Updated: Oct 15, 2021
We were eating brunch last week at a Cracker Barrel in Virginia on our drive down the East Coast on vacation. Our server was a friendly black woman with the coolest curls I've ever seen.
Now I'm also a friendly woman. Some would say too friendly sometimes. (I reject that assessment despite the fact that my friendliness occasionally gets me into trouble.) I complimented the woman on her hair, asked a couple of questions about it.
Her stylist uses a crochet needle to achieve these unique curls, she told me. Now besides being friendly, I am also naturally curious. Some might say nosey, but I prefer invested. I am a writer, after all. I love people and their stories and their experiences. I often fight the urge to crawl directly into people's heads.
I also happen to have a child with an unruly mop of hair, and we are forever on a quest for products and methods to tame it into curls rather than electrical frizz. The server answered my questions openly, warmly. All seemed very natural to me. I was curious about how long it lasted, how long it took to have done, whether it required heat or chemicals. When she said she couldn't get it wet, this made me more curious (and here I probably should have stopped) but I was trying to understand the logistics of living in the South and not being able to get your hair wet for a month.
In my mind I wasn't fetishizing her; I was admiring her. But this is where it can get dicey.
When she was done taking our order and left the table, my family, in hushed tones, told me I was bordering on racially insensitive, that I shouldn't be that invested in her hair or asking her so many questions.
Now, this was our third full day of driving, including weaving through the streets of Manhattan and sitting in unmoving traffic for over an hour to go through the Lincoln Tunnel the day before. I was a tad on edge. I wanted to yell at them and, equally, to cry.
I was just trying to have a normal conversation. I wasn't trying to objectify this lovely woman or her curls. Besides, I had not read annoyance in her as I was asking. Their accusation stung.
My intentions had been pure.
My impulse was to object - to fire back to my family, ask them about the last book they'd read about anti-racism? Who were they learning from, studying? What active work were they doing to be part of the solution? But I didn’t. Because as much as I wanted to turn it on them, I knew this reaction came from my need to be right, from my own white supremacy conditioning.
One of the biggest barriers to undoing white supremacy is white fragility, the slipping into defensiveness and pain as a convenient distraction from facing and processing racial inequity.
I care a lot about healing racial trauma, about understanding the oppression that white supremacy has over all bodies in this country. I've come to know that the only way to be part of the solution is to become aware of where white supremacy lives in me and divest myself from it. This is MY work. This is the deep inner work of anti-racism, a labor that is simple yet arresting in its scope and challenge.
White supremacy is much larger than white people believing in their own superiority. It may have begun there, but it has become so embedded in our psyches that we mistake its conditioning as our own thinking, beliefs and perceptions. It is the framework of the legal and social system in the U.S., a system that erodes the humanity of everyone, both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Some of the hallmarks of white supremacy: control, oppression, defensiveness, apathy, individuality, perfectionism, righteousness, violence, power, inequity.
I wasn’t sure I had offended the server, but had a knee-jerk reaction to want to clear up any misunderstanding. I wanted to get up and find her, to make it right. To explain myself. I wanted to be a good white person. I wanted to take action to make myself feel better.
One of the most effective tools I’ve learned is to pause and observe my own reactions. To not assume them to be true just because I am having them.
What if my feeling of fragility - the feeling of being offended or needing to defend my motivations – was just a sign of something deeper below the surface? Something that needed excavation.
Because a wish to not be part of an oppressive system, a wish to not offend or have crossed a line, didn't mean I hadn't.
I asked myself if I could, in that very moment, make a different choice. To not burst into fix-it mode, nor get on the blame-deflect-defend train.
For me that meant gulping strong coffee and leaning into the discomfort, rather than pushing it away. I wasn't sure my family was right, but I WAS sure about the feeling of utter pain and wrongness I was feeling inside myself. Rather than berating myself for it and sinking into shame, I tried to be curious about my response and my feelings, to be present with them. To be bare and honest with myself.
Oh, the blistering feeling of just sitting there at that table not doing anything but observing my body, my anxiety, my disquiet. Not fixing it or trying to change it but sitting with it.
In his book My Grandmother's Hands, Resmaa Menakem says: “We’ve tried to teach our brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies….This means that no matter what we look like, if we were born and raised in America, white-body supremacy and our adaptations to it are in our blood. Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”
Menakem’s prescription to heal the racial divide in our country is a deeply personal one. We must return to our own bodies, to “metabolize this trauma; work through it with our bodies (not just our thinking brains); and grow out of it.”
One of the commitments I made to myself when I began this work was to foster the needed humility to get it wrong. That I would not let perfectionism or fear of saying or doing the wrong thing get in my way of learning and growing. In other words, I would not let the engrained rigidity of white supremacy hinder me from dismantling the system it sought to protect.
I knew, deep in my soul, that my intention with this woman was one of connection. Whether or not I had said the wrong things was certainly up for debate. But my intention, my heart, was not.
So why was I so uncomfortable, anyway? Because they had called me out? Because I feared that they were right?
