The Coil Review Blog: Memoirs of a White Man: Part II - By: Alex Barnett
''After my ear stopped ringing from the head-slap she gave me, I apologized, and reassured her that she did not, in fact, look like a boy. And, honestly, she didn't. All kidding aside. She looked great. With the bun-lette she looked like a ballerina (with a great booty, I might add). But, no, she insisted, she looked like a boy.
"Why do you say this?" I asked, trying to understand.
HER: "My hair--it's so short."
And, that's when I learned the truth of women's hair. They love their hair more than we men do. At some level, it's an emblem of femininity. It's a way of saying "I am a woman." Any woman who has had long hair and then cuts it off is going against convention. And, that is disquieting to anyone, especially to a Black woman with a White boyfriend, who's too stupid to realize that this is a big deal and who -- she noted with a fair amount of anger--suggested cutting off the long hair in the first place.
ME: "Wait," I protested. "I wasn't the one who said you should cut off the hair, I only--"
She shot me a look and held up her hand--the universal sign for: "You are a man and, therefore, wrong. Even if logic, facts and a tape recording of the conversation would support your position, you are still wrong."The "I look like a boy" phase was a walk in the park compared to what came next.
Phase III: This Is Crazy!
As the natural curly hair began to grow and push the chemically straightened hairs out and away from her head, the bun-lette gave way. It could no longer contain the hybrid, partly-curly, partly-straight hair. Rather, what resulted was full-out gang warfare: the natural-curlies versus the bone-straights. It was the Sharks and the Jets going at it, full-bore. But, the natural-curlies weren't strong enough to fully assert themselves. And, the bone-straights, although they had lost their dominant position, were not ready to give up just yet.
The result: a strange line (a DMZ if you will) that ran across the top of my girlfriend's head and marked the place where the natural-curlies ended and the bone-straights began.
HER: "I can't believe I have a line on top of my head" , my girlfriend remarked many, many, many times during this phase. "And, what is it? Is it curly? Is it straight? This is crazy!"
What followed was a torrent, months worth of emotional lava that had been bubbling and percolating just below the surface of this generally happy, smiling, even-keeled woman.
HER: "You just don't get it. When I walk into a room now, everyone is looking at me."
ME: "No, they don't," I said, trying to reassure her.
HER: "Yes, they do," she said. "And everyone's wondering why you're with me."
ME: "That's crazy...no, they're really not."
HER: "You just don't get it."
But, I was starting to "get it" that I didn't get it, because I was White (and, secondarily, because I was male) and didn't understand that what she was going through was nothing short of a transformation that challenged racial, gender and societal norms and expectations. This was as far away from my own experience as anything I could or can imagine.
If I go to the barber, and he screws up, the worst that happens is a buddy makes fun of me. Then, within a week or two, my hair grows back to more-or-less what it looked like, and no one cares or says anything. So when my girlfriend first started down this path, I had thought to myself: ‘It's only a hairstyle.' But, I was wrong. There was no only about it. No, she cuts off her hair and starts to grow an afro, and for her -I was learning– it was a big deal, seemingly a bigger deal than dating a White guy.
Going natural, it seems, is considered by some to be "unnatural." So by doing this, she was making a statement with her hair, a really big statement: a statement about parting with a hairstyle taught to her by her mother; a statement that she wasn't going to just go along with what other women or women's magazines said was "in" or "looked good,"; a statement that you don't need a luxurious weave (yes, I learned a little about those too) to be a good-looking woman. She was saying, for all the world to hear, that a woman doesn't have to have straightened hair to have "good" hair. And, for the moment, making this statement was taking its toll. It was (at least for the moment) leaving her feeling lost, confused, and upset.''