Beauty Parlor Politics

7 May

The first time I “got my hair done” beyond school nights sitting between my mother’s cocoa butter legs while she combed through my hair with grease soaked fingertips, or  Saturday morning hot comb rituals in front of the stove, was in the house kitchen of a church lady who did hair on the side.  She was not professionally trained or licensed but her clientele graced her threshold every other Saturday and she worked from sun up ‘til sundown, frying, dying, twisting and curling our hair into beautiful masterpieces on our head.  I felt grown up and welcome when I “got my hair done.”  The sweet smelling shampoo and used utensils made me feel special and grown up, I felt like one of the girls which was all I had ever wanted.

Women of all sizes, colors, backgrounds and religions gathered together at the salon, waiting patiently, all day if needbe, for their two week fix.  In between appointments they would talk in hushed tones, cross their legs, flip through black hair magazines and shoot the breeze.  It was the only time in my childhood when I was not banished from the room full of grown folk talk. The all-woman space, smelling like Jean Naté and scorched hair, made me feel empowered.  It was nothing for women to share secrets, give advice, get into friendly debates, laugh, and listen to each other while offering a bite from their plate or a drag of a cigarette while we all sat around, watching the transformations from new growth to relaxer, split ends to goddess braids, or bald spots to hair pieces.  “At the shop” we were sisters, even when we were strangers, because being without a done ‘do was like being naked in public.  But between our sing alongs and gossip, no one noticed.  The salon was a meeting place, the great equalizer—like church, but without the judgment.

It was a place where you would hear “girrrrrrrrrrrrrl” and “honey chile” between sweet smiles and heartfelt compliments.  “Girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl, you’re so pretty,” or “Honey chile, your hair sho’ look good like that.”  These (unsolicited compliments from one black woman to another) were things you would rarely hear between black woman strangers out in public.  But in the salon we saw each other as beautiful and said so—out loud and proud like.  I think that was part of what drew me to it, and still does.  For me, hair salons are not places for competition between women, but rather bonding.  Salons have, over the course of my life, served as safe spaces for talking through everything from heartache to home remedies, recipes to religion.  It is a safe space for social critique and casual conversation, a place where women gather together in one place unseparated by their difference (i.e., education, class, orientation, ability, age, relationship status, religion, etc.).  These public-private spaces, almost exclusively occupied by black folk (this is equally true for barber shops) transform strangers to sister-girls, if only for a few hours, every two weeks.

So imagine my surprise when I realized, after a recent visit to the hair salon, that upon my exit I was verbally assaulted by another black woman.  A black woman who I did not know and who did not know me, and whose shared presence in the room may have lasted all of five minutes.  If I noticed her I would have smiled, because that is what I do to every black woman I see in the salon, but I didn’t notice her, but evidently she noticed me.  In the brief time period that we shared space she walked in on an ongoing conversation I was having with another black woman in the salon.  Granted, I do not remember what we were talking about, but I routinely initiate and/or participate in provocative hot topic discussions in the salon. The stylists and I, along with various other patrons ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies, have shared laughs and wisdom about topics ranging from politics and sex to interracial relationships and popular culture.  While I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation I know two things for sure about any and everything that I ever say publicly: 1) it was truthful (at least my truth); and 2) it was not (intentionally) offensive (I am very intentional with my words, and mindful of correcting myself, immediately, if I feel I have spoken out of turn, or inappropriately).  I am also a communication professor who has had years of training in public and professional speaking so I imagine that despite codeswitching and my country drawl (which comes out when I am especially comfortable) I am easily outted as an academician.

I was warned, when I returned to the salon a few weeks ago, that this unnamed black woman (who I had never seen before) had announced her intention to “get me in trouble” on my job for the things I said in the salon.  Her assertion was, in addition to being ludicrous, absolutely inaccurate.  What, I wonder, could I have said in the hair salon that would warrant some kind of reprimand at work (especially when I work at a public institution where I study, research and teach on taboo topics, and as an auto/ethnographer, part of my job is to write about and critique social encounters)?  My stylist was apologetic and concerned as she explained what happened.  I was grateful to know that in my absence, the beautiful black women with whom I spoke stood up for me and defended my right to say whatever I wanted to say.  I assured her, with a full heart of gratitude (that these women are indeed my friends, and have my back when I am absent) that my job was not in jeopardy, and that any clout that this person pretended to have could not affect me.  Still, I was bothered, albeit temporarily, by the audacity and nerve, and even the seeming need, for this woman to try to reduce me, an educated, progressive, empathic and down-to-earth black woman to the status of a child who can be chastised into conservatism or at the very least punished (hence, getting me in trouble) for having an opinion (or look or voice or intellect, etc.) that she may have found distasteful.  She disrupted my narrative of support and jeopardized the ethic of care I had come to expect (and need) in the hair salon.

Unfortunately, I have had dozens of such experiences with black women in my lifetime, and most especially in my professional life.  I have had black women roll their eyes at me, disconfirm and ignore me, refer to me as “that girl,” or “that bitch,” and stare at me without speaking.  When I first moved to Alabama a black woman professor who sat across from me at a welcome dinner refused to even shake my hand.  Many of these slights occur with perfect strangers who, like the unnamed black woman at the salon, decide, immediately that I am _______. (I don’t know what the blank represents, perhaps different things to different people).

