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Smile and nod

Some people have said they liked my introduction yesterday.  Good!  Stay with me now.  You love me when I’m angry.

Or anyway, you should.  Especially if you’re white, because the fact that I let you know I am angry, well, that’s me being nice to you.  It’s a sign of trust on my part, a measure of the strength of our relationship.  If I didn’t like you, if I didn’t feel comfortable letting you know I was angry, I would treat you the way I did the woman on the bus this morning.

The white woman on the bus this morning.

She liked my hair.  I wore my hair down this morning, so I looked much like I do in my avatar on this site, minus the doll, the scarf, and the waterfall.  The white woman on the bus said, “I like your hair,” and I was prepared to leave it at that.  I told her thanks and went back to the book I had to turn in a review on.

That wasn’t enough for her.  After a minute she continued on.  “I wish my hair was curly like yours.  It’s curly, but not that curly.  When I was younger,” she gave an embarrassed giggle, “I tried to have an Afro.”

“You’d have to be born black for that to work,” I told her, becoming engrossed in my book again.  I didn’t look back up until she got off.  Then I rolled my eyes at the black man who had been sitting across the aisle from us.  I couldn’t see his whole expression because he had dark glasses covering up his eyes, but I saw his smile.

See, this woman had curly hair.  Her hair was curly.  It was short, brown, and curling all over her head.

My hair isn’t curly.  And don’t you be calling it curly.  It was kinky when I had to straighten it to make it look like a white woman’s, and it’s kinky now.

Okay, maybe “kinky” is no longer le mot juste.  I talked about this some with Nalo Hopkinson a couple of years ago.  Since  kinky has come to belong in a brand new bag, maybe it’s time to create a new word to describe the kind of hair I and my two sisters have, and my Daddy, cousins, uncles, aunts, et al“Crinky” was the neologism Nalo and I settled on.  Sort of a combination of kinky and crinkly.  Or maybe we could call our hair “nhappy.”  Nappy and happy.

In order to get into the collaborative, playful space where such terms arise, though, I would have had to expose this woman to my anger.  Expose my anger to her.  I just wasn’t up for that.

I have read a bit of pornography.  (No, that’s not a non sequitur.  Come on, stay with me.  Still.)  I saypornography rather than erotica because it often includes words made entirely of vowels.

The most unforgettable pornographic text I’ve ever read is appended to the end of a novel called Whirlpool.  Whirlpool is an anonymously written novel, and the fragment following it is without either title or author.  At one point in the fragment’s episodic paragraphs the heroine’s fifteen-year-old sidekick is asked by a debauched older man in a silken kimono if she’s a virgin: “‘If you like,’ she replied coldly.  ‘I’ve been cornholed.'”

That statement is the essence of smile and nod.

19 thoughts on “Smile and nod”

  1. Heqit says:

    I think I love you. Great post. : )

  2. Delux says:

    This post is wonderful.

  3. Cimmerians says:

    Thank you for this awesomeness. It’s very difficult to get some folks to wrap themselves around the idea that angry engagement is a kindness, a gift, an opportunity. I appreciate your illumination here.

    As for the idiot on the bus: I’m glad you didn’t waste your energy and time and the intimacy of your anger. But if I’d been on the bus with you, I think I’d have been obliged to see if I could trip her :-)

    1. Delux says:

      And you wonder why we cant take you anywhere. Hmph.

  4. Jonquil says:

    “I say pornography rather than erotica because it often includes words made entirely of vowels.”

    ::bronzes this sentence and puts it on a pedestal::

    You made me think. Thank you.

  5. Caryn says:

    I don’t understand why that was bad. How is it different from wanting melting brown eyes or larger breasts or longer legs? When I was a kid I wanted darker skin because mine won’t tan. I know as a adult that being Beluga white gives me certain privileges/assumptions in this society, but does that make it wrong to admire and wish for something different anyway?

  6. Vitamin A says:

    “‘If you like,’ she replied coldly. ‘I’ve been cornholed.’”