Partly, yes. But also because I don't know how to navigate these waters. What I want is to just be normal, to relate human to human, to be natural. But how do I act natural when there is nothing natural about living in a country that still doesn't care about the safety and well-being of black bodies as it does white bodies?
I searched myself. Was I trying too hard, strong-arming a connection because she was black? Would I have been as friendly if she was white? Honestly, I probably would because that is just who I am. But it is difficult to tease apart because under it all, I realized there were things I was trying to convey with my friendliness. And maybe it was too much for a Cracker Barrel restaurant. And unfair to ask of her to receive.
What I say: I love your hair. How do you do that? How long does it take? How creative and beautiful.
What I am trying to convey: I see you. I'm sorry for all that has happened and continues to happen. I'm working on myself because I know whiteness is my problem. I care about your safety, your well-being, your life.
But condescension is a real risk here. Fetishism is as well. But so is there a risk to heavily edit myself out of fear of how I will be perceived, to not treat a black person with the same friendly openness I would a white person with fantastic hair because I don't want to come across a certain way.
I tried, while I sat there, to imagine this interaction from her side. What would feel good or bad to her about it? Would it be welcomed, flattering, connecting? Or annoying and exhausting? I acknowledged that probably 60% of me was just being myself, as I would with anyone, and that 40% of me was trying too hard. Trying to make up for something, to heal something, to fix something.
People often ask me questions about being a two-mom family and it is rare that they are unwelcome. Still, there is not nearly the same context at play.
Perhaps the truth is I don’t yet know how to act naturally because these normal, everyday interactions are too overlaid with the pain and awareness of racial trauma I am working through inside myself. That until I move further through this work, natural might not be a state I can yet achieve.
Because black people do not need me to tell them they are okay. It's me that needs that. And that is my whiteness at work.
This is a very, very hard truth for me. That this genuine feeling of regard and support for people of color is in fact tainted by a savior-esque veneer inside me. That the urge to heal or repair in itself can be patronizing and arrogant.
So what to do with all the pain that sits in my chest for all the years of hatred, violence and cruelty toward people of color?
Answer: deal with it on my own. Heal myself and the pain of being a part of white privilege and white supremacy, for benefiting from it, however unintended. Face the history of our nation with open eyes and do the inner work of deconditioning myself from my cultural programming.
Laura Brewer - coach, speaker and educator on justice and liberation - says: "We cannot be with the suffering of others until we can be with our own suffering. We cannot see the wholeness of another person until we believe that we are whole. We cannot hold or defend the humanity of others through personal responsibility until we learn to hold our own innate humanness. So we do the work: inside out."
I replayed the hair conversation, remembered the part where she redirected me so she could take our order and how I returned with my questions after she had. I could suddenly see the subtle boundary I had missed.
I waited through a coffee refill stop at our table, waited until our eggs and pancakes and grits arrived. Then I turned to her and, with raw vulnerability said, "I'm really sorry if I made you uncomfortable with my questions. That was not at all my intention. I just really think your hair is beautiful."
She said it was no problem, said she understood that our hair was very different, and it might make me curious. But there was something else there, too. Something unspoken and so slight I could have missed it. A drawing in of herself. A gentle weariness.
When I got home, I did some reading. Turns out my family wasn't exactly wrong. While the compliment to the server and some light interest in her hair is deemed positive overall, the intensity of questions such as mine (even from a place of genuine curiosity and admiration) are generally draining to a black woman. And probably especially when she is working, and we are customers. And, I would wager, even more so at a job that relies on tips.
The short answer: it’s not her job to teach me about something I could google.
Counter “argument”: if I were to have this type of exchange with a white person and it was a happy connection for both of us discussing hair and admiring artistry and creativity, isn’t it somehow unnatural to edit myself just because the woman is black? To assume the interaction is inappropriate based only on skin color?
I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that there is so much embedded history and power imbalances in these interactions (especially with me in the position of customer/tipper) that I cannot expect those dynamics not to influence the situation. In the end, what is the harm of veering on the side of prudence and extra care than to cross a line and inflict any potential of harm?
Because until my words and questions don’t carry that hidden agenda of fixing and healing, until I am not saying things to her as a way to soothe myself, perhaps it is best not to fully trust them. Perhaps it’s better to keep that car parked in the garage until I actually know how to drive.
In order for something new to grow, there must be space. For now, perhaps I can grow love and respect and support inside me and let it speak for itself.
If you are by chance the woman with the incredibly fun curls from that Virginia Cracker Barrel, please know I am sorry. I appreciate your graciousness with me. It has helped me see.
Whiteness is embedded in me, part of both my complexion and my operating system. Dismantling it can only come as a process, as a slow uncovering, a deepening awareness and a willingness to get it wrong over and over. A commitment to dwell in curiosity and openness rather than shame.
I believe cancel culture does not achieve its aim. Shame has never worked- not in the church, not in parenting and not in social justice. If we are willing to lean in, to open, to allow ourselves and each other the full spectrum of emotions as we move through the painful and delicate revelations of self required for the anti-racism journey, we can become something new. This is the opposite of white supremacy. It’s the gift of space to actually change.
Because I'd rather be trying and failing than not trying at all.