I have learned, though, that in small towns, like the one I live in currently (and the one I grew up in) I relish in the precious moments I have in the beauty salon being around and among beautiful black women who just let me be.  There is no jealousy or competition, no nuance of attitude and resentment, just us having magic blackgirl moments and seeing each other beautiful.  And smart.  And glorious.  And enough.  It is one of the few places/spaces where I feel at home with my non-academic-no makeup-thick glasses wearing–no need to be politically correct- hair all over my head-chipped toenail polish-wearing yesterday’s clothes and flip flops- self.  A space where I can bounce ideas off of other women and ask them about their experiences compared to mine. A space where I fit in without trying.  A place where instead of feeling ganged up on, I feel supported and understood.

In two weeks I will gather together the money I put aside to pamper myself and make my way back to the salon.  When I open the door I will be greeted with the warmth and welcome that radiates from the women who are there and who are not looking to judge or scold, but to listen, be heard, and to just be.  There is no guarantee that there will not be another interloper who resents my presence or my hair style, but I refuse to give up the very necessary experience.  It’s blackwomanlove at it’s finest!

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22 Responses to “Beauty Parlor Politics”

  1. Susan L Daniels May 7, 2012 at 9:15 AM #

    Loooooove this!

  2. Calvin Marron May 7, 2012 at 12:51 PM #

    It is sad that in such a time in America, we can’t just ALL GET ALONG WELL. Minority-on-minority “crimes & misdemeano[u]rs” have ALWAYS bothered me, as I have been of the predisposition that we face ENUF garbage, vitriol and hate from the world. Thus, our own people, skin colo[u]r, race, religion, gender, community need NOT mete out anymore than what the “outsiders” already do [and have been doing for CENTURIES].
    Where’s the [self]LOVE y’all? #IAMTRAYVONMARTIN

  3. silentlyheardonce May 7, 2012 at 5:02 PM #

    That madness still goes on? My father was white Spanish, my mother black southern woman with Indian somewhere in there. Me, High yellow, natural curly hair. Growing up in the 70’s I was called every name in the book except the child of God. I was threaten, talked about and afraid to go anywhere in my neighborhood alone growing up. I didn’t do anything to anyone, I was nice to everybody. My only crime was being high yellow with curly hair. When my daughters were growing up they had friends of all shades and I was thankful they didn’t have to experience what I went through. Reading your essay brought back all those memories. How can we ever be accepted and respect from others if we can’t accept and respect each other for who we are and our differences.

  4. Anna Renee May 7, 2012 at 6:53 PM #

    I love this too! I sooo appreciate that you remained focused on those who love you, and did not derail towards the one “interloper” who felt __________ by your presence.

    It’s a trip that some of us feel the need to go there when we see someone who is bold, black, beautiful, and free in her self worth. Our weaker sisters among us feel confronted by women like this. The weak sister sees that the confident sister obviously has her isht together, yet she doesnt feel that she does: The weaker one mistakenly tries to take the other down a notch, satisfying herself with this false victory.

    We sisters don’t need to feel like failures in the presence of a beautiful queen. Instead we should take note, and copy some of that “being myself vibe” for ourselves. Find out who we are and get busy being that! It’s the best way to be beautiful. We need spiritual healing.

  5. k-boogie May 8, 2012 at 11:24 AM #

    I get this a LOT (especially in casual encounters and from some of my students). Acquaintances say that until people get to know me, they think that I’m not overly friendly and/or that I’m bourgie, stuck-up, & off-putting. I can see how they think this because I am introverted and often too wrapped up in my own thoughts (planning my blackgirl revolution) to be too focused on what strangers are thinking about me.

    In the end, I have learned is that these exchanges are not about you (or me, or anyone else who finds themselves similarly socially assaulted); they have everything to do with that person and whatever insecurities they feel about themselves and their lives. They often assume things like the tired “she thinks she is better than me” or ask “who does she think she is.” They feel the need to level people with negative comments. Once I knew and accepted what this was, it was easier for me to snatch my head, brush it off, and keep it moving to the current soundtrack of my life (right now: Estelle & Janelle Monae’s “Do My Thing”).

    I wish these people the very best in life and hope that they can make peace with themselves and their lives but I decided a while ago that I wasn’t going to dim my light for other people, make myself smaller (or stop planning my takeover to make the world a better place for my people) to make them feel better about themselves.

  6. Jessica May 12, 2012 at 11:57 PM #

    Here’s an advise I give you and you can take it with a grain of salt if you want. Never ever assume that you are at liberty to speak freely in any public setting except in your own home with people you “trust”. The world is a different place and anything you say will be held against you. You can say you have the right to be or speak anywhere but I guarantee you it’s only true in theory. Never trust the public sphere.

  7. rxsistah May 13, 2012 at 3:30 AM #

    I think K Boogie is on track. Often encounters like this are more about what going on in the other person head or how they feel rather than who you are. I am quiet and reserved when I am around people that I do not know which has lead people to think I am stuck up until they get to know me. Part of my reason for being reserved is I want to be respectful of others.

