Because I’d rather be writing about more interesting or urgent things, or I don’t know…brushing my scanty eyebrows, than turning into Twitter fingers (typos and all), or putting together angry posts about the latest episode of Bring a Black Girl Down- Grad School Edition.
There has to be a more accurate term to describe “microaggressions.” A finger caught underneath the relentless hammering of a sewing machine needle, or a tattoo gun striking the same patch of skin over and over again, only to move on the next clear space to continue its damage. The metaphor has to call up an image that is almost hypnotic in its unstoppable motion, and incredibly painful until one grows numb, or until the skin gives way, followed by possible death? The image becomes far too dramatic and eventually falls apart the further I try to extend it, but I’m still convinced that there has to be a better way to explain the deep impact of this everyday harm than what we already have.
It may be helpful to explain microaggressions in terms of time wasted:
Approximately 8 hours spent in two seminars each week, fidgeting constantly because late night classes are difficult enough without also biting down on all the sarcastic retorts I should have made, and regretting the ones I did make.
25 minutes on the bus meditating on how self-obsessed and over-sensitive I must be to continue to fixate on that one ignorant comment (was it just one?) someone made in class, when *someone’s* president is determined to kill us all.
Roughly 15 minutes of my roommate and her boyfriend’s evening spent mopping the bathroom I flooded because I was missing my glasses, in addition to being too misty-eyed and wallowing in PMDD fog and post-workshop emotions to notice that the toilet was overflowing.
Or maybe I could take the hyperbolic route, channel Kanye for the briefest of moments, and point out loudly to anyone who will listen that all of this stress is “hindering my creative process!” I mean, I’m actually a ray of sunshine. In fact, I am all of the suns shining over all the planets. A celestial experience, really. Yet, I’m being forced to extinguish this cosmic brilliance for the comfort of unworthy mortals.
A celestial experience
I could also simply present the facts as I remember them occurring:
Last Wednesday, the professor in my poetry workshop called on me to read my poem out loud before the class would launch into a discussion about its strengths and suggested edits. The woman sitting next to me turned to me as the professor was talking and waiting for me to begin.
Laughing, she said, “You know your hair is so big that when you lean forward I can’t see around it!”
I was already flustered, because having your work discussed as if you’re not in the room will never stop being a little stressful. For the most part though, I was confused because I couldn’t figure out what was so fucking funny. What was I missing?
I mumbled, “Wait, what?”
She repeated herself, gesturing this time with her arms to show just how huge my hair is in case I wasn’t already aware, “Yeah it’s just so big, it’s like whoa when you lean forward!”
I then rushed through my reading, and barely paid attention to my classmates’ comments because I was toying with all the possible smartass comebacks I could have given, instead of the garbled apology I managed to produce.
Girl, what exactly am I supposed to do about that?
Maybe a more forceful, Beyoncé-esque: Who the fuck do you think I is?
Or even a simple, you mad? How mad are you? Big mad? As big as my big ass afro?
I then had to sit through a discussion of an edited version of this piece, and it became immediately clear that most people hadn’t bothered to look up the novels Sula and Mama Day which I referenced in the poem, and were dismissive about whether it was Toni Morrison who wrote Mama Day or not. (It wasn’t). Imagine if I had said, The Bell Jar, that was Virgina Woolf, right? Or, Wuthering Heights? Jane Austen’s finest work, honestly. Shock, horror and tragedy!
Some more logistical details: We sat conference-style around a rectangular table. The professor was sitting to the left of me and my huge head of hair, at one of the short ends of the table. Also to my left were two other students, including one who didn’t speak that frequently throughout the class. The professor used the board once to quote a poem he had mentioned at some point in the discussion, and it was during the break when most people had stepped out to get snacks or use the restroom.
Was I really blocking her view? Or was it just a little reminder that my being was just intrusive and unwanted in general?
Just the week before, this same woman (who is a non-black person of color) was gushing about how nice my hair looked and how she almost didn’t recognize me, before asking to borrow one of the textbooks for the class. Even that was uncomfortable and slightly irritating. As far as comments about Black women’s hair go, “I almost didn’t recognize you” every time we change twist out patterns or get a light blow out is as tired as Rachel Dolezal’s “soul sista” bit.
In this same class during the second week of the semester, another Black student cut me off mid-speech to complain loudly about how he couldn’t understand me. While I was an undergrad, I had a white girl hit my head while yelling in my face, “Tame it, tame it!” because my hair was apparently blocking her face in the group photo at the office holiday party.
This “big hair” situation isn’t the worst microagression I’ve encountered by any means. It was just an unpleasant reminder of this compulsion white people and some non-black people of color have to try and exert control over Black women in whatever petty way they can. My hair grows up and out and in several other directions, so why point out that you can’t see around it, when there’s actually nothing to look at in class?
Perhaps this is my payback for all those times in secondary school in Ghana– when I was still permed up and slicked down– when I didn’t say anything when some people in the class constantly told the one girl who sat in front that she was blocking their view just to show their spite. Now to be fair, the only girls (including the girl I just described) whose natural hair wasn’t fried into straight submission were biracial and had what was considered “quality” hair, and I honestly didn’t know any better at that time. That may be the most overused excuse known to humankind, but that’s all I have…
This story is about why it’s never “just” hair.
It’s about schools and companies banning locs and other natural styles for being “dirty” and “unprofessional.”
It’s about misogynoir, a term coined by queer black feminist scholar Dr. Moya Bailey, and developed extensively by Trudy of the womanist blog Gradient Lair, to describe the interaction of anti-blackness and misogyny as experienced by black women.
It’s about the exertion of control over Black women’s bodies, because the mere fact of our being and daring to take up space is bothersome and unwanted.
It’s about how fed up I am of arriving at school feeling like “Pose, bitch!” only to be reminded after a few minutes in the building that there are so many people who would rather I wasn’t there at all.
It’s about the fact that I’m still managing to be creative in a hostile environment, (Boston, what’s good?) while having to manage symptoms for a mental condition I’m finally starting to get the better of, for now at least.
It’s about how incidents like these succeed in making me feel isolated and unloved, as though no one at my school actually cares about me, though that isn’t the case.
It’s about how I’ll continue to respond to the urgency I feel to write for us as we carve our way to liberation, as much as I possibly can. And when I say “us,” I’m specifically talking to and about Black women. Always. Calls for a “wider” audience are sadly transparent, and I don’t have to grant white people unlimited access to my writing or myself no matter how they phrase their demands.
And don’t even get me started on my other class.
(Header Image: On my way to side-eye all the “nice white ladies” at the Boston Women’s March who don’t usually *see* Black women but could see enough that day to copy Beyoncé song lyrics onto their posters. You know, for the resistance. Taken by Lloyd K. Sarpong.)