I was a late bloomer, as in I think I bloomed underground and then had to fight my goofy, wrecked up daisy head out of the dirt to see the sun. I didn’t finish my BA until one day before my oldest son graduated with an engineering degree. It meant a cobbling together of credits from all over with a final push that included some all-day, one credit seminars.
I learned about prisons from the Psych department, I think I took two of those, actually. Super interesting. And then there was a seminar that I will never forget, although I can’t say I even remember the topic. The professor for the day was a White man with long blonde hair and he wore sandals, although it was still a pretty brisk spring in the Pacific Northwest. With socks is OK, but this guy had bare feet.
He pushed his stringy hair off of his face so frequently I actually looked for a ponytail holder in my purse. He lectured and lectured and lectured. But then he turned a chair backwards and sat facing the class. That’s when we knew things were gonna get real.
I don’t remember the exact breakdown of the class. There were a lot of White people, more women than men, a few Asian folks and maybe a few mixed race people. And there were two women who were Black.
Professor greasy hair straddled that chair and looked at us through his hair.
“Because, you know, being a person of color has roadblocks that I never thought of until my students, you know, woke me up.” Fingers through hair, nodding his head so it all just falls in his face again.
“Like ladies, I hope you don’t mind me calling on you here, but your hair! I mean, it’s a whole process, right?”
One of the women raised her eyebrows in shock. The other one played along. “Yeah, you know, it’s just not a big deal.” He went on. They talked a little about, you know, hair.
I mean, our grade was held by this guy. I get it. I didn’t say anything, either. Dumbstruck, or maybe just dumb.
It gets kind of hazy after that, my memory. But I know we ended the day writing an essay about our experience. It must have been some kind of multi-cultural communications seminar, because the intent was to process all of these “new” things we had encountered.
I gave up caring about my grade. I felt guilt for not speaking up in the moment.
My husband jokes about people asking Asians if they can see when they smile. And when I say jokes, I mean he calls them names I won’t repeat here, because that is a stupid thing to ask an Asian person. I understand people touch the hair of people who are Black like it’s a thing you can do. No. It’s not. That is not a thing you can do.
I should have stopped that professor like I stopped children who asked my kids about their Kung Fu dad. Just like you slap a mosquito, without thinking, as a natural reaction. Bam.
So for my final project I wrote about how inappropriate it was for that man to ask two Black women anything in anyway that expected them to speak about their personal business or to speak for all Black women. We White folks have to stop assuming that asking our classmates, co-workers, fellow humans to speak for an entire group is OK.
It’s tricky, I know. White folks get reminded to center the voices of people of color. But that does not mean inviting a person to speak for all people of color, or to “check” you to see if you’re getting some social justice thing “right.”
What this means, fellow White folks, is paying attention when you choose a spokesperson, a leader, the next candidate for something. Not as a token, but with an awareness that you and I have been trained to view White as “normal”, which by default means White as better. Fight that by interrupting it.
Remember that white supremacy isn’t just people in hoods. It’s me, and it might be you, not learning about the systems that we support which oppress our fellow humans; it’s not stopping the greasy haired professors when they say inappropriate things. It’s work and it’s not easy. And we make mistakes all the time. And we keep learning and getting better. We have to.
And you know what? The next time someone turns a chair around and sits down to have an earnest talk with me, I’m outta there.