  8. RG May 13, 2012 at 7:24 AM #

    I don’t buy this. How is it in an article that references an argument that you remember vividly, you somehow cannot remember the context that started the argument. Isn’t that important? You said that other people at the salon defended your right to express your views but no one remember what these views were or why the woman was upset?

    • crunktastic May 13, 2012 at 3:28 PM #

      You don’t have to buy it. The author isn’t trying to sell you anything. No thanks for this unhelpful, contrarian, pointless comment.

      • Jocelyn May 14, 2012 at 6:59 PM #

        While I enjoyed the article, I too wondered about what she said that offended the other woman, and why that wasn’t an important part of the article. Her comment wasn’t pointless…it was a legitimate question.

    • Myster Roberts May 13, 2012 at 5:14 PM #

      I agree. Although I like the article, I was wondering the same thing the entire time. She must remember some aspects of the conversation and its viewpoints that riled up the unnamed salon patron.

    • rboylorn May 13, 2012 at 7:07 PM #

      For the record, I did not have an argument with the woman (which I would have remembered). I did not even meet her. I was told about her comments about me during my most recent visit, a month after this happened.
      I am usually at the salon at least four hours and during that time I participate in multiple conversations spanning multiple topics (which is why I listed some of the things we discuss regularly). But no, I don’t recall a conversation I had in the salon over a month ago. Neither did my stylist when she told me what happened. What she did remember was the way that this woman reacted to me and about me after I left. What stood out to her was not the topic of my earlier conversation, but the ways in which this woman, a perfect stranger, attempted to berate and diminish my character after having shared space with me all of five minutes. My stylist, and the other women who were privy to both the context and entirety of what I said, were off-put by the woman’s reaction to me and they are the ones who had spent four hours talking with me. She spent five minutes watching me.
      Perhaps if the other women in the salon were there when I was told about the events they would have remembered the topic or scope of the conversation, but I don’t. There is no reason I would have held on to that moment in my memory because it was not extraordinary—I was chatting it up with women at the shop, which is what I do when I am there. I don’t, however, memorize these conversations. Nor do I apologize for them.
      If my lack of memory, related to the topic, causes anyone to question the veracity of my experience that is unfortunate. But it is what it is…

  9. TheRYL1 May 13, 2012 at 7:37 AM #

    Wow…just wow!

    I’ve experienced such treatment at the hands of Black women. I’ve been told “you think you better, etc.etc.” Why? Because I want to talk about the ramifications of the upcoming lection, instead of who got shot. *eye roll*

    I’ve gotten it both ways…for some sistas “I’m not Black enough”, to the others…the “upper class” negro women…”I’m too ghetto”…I can’t win! I’ve found myself really disliking Black women, but my heart (and skin) won’t allow me to keep this up.

    I’ve learned…you can’t please everybody…and some people you never will.

  10. Perry May 13, 2012 at 8:34 PM #

    I am note sure why sometimes we treat each other/black women so meanly. I experienced that at church on Sunday. The woman accused me of some horrible things. I stood their listening to her , and praying for her at the same time. It didn’t make me want to leave, I assured her of that. The women that were her family told me that they were sorry for her actions. I meant this woman no harm, I find that I am a strong supporter of all our members. My heart was heavy, still is.. I pray for us to treat each other better, I really, Stay encouraged ma, some of us really are your sister!

  11. crunktastic May 13, 2012 at 8:49 PM #

    Sounds to me like the folks who want the play-by-play of the conflict think they are the jury and the author is on trial. But the author isn’t asking the audience to evaluate the conflict. Rather she’s asking us to consider the politics of how women treat each other. And she’s working from the assumption, one which I agree with, btw, that sometimes a hater is just a hater. It seems like some of the commenters are working from the assumption that the author must have done something to provoke the ire of this other woman and that the author is therefore not telling the whole story. On that score I call foul. Like I said, sometimes a hater is just a hater, and I appreciated the space to think about what it means when a sister hater brings her issues into a cultural space that is supposed to be safe and does injury by consequence. That was the point of the piece; I got it, and those that didn’t might need to interrogate their own issues with hateration. Peace.

  12. Mamayaya1 May 14, 2012 at 7:55 AM #

    My experience is this, the response outspoken women of color receive from other women of color differs depending upon the region of the United States they are in and the socio-economic status of the person(s) with which they are communicating. My experience has proven that most women in the South do not speak freely in public unless the forum calls them to such as a school board meeting or local politics, and even then their words are chosen carefully. I think this is due to local social etiquette and the fact that in most small towns in the South everyone is related. If you take a strong stance on a subject or disapprove of someone else’s stance it could affect your family’s name and ultimately have a deleterious effect on your social standing within the community. Women in the Northeast from larger metropolitan communities rarely have to censor their words unless they are amongst other women who are of a certain social class (or perceive themselves to be of a certain social class). Our responses to each other cannot be analysed within a vaccum; there are factors such as local etiquette tinged with classism and a nice helping of good old fashion racism and self deprication. Just a normal day for a woman of color in America.

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