With music up, ear buds in, working in a cafe in Oakland, I was interrupted by a woman. I noticed her the moment I walked in and stood in line to order my latte. She was striking. Colorful clothing and adorned by big statement jewelry. I also noticed her almost-mohawk hairstyle. Very cool. After sitting near her for about an hour, she walked over to me and asked me a question. I missed it because of the ear buds.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Are you white?” she reiterated.
I was confused. Not once have I ever been questioned about my race. So even though I heard her perfectly I spurted out a, “What?”
She asked again, “Are you white?”
I confirmed I was with a question in my voice. She asked with a quiver in hers, “Can I talk to you about your dreads?”
At Go Girls! Camp, we teach the girls to be part of the Compassion Revolution. That means listening to and considering other people’s experiences and feelings. It’s such an easy thing to say. But how often do we actually put that compassion into practice?
I had already read most of the articles circulating on social media about cultural appropriation. I had mixed opinions. I felt like I understood how some people could see my hair as a source of racism. But to me it was just a hairstyle. I had spoken to many people about if it was “right” for white people to dread their hair, which resulted in many different opinions. But what I realized in that moment is that every person I had spoken to about it… well, they were white too. Now I was looking in the eyes of a woman of color. A woman who was visibly nervous speaking to me. A woman who was standing up for her beliefs through her fear. A woman who was kind.
She never once used the word “should.” She didn’t tell me I should cut my dreads or call me names or attack anything about me. No, she was compassionate. She spoke from her heart. She hoped I would listen. So, I did. I didn’t say a word.
She spoke about her personal experiences with oppression concerning natural black hair. Many women she knew in her community had similar experiences with being reprimanded for rocking non-relaxed hair. Some women even lost their jobs. The reason? Their appearance was not “professional” enough. The more she spoke, the closer her eyebrows furrowed, the faster her words came pouring out, and the more she spun her rings around her fingers. This was a woman who was hurt. A woman waiting for me to lash out because of my discomfort. A woman who was determined to use her voice despite any of that.
After sharing her experience, she expressed her frustration that white women are able to adopt hairstyles that are generally associated with black culture without the repercussions of being black in this society. I have the privilege to be perceived as a quirky or alternative white woman due to my dreadlocks without having to deal with blatant racism because of my natural appearance. I must say, it was the nicest way I have ever been schooled. She ended class with this statement: “I would urge you to consider cutting your dreads.” The entire interaction lasted under two minutes. I asked her if she would sit down with me so we might have a longer conversation. Pressed for time, she had to leave then. I thanked her and she walked out of the cafe with rushed steps.
Suddenly I didn’t feel comfortable with my dread locks anymore. The excuse of “it’s JUST a hairstyle” echoed through my head. Illuminated by her words, I thought to myself, “It might have been just a hairstyle to me, but it was not just a hairstyle to her. Can I use hateful words because they are JUST words? Can acts of injustice be JUST actions? Of course not.”
Let me be clear… I don’t think all white people need to cut their dreads because of my experience. But listening to that woman changed my perspective on my own choices. She brought an awareness to how those choices can affect other people. That is the power of listening. That is the power of putting your own views aside for a moment. That is the power of the Compassion Revolution.
I didn’t get the chance to learn her name. But I did get the chance to learn and grow. I learned how to put my discomfort aside to hear another human being. Compassion, that woman taught me, is a verb.
I cut my dreads off that day.
I challenge you to have a conversation with someone who has a differing point of view. Can you listen without judgement? Can you leave your arguments out of it?
What did you learn? How did it feel to truly hear another human being? Share with us!