Friday, November 30, 2018

Hair racism

Ijeoma Oluo photo at
Author and editor Ijeoma Oluo was recently interviewed regarding the publication of her new book So You Want To Talk About Race in one of my favorite publications, The Sun magazine here. The feature interview is titled "White Lies: Ijeoma Oluo on Privilege, Race, and Power."

A few pages in, the interviewer, Mark Leviton, asks:
You've identified numerous 'microaggressions' that people of color experience nearly every day -- instances of subtle, sometimes unconscious racism. What are some examples,and how do you respond to them?
Oluo replies:
Microaggressions hit you out of the blue and remind you that you can't get too comfortable; that where you are isn't really the place for you. They are more than just annoyances. They are daily insults and indignities. Some are verbal ...
Most annoying for me are questions about my hair, or people who want to touch my hair. When I first went natural, some people felt the need to ask, "Are you entering your militant-black-woman phase?" When I changed jobs at one point, the first thing my new white boss asked was whether my hair was real. I titled a chapter in my book "Why Can't I Touch Your Hair?" because this is such an issue for black women.
Oluo's experience makes me think of the unsettling effects in U.S. society today when we try to discuss topics like racism. We need to talk about it to better understand. The Seattle Times newspaper social-justice columnist Tyrone Beason recently described public reaction, both positive and negative, to his November 26, 2018 column about a mortal fear of the police that rose up in him during a routine traffic stop. In his column the following week, Beason noted:
I’ve come to expect a certain amount of pushback from readers, online commenters in particular, who take issue with my stance on matters of race and racism — the fear of it and the fact of it in our society. Boy, did the haters and doubters deliver. I had one reader email me to say that if I was going to go through life in a state of fear, I should move to another country.
Beason went on to say he didn't write the column for people of color. He "wrote it, foremost, for white people." Sometimes it happens that we blunder into a racist or insulting comment, which I've heard shrugged off with remarks like, "well, maybe you saw it that way, but I didn't mean it that way." That's the whole thing about discussion -- communicating. There are two people (or more) in the discussion, each with a personal experience. Just because it's not about race for you, that doesn't mean it's not. Later in The Sun interview, Mark Leviton asks:
Right at the start of So You Want to Talk About Race, you lay out some basic rules for discussions of racism. The first is that an experience "is about race if the person of color thinks it is about race." Are people of color infallible when it comes to identifying racism?
Ijeoma Oluo replies:
These issues are multilayered and complex, but absolutely everything in America is race-related. No part of our society is without a racial component. If a person of color is telling you that what you're discussing has something to do with race, it does. Even if you can't see it, even if your behavior wasn't motivated by unconscious racism, that person of color sitting next to you has had to deal with such trauma many times.