Stereotypes Part Deux

Dear New Neighbor,

A few days ago you enacted, or so it seemed to me, some stereotypes about black women.  One of them had to do with the variety of ways we wear our hair.

Well, when I saw you again today, you reintroduced yourself and pointed out that my hair was different and that was why you didn’t recognize me.


But do you know what was the funniest part?  We met at a forum about institutional racism.  Ha!

Looking forward to meeting you again,


  1. If you met at that forum, I would guess that she has good intentions. She wants to learn. I think. Maybe you can help her see what she doesn’t currently understand.

    (I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that this neighbor was female)

    • I completely agree with you. I don’t think she meant any harm at all, and I didn’t feel harm. Mostly I felt humor. It just seemed so funny to me that less than a week after the exact same conversation, and at a racism forum no less, we rehashed the hair thing.

      I tend to just let things roll off and not mention them, although I know there are instances to say something.

      • I have many thoughts rolling around my head right now about this and about your post about current events in St. Louis and the broader topics these posts brush on and I hope they are coalescing into something worth sharing because I’d really like to continue this conversation.

        Unfortunately, this is birthday week, which is code in my family for “the rest of the world must stop turning for a few days”. And because we are insane, we are trying to finish a remodeling project at the same time.

        So rather than try to quickly throw some words at this discussion and do it poorly, I’m going to let them keep tumbling around my brain and see what falls out next week. So don’t be surprised when you find a new comment on a week-old blog. But then again, don’t be surprised if you don’t. My brain might fry between now and then. 😉

  2. I fear my thoughts are not as fresh or as coherent as they were last week, but now’s the time I have so let’s give it a go!

    Hair is a funny thing. I must confess that I wasn’t sure what the problem was in either of your posts. I was pretty sure that it was something that black women were sensitive to but white women were largely unaware of. But then again, I’m a particularly clueless person so it might only be me that’s unaware.

    I think perhaps why hair is a funny thing is that it’s a constant, daily task so it is obvious and commonplace to the person it belongs to. Yet the fact is that my hair is nothing like yours so I have absolutely no familiarity with hair like yours. So I hear things here or there, maybe, but I really don’t know what’s true and what’s urban myth and it quite frankly doesn’t impact my life so I tend to not worry about it. I mean, do black people wash their hair less frequently? What kind of products do they put in their hair? Is it different from what I’d put in my hair? How do extensions work? Why use extensions instead of just letting it grow out? Does “black” hair grow slower than mine? When a black person’s hair is straight, is it because they did something permanent to it or do they have to straighten it each day? I don’t know the answer to most of those things.

    And quite frankly, you are just about as clueless about mine. I still remember you trying to put my hair in a french twist (or whatever it’s called) and being shocked when it fell down when you let go. I had asked you to fix my hair that way because I had seen your hair that way. We were both clueless about how our differences would impact the process.

    Similarly, a black female coworker of mine stopped by and started asking me questions about what it meant for me to get a perm. We then started discussing our hair and the differences at length. To be honest, it was hard not to giggle at what she didn’t know. What stopped me, of course, was the recognition that I was equally clueless about hers.

    Regarding the lady at the race forum, if I had to guess, she, like many well-meaning, liberal-leaning white people, is very sensitive to not appearing racist. But she’s not quite certain what’s going to potentially get her marked that way. It sounds like she didn’t recognize you right away. So then she was probably terrified of being responded to with some variation of “Oh, so you think all black people look the same, huh?” So then her remarks about your hair were an attempt to explain why she didn’t recognize you.

    I don’t know how big the change was in your hair and whether my supposition has merit. I do know that a lot of people don’t recognize me now that I cut all my hair off. And they are slightly embarrassed by it. For white people sensitive to race issues, not recognizing a black person they’ve met before is potentially mortifying, trust me.

    When I worked at the concession stand, there was once a really, really busy time. As you know, almost all of the teams there were white. Almost all the players on all the teams were white. There was one team, however, that was black. Only one. So a guy from that team orders a burger. Later, about the time that burger was ready, as I rushed to and fro, I see a black man in that team’s jersey at the window. I say, “Oh, hey! Hang on. Your burger is ready.” Even as I said it, I was starting to feel like that guy wasn’t the burger guy. Before I had a chance to say anything though, he fired off a “No, that’s the other brother.”

    He was miffed at the white girl, but really, while I know that’s a problem, it wasn’t really the problem he thought it was in that particular case at least. I was mortified and it still causes me embarrassment to think about now.

    The fact is that all of us, regardless of race, use a minimal amount of information necessary to identify a person. So if I’m in a room with 200 white people and one black person, that person’s skin color is sufficient to recognize them. I have to retain more details about the others. Same’s true for gender or clothing or possibly hair color, disabilities, whatever.

    So, yeah, here in rural Texas, all Asians might look the same if I’m only ever exposed to one or two at a time. But if I spent a year in South Korea, I’d not only be able to tell the difference between Koreans and other Asians, but I’d notice a lot more distinctions among Koreans as well.

    You could argue that that… reality, if you will… is an indicator of institutional racism because there aren’t enough non-whites in movies, on the news, in public office, in classrooms, doctor’s offices, college classrooms, etc. for people to get used to looking at more than skin color. I think it might also be an indicator of continued cultural segregation since so many whites actually interact with very few non-whites.