    Cold? That is ice-cold. And awesome.

    “You’d have to be born black for that to work,” I told her

    I know some white Jewish folks who wear what a lot of people call an Afro. (AKA as a Jewfro when won by said white folks. (I’m a white Jew myself.) Some of them do have hair that could be described as kinky, or crinky (cool word!) I want to make it clear that I’m not expecting Nisi or anyone else to rubber-stamp their hair choices as PoC approved. I’ve always had the feeling that there was a whiff of cultural appropriation about that choice, since these people are not black and the Afro is politically and culturally a black hair thing.

    Her comments were way out of line either way.

  7. maevele says:

    How would someone call your hair curly? It’s beautiful, but curly is not accurate at all.

  8. Foxessa says:

    I just read your entry from yesterday before reading today’s.

    The description of you and the sheet and the baby tooth reminded me of Jamaica Kinkaid. Now there’s a writer who can do anger — woo, can she do anger!

    Love, C.

  9. Vitamin A says:

    @Caryn: I don’t want to speak for Nisi. But one of the major things I took away from her post is that doing the work of explaining why something is inappropriate is a favor of time and energy and sharing. So before asking, you may want to consider figuring it out yourself, you know? From one white person to another, though, this is why I think it’s not ok: it’s one thing to admire or even covet someone’s physical characteristics privately. But what this person on the bus did, in my opinion, was to interrupt a black person going about her business in order to exoticize her. Do I think Nisi’s hair is beautiful? Absolutely. But to tell her I want it for myself is something else; as though. Her hair is like her blackness, it’s not an accessory and to treat it like that ignores the fact that her blackness cannot be taken on and off at will. You don’t get to dress up in someone else’s race, and to essentially bother someone minding her own business to tell her you tried to do that once, unsuccessfully, is rude and gross.

  10. Bindicated says:

    Long time lurker here.

    Caryn and Vitamin A: I also do not want to speak for Nisi, but I took away a secondary point from Nisi’s post and thought it worth mentioning. In addition to what you said, Vitamin A, I took the message that it’s one thing to compliment a stranger on her beautiful hair, but another to venture unnecessarily into talking about race (although I do realize that blackness and hair are two sides of the same coin, particularly for women). But by bringing up her attempts to create an Afro out of her curly hair, the white woman took Nisi from a morning of going about her own business to a morning of being a Black Person. The white woman made what was to her a (probably) throwaway remark, but it sticks with Nisi because it made her angry, and that isn’t fair because Nisi bears the burden of the other woman’s cluelessness. Or at least that was part of what I got from the story, and I apologize, Nisi, if I’ve put words into your mouth.

  11. Nisi Shawl says:

    Bindicated, to tell the truth I am so used to being forced into Being a Black Person that my indignation about it barely registers. Though it was there, as indicated by the way I said I was reading a book, and kept trying to *pretend* I was reading it….

    Vitamin A, you do a good job unpacking another part of what was icky about that interaction. To me it felt like the woman wanted to reap some of the rewards of being black without experiencing any of the drawbacks.

    Here’s what I want to say now about what I said yesterday: it was the woman’s _decontextualizing_ of my hair by calling it “curly” that really upset me. I am a writer, and very sensitive to power plays people pull off (or try to pull off) using words. In calling my hair “curly” the woman was attempting to make its qualities more accessible to her without sacrificing any of her whiteness. She was denying any of the cultural history that is inextricably woven into my hair and my relationship to my hair. She was stripping it–or anyway trying to strip it–of intrinsic value.

    Now, I’m not dumb, and I know that there are people who identify as black who have straight hair, blond hair, or no hair at all. And I’ve seen what Vitamin A refers to as a “Jewfro.” The one-to-one correspondence of black with crinky hair is imperfect. But. It exists, and this woman wanted to negate it.

