From Preatoria to Hopefield

Some thoughts on “The Problem with Black Hair”

Jamaican girls with unmixed African hair – that super coiled, cry when it combing out, deceptively short until you tug on a strand hair – have mostly always relaxed their hair. Which, like most major life decisions, is totally okay when it’s a choice. Not so okay when  mothers relax their 5 year old’s hair because they just can’t bother to comb it.

Recently there’s been a movement toward “embracing your curls” – which some of my more cynical and curlier friends have decried as a purely “mixed girl hair” movement. African hair doesn’t bounce around your ears in curly waves, they complain, no matter how much product you put in it. Fair point, but short accessorized afros are steadily gaining pace among trendy hairstyles of the 21st century. And I am so happy when I see people not giving up on their natural hair for the sake of having it easy.

If you know me, you would know that statement is more than a little hypocritical, because my sole purpose in locking my hair was to have a low maintenance hairstyle. I hate combing my hair, bitterly, but I didn’t want to relax it because chemicals are terrifying. Locs were the compromise.

It helped my decision that locs are still relatively uncommon in this part of the island – the Kingston liberal arts and hipster scene is awash with dreads both real and temporary but in Montego Bay I’ve found locs are largely restricted to the working class. And I like to make minor stirs when I can, upset people’s predisposed notions.

The radically opposing points of view on black hair simply cannot find middle ground. There is the “natural camp” and the “neat camp” and for some reason they have decided that never the twain shall meet. Obviously one can be natural and neat, if one only adjusts and compromises the meanings behind those adjectives.

The afro is going to face the same uphill battle that locks did, because of its historic associations. Once upon a time, the only people with locs or afros were people who couldn’t afford to straighten their hair (read: poor people) or people who were rebelling against society (read: criminals). This antipathy toward hair that isn’t long and straight with no strand out of place is as entrenched as our antipathy toward melanin, toward the spectrum of sexuality, toward difference on a whole.

But the world is moving forward, tentatively. Acceptance is in.

Intolerance is still intolerable

Four years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post about needing to be more tolerant of intolerant people. You know, the bigots, homophobes, racists, Islamophobes, condemning Christians, the KKK… The list goes on. Actually, scratch the KKK. No one needs to tolerate them, ever. Even the Doctor supported genocide when it came to the Daleks.

Being a doctor means I get to interact with a wide cross-section of society. This is both exciting and scary. I was excited to have my first lesbian patient (is this weird?) and be able to provide her with an open, non-judgmental space. (It’s probably weird). And it is scary when the brazen male patients decide they have a penis problem. (cue eye roll).

For the most part I deal with the ups and downs of this roller coaster ride. I bite my cheek when colleagues or patients are espousing homophobic ideals in group settings; I clip my words and give my best poker face when male patients make unsolicited and inappropriate advances. (This happens more often than it should).

But in a one-on-one setting with someone who is  uncomfortable with the homosexual lifestyle, I am far from tolerant. A colleague was relating an anecdote about his struggle to overcome homophobia, saying that sometimes he just has to refer a patient.

In one session he had with a male patient, the patient started flirting with him. And my colleague recalls being so upset – he had been told they have a gaydar, that they know who to flirt with and who not to, so why was this man coming on to him – he reacted like his manhood (personhood?) was threatened.

So I got angry, and I’m not sure I was very good at hiding it.

“It’s so funny,” I said to him, “that they don’t teach us how to react when a patient tries to hit on you.”

He didn’t know how to respond.

I was pulled in a lot of directions. First the blatant masculine privilege that means you don’t have to worry about a patient trying to flirt with you. Or if they do, flirtation is always welcome because the patient will be a woman. The heterosexual privilege of assuming that because a guy is batting for the other team he wouldn’t dare try anything with you.

Female healthcare staff have been dealing with unwanted advances for centuries, and I am a small enough person to say that it felt good to watch a man squirm for once.

But now that I’ve gotten that illicit gloating out of my system, how do I go about creating a more tolerant space for people who want to let go of their misguided beliefs? First of all, do I want to?

No. I don’t.

Gay people are here, they’re queer. Get over it.

All gay people are not trying to rape you. All Muslims are not bomb-toting jihadists. All black people are not here to steal your purses and live off welfare. Hijabistas are not inherently oppressed. Black people are not inherently inferior. Women are not inherently less capable than men. And not everyone has been waiting on you to tell them about your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

People are just people, not the groups they happen to belong to. Good, bad, flawed, faking it, aggressive, shy, lazy, ambitious people.

It’s 2016. Acceptance is in. Get with the fucking times.