When I tried to look black: A response to all the messages friends have left me wanting to discuss Rachel Dolezal

by | Jun 13, 2015 | Uncategorized, Word Up

When I tried to look black, it was the late 1970s and I was in England for a semester abroad. I had hair down to the middle of my back, the blonde of my birth long since turned a medium brown but the hair itself still fine and mostly straight, with more of a bend than a wave. It lay flat on my head most of the time, coming to life only slightly in all that London wet.

At the High Street hairdressing school where cost was minimal if you were flexible about outcome (a colorist once gave me a spectrum of highlights he called Autumn Splendour, fairly risqué then, which was decades before people took on the look of psychedelic skunks or dipped their hair into drink mixes…and then wore that to work), the student assigned to me thought it would be fun to perm my hair. “It might not hold,” he warned, given the length. “But at least you wouldn’t have paid much for it.”

Once the last coil had been unfurled, the noxious chemicals rinsed away, and the hair gently dried at a low setting, my hairdresser called over all his mates.

“Donna Summer!” he announced as he spun my chair to show off the new pyramid of hair. Like the Bad Girl herself, I even had curly bangs. I loved the new moniker and not because I was a fan of her music. I loved it because Donna Summer was black.

Growing up, I envied my best friend, Lauren. We were both mixed kids with black dads, but she had olive skin and curly hair. You could see her lineage when you looked at her. At least you could see that she wasn’t just white. But her father had darker skin than mine had, and her Assyrian-American mother, I only realized many years later, wasn’t exactly Caucasian in the American sense of the word. I, on the other hand, looked white, unless you threw me in with a bunch of cousins from my dad’s side, in which case I looked like I belonged somewhere far, far down the family spectrum at the melanin-challenged end.

I loved those Donna Summer ringlets. I loved the way my hair bounced and had substance. I felt special, more done-up than usual, especially since I wasn’t much for makeup or jewelry beyond earrings and a swipe of lipstick. And I loved that people might think, for once, that I might be all- or half- or a even just a little bit black.

When my curls lasted months past the perm’s standard lifespan, I took it as a sign that my hair liked being curly, that there was some inner kink waiting to be let out. By the time it returned to its natural listless form, I was back in the States and scraped together money for a real salon, where I also splurged on a sporty, shorter cut [see photo strip].

In the 1980s, lots of white people permed their hair—including my mother—but for me, a white-looking person who felt a deep connection to her black family, the act of changing my hair texture was fraught. I had always been fine with being mixed (we didn’t know the term “biracial” then), thanks to accepting in-laws and parents who chose to raise their family in an integrated neighborhood that spilled over with little half-n-halfers. Not being different was different to us. But other people hadn’t been fine with me. Black kids threatened to beat me up for being white; white kids thought it would be okay to call other children “nigger” in front of me. I could see that I was treated differently from my browner friends; I could see that people from all races changed their attitudes and expectations once they learned that I wasn’t white, or not the white they understood. I was a text they could not read, and it frustrated them.

So I loved my perm, but after a few refreshers, I stopped and never got one again. I told myself that it was too expensive, that it was bad for my hair, but the truth is it felt like I was abandoning the self I was in order to skip past other people’s prejudices and ill-targeted calls to allegiance. I was trying to pass, not as white or as black, but as a mixed-race person who looked mixed. Surely that kind of passing represents a rarefied version of tragic mulattoism, a true hairsplitting of identities. What can I tell you? That was the race card I was dealt.

In the end, I couldn’t give in to that passing urge because it seemed like it erased who I was, that it was an attempt to escape a challenging truth. I am the complicated reality of America’s racial legacy. I am the blurred line, and it’s the very ways in which I don’t add up and don’t meet expectations that give the lie to the expectations themselves. This is true for most people I know, no matter how many boxes they check on a Census form. What if we all just doubled down on our own authenticity? Where might we be then? In my case, living a rich and flat-haired life.