This story has come up a few times in the last week, and it’s one of my best memories.
Right out of college I accepted a teaching position in the inner city. Class sizes of 45 and at one point 65 students – 100% of the population was on free and reduced breakfast and lunch, and I was definitely a minority. The wildest part of the whole experience to me was that I went to high school literally less than 10 miles away from this school, but the two felt Worlds apart. My high school was pretty much all white and ranked one of the top 5 best high schools in the State. I remember we had a few Black students but they were kind of like the token black kids. I hate saying that, but it’s honestly how it seemed. Someone from my high school correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t remember ever realizing that they would walk through the World differently than I would, but now I know that to be true.
You know I’m not against honesty even if it makes me look like a fool – so I’ll keep it real with you. I was definitely one of those people who pompously would claim that “I don’t see color”. Ugh, Meg, come on. It took one of my students telling me, “Ms. T, I hope you see my color because It’s just who I am” to totally sucker punch me in the stomach. I was so sheltered. I didn’t even realize being white was a privilege until I couldn’t even remotely deny that it wasn’t.
I’ll never forget the day a student was telling me they got a job at McDonald’s and I got embarrassed for them because I remembered getting made fun of bringing generic brand water to school – I couldn’t even comprehend the ridicule I assumed I would’ve received from admitting I worked at a McDonalds. But this student was so excited, and everyone was excited for them, and I was legitimately confused. That’s not something you tell everyone. True story I actually got made fun of because my water was from Meijer in high school. It’s hard out there for kids man. And just like that I projected my shame onto a student who had no business carrying it.
So, what does a weave have to do with all of this? Keep reading.
If you don’t know what a weave is – let me fill you in – it’s fake hair that is literally sewn into a full head of cornrowed hair. It’s a common thing in African American culture – and generally not something white people do. Most white people would get extensions – that would be like the equivalent. Google “weave” – what images pop up? Then Google “extensions” – what images pop up? Seriously…go do it…it’s alarming.
When I started this job in the inner city I was not well liked by the girls in my classes…at all. Like zero percent. Maybe it’s because attendance on the first day literally took me an hour (not an exaggeration) because I couldn’t pronounce like anyone’s name (think Key and Peele substitute teacher…only the other way around), or maybe it was because I was white – and I hadn’t earned any amount of their trust, or maybe as one girl put it – “Ms.T, you just gave all these girl’s boyfriends another booty to talk about other than theirs, and you’re white so that’s even worse”…I’ll never know. BUT I got cussed out constantly. “Turn in your assignment” was often met with, “F*%^ you, B***” awesome. cool. thanksssss. I ended nearly every day in tears.
I started noticing a lot of the girls would miss class for a few days – and when they would come back their hair was totally different. Like…who is your hairdresser because I don’t get it. You guys, I literally asked a girl how her hair grew six inches in the two days she was out sick…and her and all her friends laughed at me. Like – girlllll, I want that sickness, give it to me. I knew nothing about their culture, and for a long time I wasn’t really trying to understand it.
I felt sorry for myself for having a hard time – not stopping to think about reaching into their culture or experience to understand them. Ya know – not once have I ever been asked if my hair is “natural” – in the white community it’s just kind of assumed that it is, and in the black community it’s just kind of assumed that it isn’t. At least in my experience you are in the minority if you are wearing your hair natural.
I had one student who wore her hair natural and she wore it like a prize because she was an anomaly. I understand there are beauty standards and pressures placed on everyone – not just African American women, but I never realized that a standard for them is pretty much – wear fake hair because your natural hair isn’t good enough…and everyone agrees. Although – I do see this standard creeping HARD into the female population as a whole…thanks Kylie Jenner for making me feel like I should own a wig collection…rude.
Finally – on a day when I was feeling particularly sad about not having long luscious hair – I asked my student Muffin where she got her hair done, she recommended a girl in the school who did it, and I set up a time for her to hook me up after school.
Putting in a weave takes a crap ton of time, and is very painful – it is often a precursor to a pretty bad migraine. That’s why these girls were missing school – because it took a long time – and it hurt. It annoyed me that they missed school for stuff like that. So I said that if I got a weave and didn’t miss a day of a school because of it – then these girls couldn’t either.
The day came when it was time for me to get my weave. We started at like 3 o’clock after school one day – I provided the hair and the pizza – and my girl worked her magic. Something tells me that she pulled my rows extra tight, because my eyes were watering the entire time. It was more painful than a tattoo. It took 6 hours.
And you guys, I wanted to call into work the next day SO badly. I had such a migraine, and my scalp HURT. I seriously had trouble sleeping. I kind of understood now, I got it – why they needed a day of recovery…because holy crap. But, I went in anyway, and that’s the day all of my relationships with my female students started to change. Honestly, I don’t think I got cussed out by a girl for the rest of the year. I had these girls touching and playing with my hair – sitting at my desk to do their work – asking me advice – telling me about their lives.
K, the weave only lasted two weeks, because this white girl literally couldn’t deal. It was itchy, painful, and heavy. I now I know why girls smack their head.
But, the relationships with these girls lasted the rest of the year, and it honestly had nothing to do with the hair. It had everything to do with the fact that for once I reached into their culture and experience and wanted to know more, legitimately wanted to understand even just the smallest part of their World. I didn’t assume I knew what it was like. I didn’t discredit the experience. I gained a new appreciation and respect for them – and when that happens, people can feel that.
It was about a month later that one of my students looked at me and said, “Ms. T – you gotta be like mixed or something, there’s just no way you’re ONLY white”…have ya’ll seen me? I’m like definitely one of the top five whitest people I know, but what that meant to me is that this kid started to see me more similar to him than dissimilar. I think there can be a lack of trust amongst races (it’s a sad truth) – and I think it was this kid realizing that he trusted me, and maybe that was a new thing for him?
Now like I said – it was never about the weave, but the weave marked a mindset shift – where I went from – not taking the time to learn about the things I didn’t know about, to – caring enough to step into another experience. To admit that I wasn’t culturally competent, to admit that I hadn’t had much interaction with the black community…other than like Tupac and Biggie. To admit that I really had no idea what their lives were like. To admit that I was just then recognizing white privilege as a real thing. I started to care about the injustices that these kids I cared so much about faced – and not just like a “ohhh, how terrible for them”…and on with my life. But, it became an actual concern, a literal ache in my heart.
Moral of the story…I’d like to petition every white girl to get a weave…and gain a deeper appreciation for our black sisters. And seriously – can we boycott this wig movement please?