    Caryn, I’ll add one more thing that was obvious to me at the time, which may not be obvious to you or anyone else who wasn’t there: this woman was not acting maliciously. In fact, she probably felt she was bonding with me somehow, sharing a comradely moment, and according me coolness points by admitting I had a quality she desired. And you know what? The feeling of comradeliness was not mutual. And what she said was not evil, but it was still wrong. And I still couldn’t be bothered to tell her why.

    But I don’t mind joining in to tell you why, along with a couple other clueful readers. Here’s one set of reasons: You visited this site, and you read what I wrote, and you asked civilly about what the problem was. These things make me think you actually might want to know. Here’s another set of reasons: Vitamin A and Bindicated. The fact that there are others who are willing to share the burden of explanation is enormously helpful and encouraging.

    Thank you all.

    1. Delux says:

      this woman was not acting maliciously. In fact, she probably felt she was bonding with me somehow, sharing a comradely moment, and according me coolness points by admitting I had a quality she desired. And you know what? The feeling of comradeliness was not mutual.

      This. Oh god, this.

      1. Momsomniac says:

        Mmm, the last time I nattered on stupidly and inappropriately like the woman on the bus(years ago), I had recently suffered major head trauma…

        Really, just having another person GO BACK TO READING THEIR BOOK should be read as “and we are done talking.”


  12. Bindicated says:

    Nisi: I wondered as I was writing my comment about the frequency of your being forced into Being a Black Person, so thank you for sharing that. I appreciate knowing. Also, I neglected to mention it in my prior comment, but I love the term “crinky” and think “nhappy” is pretty excellent too!

  13. LaDonna says:

    I had to read the post twice and the comments to understand fully your annoyance. Her “compliment” is akin to white people coming back from vacation comparing their tanned skin to my black skin only pertaining to hair. That is quite annoying to me and never one for the quick come back, I fume thinking of all the things I should have said to address it after the incident has past. How about a few phrases to address well meaning but ill advised comments? I for one would surely appreciate it. I like the phrase,”according me coolness points by admitting that I had a quality she desired.” True confessions: I really admire red hair and the white people who have red hair and pale freckled skin. I do not know where this finds it genesis but I do. When I see red haired people I stare far longer than politeness dictates. It is intriguing. Thankfully (for me and them) I have never walked up to a redhead and said the equivilent to what the lady on the bus said to you. Though and I am still being honest the thought occured to me. I never did because there is no way to receive such a “compliment”, is there? Whew! I can also agree that the buslady meant no harm and unfortunately she is going to do it again to some unsuspecting person under the guise of trying to find common ground. Thanks for the education. This is why I come to this blog.


  14. Sara Ryan says:

    There’s a great passage in Colson Whitehead‘s latest, Sag Harbor, on a related theme:

    There has been far too little research done into the area of what drives white people to touch black hair. What are the origins of the strange compulsion that forces them to reach out to smooth, squeeze, pet, pat, bounce their fingers in the soft, resilient exuberance of an Afro, a natural, a just-doin’-its-own-thing jumble of black hair? It’s only hair — but try telling that to that specimen eyeing a seductive bonbon of black locks, as the sweat beads on their forehead and they tremble with the intensity of restraint: I cannot touch it, but I must. A black-hair fondler has a few favorite questions that they like to ask when they fondle. “How do you comb it?” “How do you make it do that?” “How do you wash it?” With a pick; just does it; shampoo. Jerkoff.

  15. cccH says:

    Wow, so deep. I’ve got to reread article and comments. This happens to me every other day and most times I smile and respond with a thank you, other times it gets annoying so I just give a tight smile and people get the message. I’ve never analyse it the way you’ve tried to (and succeeded). LaDonna’s comment though hit the reality for me.

    PS: LaDonna:
    I’m married to a blond/redhead with the palest skin and freckles. You’re right, totally fascinating….

  16. Caryn says:

    Thank you. I shall go off and think on this. (Which I’ve been doing for a few days now and still this is the best I can come up with to say.) This is complicated stuff, and I won’t hijack your conversation but will listen quietly and learn.

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