    Well, this has gotten insanely long and I need to go fix dinner, but I’ll be very interested to read your thoughts on what I’ve said. And, yes, I do recognize that you were more humored by the woman’s response than angered. It just triggered a fair number of thoughts of my own. 🙂

    • Let me start with I am so glad I know you! And I’m not just glad that I know you now, but that we got to grow up together and have a host of shared memories and experiences, even though it’s clear that they may have been more convergent or divergent in places that we didn’t realize then or maybe even now.

      Little kids look the same to me. Most people under 12 just look like kids to me. I have to try so hard to know any of my children’s friends. I meet them time and time again, because when I see them, all I see is kid. I’m quite honestly thankful that they have friends with a variety of skin colors, because that often is the only way I can tell them apart, and that’s not even always helpful. Now I know some of them, and I’m getting better, but wow, I struggle.

      Once people hit puberty, I can start distinguishing them one from another. So I guess my particular skill (that all people on the planet possess, so I know I’m not special) of being able to tell adults apart from each other makes me blind to the fact that it’s not always easy for everyone. Of course, I get adults mixed up too, but just not as often as I do children.

      I guess I told that lengthy going nowhere narrative to say, I get what you’re saying.

      So about hair, I’m a lot less touchy about mine than many black women I know. And in the woman’s defense, I wear my hair in a lot of different styles.

      I think really it was a combination of things that coalesced into my growing fascination.

      On our first meeting (as far as this story goes – we had actually met before) I feel she made a lot of false assumptions about me. Of course, I don’t know what was going on in her head, but I know how it processed in my head. I’ll list my perceptions of her assumptions as facts, because it’s the easiest thing to do, but I recognize that what I assume she was assuming says as much about me as it does about her.
      1. I couldn’t help her with her technological problem because I wasn’t one of the males who work in my office (I’m the only female).
      2. That she was smarter than I was because she was Ph.D. smart. (She actually said this.)
      3. That I didn’t have a Ph.D. (She actually dropped her jaw upon finding out I too had a Ph.D.) Perhaps she assumed that people who work with tech people don’t have Ph.D.s. Perhaps she assumed a black person working with tech people wouldn’t have a Ph.D. I don’t know. I work in higher ed. Campus is lousy with people with Ph.D.s. I don’t know why one would ever be surprised to find someone who works on campus who has a Ph.D. (Umm, as a side note, I just realized why the phrase “lousy with something” exists. I never understood it until I just saw it in type.)
      4. That having a Ph.D. absolved her from needing to know how to use a scanner.
      5. That because she supposedly had never met me before that I was new to the University.
      6. That I couldn’t possibly be doing any academic work because she had never heard of me.
      7. That she knew everyone on campus who had Ph.D.s (Yes, she said this too.)

      She either said or pretty directly implied all of these things. Then we had a fairly lengthy conversation about what each of us does on campus, and of course, on how to use the scanner.

      My hair was in one glorious afro puff.

      So, when only a week after the at least half hour we spent together, just the two of us, no one else, standing close enough to one another to practically memorize each other’s features, she sees me in a small group setting (there were only 5 people in our discussion group), she introduces herself to me, and upon my saying, “It’s nice to see you again,” she pauses and then accuses me of changing my hair thus preventing her from recognizing me.

      My hair was down and curly (like in the picture of Elvis the guinea pig and me).

      Again in her defense, I had just a few moments before spoken with someone who had introduced herself to me for literally at least the 20th time, and when I said, “It’s nice to see you again,” she said, “Have we met? You must be wearing something different.”

      Really? We don’t wear uniforms to work. If that were the case I would have understand, but like most people who are blessed enough to be able to do so, I’m in the habit of changing my clothes regularly.

      So perhaps I was already predisposed to take note of the next woman’s comments.

      So, I get what you’re saying, and I agree with most if not all of it. But if this sort of thing didn’t happen so commonly, I wouldn’t be predisposed to take note of it in the first place.

  3. As I expected, once I had “the rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey would say), it makes sense and I agree completely with your assessment. I also think I would grow weary of such things if they happened to me often as well. I know that my black coworker (Hope – because it just feels wrong to keep calling her my ‘black coworker’ – even if she is the only one currently) has made similar complaints.

    She once had a coworker in California ask her what the projects are like. She never lived in the projects. She was sympathetic toward the coworker though because that woman was a recent immigrant from China. And just like you didn’t find tumbleweed in Oklahoma, that lady had to learn that not all black people grew up in projects. 🙂

    And, yeah, your lady obviously made some pretty lame assumptions. We pretty much survived as a species by being able to make snap judgments about what was in our environment though. So I think we are all pretty predisposed to make assumptions based on… stereotypes, if you want to take a negative slant, or past experience, if you want to take a more positive one. If she hadn’t ever met a black female PhD with a glorious ‘fro, well…

    (side note: Your height probably works against you too. Tall women get more respect. Or so this short woman sees around her.)

    The key, I suppose, to “surviving” in modern times is recognizing you will be predisposed to make wrong assumptions about people and always keep in mind that you might be wrong and not act as if you know a person’s background when you don’t (even if you are forming assumptions in your head). And certainly to quit acting the fool once you realize you’ve hung your assumptions out for everyone to see!

    • I think you summed it all up with “And certainly to quit acting the fool.” We all sometimes need some reminding when we’ve been acting the fool. BTW – It actually comes up in conversation not infrequently that I thought OK was going to have tumbleweeds as an example of how foolish our predetermined notions can be.

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