Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Service Salons

I’ve been denied service at the two major hair salons in Amherst. Why? Because I choose to keep my hair natural. So see a black hairstylist, you say. Well, that would work except the black stylist I saw, funnily enough, didn’t know how to cut my hair either. Most likely because she is used to cutting the hair of black women who choose to have their manes chemically treated. In addition to her dry cut consisting of taking a random handful of my hair and chopping, she made judgments about my father. The only thing she knew about him was that he was black, and that he liked my hair natural, and that was enough for her.

“Did those salons really turn you away,” you ask? In the first instance, the owner of the salon where I get regular waxing took one look at my hair and said, “You don’t want me to cut it. Really.” Her reasoning? It will be frizzy for two weeks because it’s raining. As a semi-native of Seattle I am well aware that a haircut in rainy weather does not result in two weeks of frizziness. Perhaps she was confusing it with a hot iron treatment, which is probably what black clients usually come in for. Nevertheless, I decided I did not want to trust her with a pair of scissors, and even my confused expression was met with nothing but continued assertions that "you REALLY do not want me to cut your hair."

The second stylist, who I had been seeing for the past year, accosted me today as I walked in for my haircut, saying, “Because you’re growing your hair out you’ll want to find someone who knows how to cut your kind of hair" (emphasis mine). Funny, as the first time I saw her I lamented being turned away by the other salon. She was completely sympathetic to my plight, yet also terrified because she could not restyle my hair the way it was when I walked in. No sweat, I said, I just need a cut; I can style it myself. Now apparently even the cutting is too much for this seasoned stylist. Now that I’m growing my hair natural it’s the healthiest it’s ever been. But stylists seem unwilling to tackle this curly black beast in its natural state and instead send me on my way to “my people.” Tell me where my people are, and I’ll be glad to make the journey. None of my people, at least in Amherst, have successfully found a stylist.

This sounds like your typical consumer rant, but it is much more than that. It is an awareness that hairstylists are not taught how to work with natural black hair. It's an awareness that blacks and whites alike are more comfortable giving or receiving lye treatments than they are combing through hair that will remain as curly when it leaves those four walls than it was when the hair walked in. Not that blacks and whites don't love natural black hair and wish they had it for themselves. After finishing my cut today my stylist played with my ponytail puff, commenting on how lovely it was. It reminds me too disturbingly of adults who will declare your ebony beauty but not let you marry into the family. I see a change coming, at least throughout New England, where women of color are rejecting the Caucasian-inducing lye and embracing their natural beauty. Hopefully hairstylists will soon follow suit. Until then, I’ll hop from salon to salon, feigning remorse at my unruly curls, and eagerly await Chris Rock’s black hair documentary entitled, ironically, “Good Hair.”

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Political Heads and Tails -- Two Sides of the Same Coin

Just as my ethnic self includes the binary of black and white, it also includes the binary of both right wing and left wing camps. I am a Democrat, and believe strongly in Democratic values, but because I was a born again Christian for 10 years of my past and attended rather conservative churches, many of my long term friends are Republican. While their views, which sometimes include Libertarianism, often violently contradict my own, many of these friendships able to withstand this divide because of our history, our mutual respect, and our genuine desire for each of us to understand the political motivations of the other. This is not true for all the friends of my past, however. Those who use facebook as a platform to comment on the “stupidity” of “socialists” and Obama supporters in general are not people I can easily tolerate. This intolerance is twofold: 1) Because I feel that none of us should call the other camp stupid, and 2) because Obama is my biracial brother, and one who I trust as my Presidential leader.

As I read these spews against an increasing “socialist America” I become aware of the fact that Libertarians and extreme liberals really want the same things, we just view these wants through a different lens. I read 1984 about six years ago and became afraid of Bush and capitalist greed. A Libertarian acquaintance read the same book and became afraid of Democrats who he feels are thinly-veiled socialists. How can one book provide such similar reactions to such opposite truths? The answer is this: Libertarians and Socialists both want and fear the same things—not on a specific level, such as healthcare or abortion—but on the thematic level of freedom and a quest for truth. 1984 speaks to both camps because it relays a fear of power, a fear of being denied one’s rights due to the control of an outside Other. These rights differ, but the fact that we are all afraid of losing them is what makes us the same. We each accuse the opposite camp of being “lemmings,” and demand, as Coldplay demands of those they feel are not socially aware, to “Open up your eyes.” Each of us feels that those who do not share our beliefs are living in darkness and following the status quo without giving thought to what it is we are following. But how can each of these status quos be threatening our existence at the same time? How can we at once both be doomed to Conservative Capitalism and to Socialism? If both camps have their eyes closed, who has them open?

I will always believe in a woman’s right to choose and equal rights for homosexuals. I will always believe that everyone should be afforded healthcare and a good education. I will always believe that war is not the answer, and that America should embrace people from all countries, religions, and orientations. But while I support these things, I am simultaneously aware that humanity is predisposed to believe that the world is falling to pieces, and that this individual fear unites us collectively. Whether we fear Conservative Bush or Liberal Obama, we should “open our eyes” and realize that our belief in freedom is what links us to, not separates us from, our political opposition.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Loving Myself with Unbiased Eyes

Published on Teaching Tolerance Web Site January 4, 2007

I recently had the pleasure of attending the lecture by James McBride, having read his memoir a few years ago when I was at my most-heightened search for identity. Without retaining much of the details of his life story, what has remained with me is the knowledge that someone else had experiences similar to my own. To know that he too struggled with feelings of shame over his white mother—and questions over whether he, as a black child, had been adopted—brought down the wall of alienation I felt was between me and the rest of the world.

There is often a divide, as we know, between black and white. For those of us in the middle, we often feel that we must choose one side of this divide or the other, especially in our younger years. For me, growing up predominantly African-American in a white family gave me a sense that I was interminably an outsider. My family loved me unconditionally, but it was hard to love myself with the same unbiased eyes. I felt this most acutely during sixth grade when my mother and I moved to a more diverse, and more racially divided, part of town. African-American eighth graders teased me for being so light-skinned, while my best friend and I were forbidden to continue our friendship because her white parents disapproved of my dark skin and of my cousins’ Japanese ancestry.

A few years ago I was standing at a street corner, waiting for the walk signal, when a white woman and a black man came up beside me with their young daughter on her bicycle. In those moments before we continued on our separate paths, I felt a sense of completeness like I had never experienced before. Standing there at the corner, we looked like a family. It was the one moment in my life when I did not stand out from the crowd.

It seems that biracial children these days don’t have quite the sense of alienation that was felt by those of us born a generation before. As a child I could spot another biracial person from a mile away and felt an instant connection with the individual. But now biracial children don’t seem to see me for anything other than a human being, if they even notice my presence at all. I take this as a good sign. It shows that the children of the new generation have more biracial peers than we did twenty years ago. In addition, while race relations are no way at peak form, I think we can see a marked difference in attitudes between then and now.

My struggle for identity has pretty well ceased within the past few years. I am an individual of complex origin and am proud to be so. I find it fitting that my birthday falls on United Nations Day, because I think by default of identity, those of us who incorporate two opposing races do much to bring those two races together. As an American with African, German, English, Irish, and Scottish, and Mexican heritage, I am proud to participate in the melting pot that is America.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel