectful to a person from another culture—and I don’t have to understand why—I will respect what they have told me and appreciate the diversity of thought and differences. I will allow myself to become a cultural detective and open my heart to being ‘discomforted’ to come out of my comfort zone while being respectful.
- A person’s past wounds and hurts from someone in a particular culture should not impede them from relating to someone else from the same culture. Every person is unique and no one person can represent an entire race or ethnic group. A poor person cannot speak on the behalf of every poor person in the world.
- Lastly, in my opinion, God has made all people beautiful—inside and out, and in many different ways—whether deaf or blind, white or black, Asian or Hispanic, no hair, kinky hair, straight hair, etc. rich or poor… I want to learn how to appreciate all people and remind them of their value, worth, and dignity.
All people have stories; we just haven’t heard them all.
Royalty-free image by Viktors Kozers; retrieved from: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/party-1414311