A Complicated Response

Unpacking the unreal response to my last post. “Unreal” applies to my perception. I wrote my poem with some urgency but could not, would not anticipate the scope and depth of feedback I received. I am still reeling from the experience.

I wrote a thing about wearing my hair in its natural state to school one day. In fact, it was the fourth day of Spirit Week which called for different dress up themes each day. Thursday was ’60s Day (in honor of our school’s 60th anniversary celebration) and being the minimalist that I am, I opted for wearing my hair out, adding some silver hoops, dark sunglasses, wearing all black, and Voila! I became a symbol of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement in 3 easy steps.

When the day was done, I felt a deep need to process all the attention my new style garnered. The rush of comments and compliments felt sudden and a little overwhelming. I’ve been working at the school for 25 years. I am a known quantity. Until I wear my hair out, apparently. Blogging helped me parse the emotions of being on display (by choice), causing a stir (not intentionally), and remaining true to myself. In the morning I tweeted out a snapshot of my ambivalence.

Exactly! “In character and out of character at the same time.” It’s me and it’s not me. Based on how I usually move through school – hair worn close to my head, pulled back away from my face, braided, twisted and almost always contained – this Afro-look represented a radical departure. For the eyes of the beholders, it must have arrived like a revealed secret, a mystery unveiled. Hence, the excitement. I let folks see what I have previously chosen to keep to myself. Turns out, I have a long history guarding this aspect of my Black abundance.

In her book THICK, sociologist, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom takes on Beauty in black and white and explains how capitalist structures insure and promote a very specific cultivation of white feminine beauty as a form of capital. “In The Name Of Beauty” is a downright masterpiece of deconstructing what we think we know and serving it back to us sliced, diced and neatly displayed. For instance, she explains

…beauty can never be about preferences. “I just like what I like” is always a capitalist lie. Beauty would be a useless concept for capital if it were only a preference in the purest sense. Capital demands that beauty be coercive. If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eats your preferences for lunch. p. 58

Pause here. Take a moment to collect yourself if you need it.

The whole essay is fire and uncompromising. Tressie McMillan Cottom allows us to get away with nothing.

Big Beauty – the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power we give to those with beauty, the disciplining effect of the fear of losing beauty you might possess – definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones. Beauty is for white women, if not for all white women. If beauty is to matter at all for capital, it can never be for black women. p. 65

It’s a lot. And I turn to this text in particular because in response to my post, I received so many kind words referring to my beauty. My point here is not to reject or deny those but to investigate my own ambivalence in receiving them. Tressie offers me a frame for that line of questioning. Choosing visibility is always fraught. Choosing visibility as a Black woman in a predominantly white space is another level of fraught. Willingly putting myself and my magnificent hair on display as a Black woman in a predominantly white workplace turns out to be a surprising choice for someone who leads a life of deliberate understatement in that same institution.

I walk into my school every day regardless of how I’m feeling about my level of attractiveness. I have work to do. And that work requires that I remain approachable, open, modest and welcoming. The show that I put on is not about me but about all the people I come in contact with every day. My appearance must afford me a high degree of comfort and flexibility and few distractions during the work day. After that’s done I just want some peace.

I went to school one day in a costume of myself, of

who I might be

if I chose

Not to give a damn

about packaging and expectations.

It’s complicated. And unfolding in my mind. My experience is not only about beauty standards and where I fit in some nebulous hierarchy. It’s partly about how I see myself and how others see me and how that is wrapped up in how we identify ourselves and each other. It’s about who I can be and choose to be at work and on which terms that can happen. It’s about the crossover effects of private versus public behaviors – costs, benefits, and fallout. It’s about markets and patterns of consumption in the attention economy. My experience is about the ongoing tension between doing and being, between choosing and being chosen.

My experience requires more words than the world may have space for. I keep writing anyway.

 

Tressie McMillan Cottom, THICK and Other Essays, The New Press, NY. 2019.