Donna Wasn’t Racist
When I started my career as a work-study in my senior year of High School, I was BY FAR the youngest person in the office, at 17 years old.
Everyone liked me, and I liked everyone. So, from the time the school year started up to Halloween, I already had two months in the office under my belt.
There was a woman, Donna, who wasn’t in my chain of command, or even in my direct office. She was in the adjacent office, but pretty close by.
Donna was a woman from a semi-rural, semi-suburban part of Anne Arundel County in Maryland. I think she grew up there. She had fiery makeup and SILVER GRAY hair with a few remaining black streaks. She was very fit, petite, and honestly looked great as a woman who was approaching retirement. Give or take 55-60 years old – that’s just my guess.
On October 31st, I decided to don my #8 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant jersey. I also threw on my Kobe Bryant Addidas shoes and a pair of basketball shorts. The icing on the costume cake was my BUSH – my AFRO. Sure, it was larger than Kobe’s, but it FIT!
Donna walked past my desk around lunchtime as she normally does, but she paused, took a double-take, and said, “Wow!”
I said, ”Yeah, I’m Kobe Bryant!” She was far less interested in my costume than I expected. She came closer and leaned over my desk. There was a divider where you could place things, sort of like a bar top; I sat at a reception desk as you might find at a dentist’s office.
Donna went on to say, “Wow, your hair is so big!”
I just laughed– feeling a little uncomfortable– because she was staring. Donna was very talkative, but she wasn’t saying much as she gazed high above my eyebrows!
Donna was used to seeing me in various styles of cornrows, typically. It’s so much easier to manage that way. Donna asked, ”Is that real?” Referencing my hair.
Just to be clear, I asked her, “My hair?” She said, “Yes, silly, your hair! Or is it a wig?”
I paused. This was my CROSSROADS.
I said, “Donna, this isn’t a wig. This is my hair.”
I’d made my choice. I wasn’t going to call Donna a racist. I wasn’t going to consider that as a possibility. Why?
All of my interactions with Donna were positive, almost flagrantly so. Donna shared her snacks with me, walked past my desk, and tossed me sweet treats. She asked for my order when she was making a lunch run and invited me up to the front office for pig-ins, or when someone brought in doughnuts. She’d say things like, “He’s a growing boy – we gotta feed him!”
Donna was lovely to me all the time; why on earth should I think she was suddenly racist for asking me if my hair was real?
Donna put me at another crossroads when she asked,
“It looks so soft. Can I touch it?”
UH OH! Now we are invading personal space, right?! That’s one way to look at it. Or Donna and I were reaching a new level of intimacy and comfort in our relationship is another.
I made my choice again. Donna was genuinely wondering about my hair. At Donna’s age, she had lived through the AFRO filled 1960’s and 1970’s. She surely had seen Billy Ocean, Lionel Richie, Dr. J. Pam Grier, and many other people with BIG FROs.
But maybe, just maybe, Donna had never felt comfortable enough to ask anyone this question. She may have looked at my youth and thought this could be her best chance at not offending someone by asking what could be a horribly ludicrous question.
She could have felt guilty for even asking to touch a young man’s hair in the office, no less. This was years ago, so there wasn’t so much “me too” stuff going on, and I judged the situation as non-threatening in ANY WAY.
I could feel, more sense, Donna’s discomfort. The longer I paused, the more I could feel our relationship devolving from friendly and hospitable to uncomfortable and distant. The feeling was deafening, and when Donna asked me if she could touch my hair, I felt the innocence of a child asking, “Why can’t I have ice cream for breakfast?”
They are ignorant. OF COURSE YOU CAN’T HAVE ICE CREAM FOR BREAKFAST is the wrong response to a child.
OF COURSE, YOU CAN TOUCH MY HAIR – was the right response for Donna.
Donna smiled the biggest smile of relief. The softness returned to her face with that same level of curiosity I’d seen minutes before when she had done her initial double-take.
Donna came around the desk; I did my part and swiveled my chair around and craned my neck downward, allowing her to run her ‘living on the edge,’ finally brave enough to ask, genuinely, ignorantly inquisitive red fingernails running through my luscious locks!
Donna laughed, and said, “OH MY GOODNESS, it’s so soft, it’s like a puppy or cotton candy, but softer!”
My hair was pretty clean and freshly blow-dried. Donna gave a big sigh of relief; I think she was still unsure if she had offended me or not.
As she walked back to the front of my desk, I said, “Well, Donna, now you know I don’t wear wigs!”
She just laughed and said she’d see me later.
It seemed like until we got to the other side of Christmas, Donna would always say SOMETHING about my hair:
When it was braided…
- “I can’t believe how low it gets on your head.
- How long does it take?
- Does it hurt?”
Donna really felt like she could LET HER HAIR DOWN – pun intended! She wasn’t shamed for her ignorance. She wasn’t judged as racist. She was just accepted for the sum of her parts. I liked Donna; Donna made me feel like she liked me.
We both did that for each other, consistently until I left the office three years later. Donna and I bonded over braids, or a bush, that day.
She had learned something about black hair; I learned that things may just be what they seem to be, not what I make them in my head.
Donna was perhaps a bit ignorant, most certainly curious, but definitely NOT a racist.