This scene took place more than four years ago, at a previous job:
I had a black co-worker who usually wore her hair natural, which means it flowed up (rather than down) with tight curls extending high on her head.
And once every few months, she paid tens of dollars to have it straightened. And then it flowed down and was straight, like white or Asian hair.
One time, one of my white-male-40-something-never-been-around-black-people co-workers said to her, “I like your hair a lot better this way.” He was talking about her expensive straightened hairdo.
And then when she went back to the au naturale fro, he said, “Why’d you change your hair back? I liked it better the other way.”
She was hurt by the comment but said nothing to him.
I asked him if he knew anything about hair, black hair* in particular, and women’s hair in general. He was stumped. He was just trying to relate to her.
I told him it’s not nice to express a preference for one style or the other. And how in this case, he appears not only sexist (as if his preference should affect how she does her hair) but also racist (for preferring a white standard of beauty.)
His brave and humble response: “Huh. Ohhhh. Ok thanks. I had no idea.” And then he apologized to her.
Isn’t that usually the case, though? Most people don’t walk around trying to offend others. I, too, get miffed when people act clueless. But that’s hypocritical: I’ve been clueless more times than I care to remember.
This is life: You start out clueless and every experience gives you a clue.
But we’ll always be more clueless than we are clued-in — for there’s too much to take in.
Try to remember that the next time you feel offended. I will too.
And I’ll try to express gratitude for all the people brave enough to clue me in.
*I’d had no idea either until eighth grade, when I moved to an all-black town. Three peers took me under their wing and clued me in about a lot of things, including the fact that maintaining their hair took a lot more work than I had imagined.
I don’t know if I recommend being a minority all through high school — and most of us have no control over that anyway — but the experience was formative for me. I learned that being a minority is a daily exercise in trying not to be offended.