Is That What They Think?
I wrote a variation of the following poem in my poetry class last year. The assignment called for using multiple voices to convey a story, and I thought it would be interesting to use my experiences as a Black woman who changes the state of her hair often.
Part 1: Straight Hair
I’m walking to class, just got
my hair done the day before.
Three hours, $90, ridiculousness.
They said “it’s because it’s so thick” –
maybe they should have said “we discriminate.”
He says, “Wow Hannah! I’ve never seen your hair like that!”
I reply, “Because I’m always sweating. I know,
I don’t straighten my hair that often because of my lifestyle.”
He says, “Well it looks really, really good and your fit looks nice as well.”
The eye contact, how close he’s getting.
Is he flirting? FLIRT BACK!
“Thanks! I really like your shoes!”
But he says, “Your hair looks better straight
than curly, you should definitely keep it straight.”
What’s far from a compliment doesn’t seem so to everyone else.
Part 2: Curly Hair
Sitting in the dining hall, enjoying my Chick-fil-A
Why is she looking at me so hard? She walks over
sound like thoughts I don’t want to hear.
She says, “Girl I love your curls! they are really popping!”
She says, “Are you mixed with anything?”
“I am black!”
She projects, “Wow! That’s amazing because –”
Please don’t finish that sentence
“you have really good hair for a black girl!”
She diminishes me.
“One more question…
Can I touch your hair, it’s just
so big and fluffy!”
Like I’m a dog. Is that
what they think?
When I read this aloud in class, of course there was laughter, but the discussion that followed surprised me. The majority-white class said things like, “I never knew about this problem,” or “Wow, this is eye-opening.” A lot of people thanked me. They showed me I have been dealing with these microaggressions for so long, and so unfortunately.
Starting in elementary school, I knew that I was different. I grew up in Harrisburg, North Carolina, a predominantly white area. The comments didn’t really phase me then because I didn’t understand why the way I looked was a big deal. I was too young to understand the culture I was in.
“Of course you wear #42, every Black person does.”
However, I started to struggle with being Black when I started to play a higher level of softball. It got to a point where I hated my skin. I wanted to be a different color. I wanted to look different. I started to be the only Black girl on the field, even on the team. I also was a pitcher, and that broke the stereotype of what position Black girls are supposed to play, which was outfield. People would say to me, “You are a great Black pitcher,” “You are good at softball for a Black girl,” “Of course you wear #42, every Black person does.”
At the same time, I started to get these comments at school: “You aren’t Black, you are white,” “You are the whitest Black person I know,” “You don’t act Black so you can’t claim it.” As my talent was developing, my confidence and self-esteem were lowering, until I hit rock bottom. I thought that God made me with the wrong skin, that I was meant to be white because I didn’t “act Black.” I tried to conform into something that I was never meant to be and, in the process, I lost my identity. I lost my hope.
Time passed and I still struggled with my appearance. I always had to have my hair straight, no weave, no braids, no natural hair. I developed what I call “the switch,” where I act one way in front of my white friends (or white people in general), and then when I am with my family, I act like myself. Around white people, I couldn’t use slang. I had to speak properly. I couldn’t show too much emotion or people would tell me that Black girls were too emotional. I couldn’t be too loud because I would be told that Black people are always loud. I would pay close attention to every little thing I did around white people, because they could use it against me to make fun of me, or label me as ghetto.
I couldn’t show too much emotion or people would tell me that Black girls were too emotional. I couldn’t be too loud because I would be told that Black people are always loud.
When I entered high school, I became more comfortable expressing my true self. Truthfully, it was a process. For example, it took me until junior year to wear my hair in its natural state, and not in a bun. (In hindsight, I did this only because natural curls started to be a trend.) I began to think about what it meant to look natural, exactly how I wanted to.
I then asked myself, “What does acting Black mean?” “What does it mean to be “ghetto”? It didn’t make sense to me how people could put us inside this little box and limit us. Why was my skin color a warning label to others? I started to call people out for these labels, because they weren’t right or true.
I was SO excited to go to college even though I knew that UNC was a predominantly white institution. I knew that, for once, there were going to be a lot of people that looked like me, and understood me, my hurt, and my hair. On my softball team, my Black teammates were so proud to be Black and were so confident in themselves, and I was in awe because I wanted to be confident and proud of who I am, too. They’ve helped me grow. And I’ve made a lot of progress since.
How could I ever care what they think, when I care what He thinks?
I found Christ, too. I started to believe that He made me in His image, in His likeness – that when He looks at me, He sees me as perfect and whole. That I look the way I’m supposed to. That He created me with my skin color and my hair type for a reason. So, if the creator of the universe created me like this, why should I be ashamed, why should I question it, why should I try to act like something that I was never intended to be? How could I ever care what they think, when I care what He thinks?
My identity is in Him, not in my talents, my accolades, or what people say or think about me and my hair.
In my time at UNC, I’ve grown to realize that I have a unique platform and I wanted to use my platform to show girls that look like me that they can overcome the obstacles that come their way. They don’t have to hide who they are like I did. They are who they are, and what they look like fits them perfectly. They should show it off to the world. No one should have to go through this process of hating themselves and then trying to find how to love themselves all over again.
And when others make it hard to find that beauty, we just have to keep fighting a little harder every time.
But, Black people have to go through this, and this process that I have to go through will never stop. However, being Black isn’t a burden as so many make it seem. It’s so beautiful. And when others make it hard to find that beauty, we just have to keep fighting a little harder every time. Maybe one day we won’t have to.
You might ask, “What has changed between then and now?” And the answer is, I’ve learned to love me. I love my skin. I love my skin.
- Hannah George