It’s been a strange couple of months. The summer winding down almost always means coming to the realization that all those great people you met at the bars were just alcohol-induced connections with aching hearts and un-diagnosed alcoholism like you. I digress. Already.
The reality is, This summer was a bit of a quiet one. Between trying to work, finish side-projects and be a functioning adult, I barely had time for myself. Which meant most of it was spent at a desk battling an existential crisis of who I am supposed to be in this world. I have plenty of ideas, but that’s for another day.
It seems though, in the midst of all this mindless contemplation, a chord kept ringing. That things had changed. I’ve changed. In what ways, it was difficult to tell. But something was definitely different.
Of course hiding out in my too-humble abode wasn’t giving the answers needed. So I ventured out to one of those cocktail hours to find someone to blame. Maybe they were the problem. I’m human. It couldn’t possibly be my fault.
Here’s a backstory. Coming to Portland Maine last year, I had absolutely no idea that this place existed. So the fact that it is the whitest state in America was the last thing on my mind. Blissfully I boarded the plane to land here in the dead of winter, ready to take the country by a storm. Literally.
I remember having the conversation with my friends about how race-fuelled rhetoricals only made the race issue in America worse. And how none of it would affect me. I also remember going to cocktail hours one month into my arrival and pitching ideas and working the crowds without a care in the world that I was the youngest person in the room, let alone the only POC (Person of color, because ‘black’ as it turns out is politically incorrect). Granted, my success rate was staggering. Not even the man who told me I was disgusting while I casually walked down the street on that first night out phased me.
But fast forward one year and multiple incidents, both overt and covert, later, I cannot say I am the same immune and budding visionary I once thought myself to be. Now, any side-eye and comment and strange look has me going down my now almost complete checklist of ‘subtle things racists do’.
Before, it had been almost too easy to ignore the ‘Your hair looks very professional today’ when I gelled my nappy 4C hair ALL.THE.WAY.BACK. Because in my head, that was the look I was going for! Did I feel like I had been conditioned to think that letting my afro ride was not professional? Not at all. ‘Internalized racism’ wasn’t in my vocabulary yet. Because going natural in the first place had not been a symbol of embracing my ancestral roots and finding beauty in it. In any case, it really only marked the end of a relationship with my drug of choice, love and otherwise. So yes, that sleek bun did the damn thing! But in the face of all the evidence and not-so-evidence that these are subtle-things-racists-say, coupled with endless hours of Solange’s music playing while I tweet about Shea Moisture’s oppressive ad, I now feel the NEED to be rebellious and let my hair lose. I haven’t used hair gel since.
My immigrant status was enough ammo for people to give THE LOOK and to have the all-so proud American glee at how beautiful my English is and coo about how fast I had assimilated into the culture. Let’s not even get started with the lady at the clinic who diagnosed my stress levels as a symptom of an immigrant (pronounced refugee) who has a lot to prove given the circumstances I came from. My eyes couldn’t have rolled back any further.
Then comes travelling within America. Visiting cities like Philadelphia and Washington DC brimming with POC. A haven where I saw women with hair-wigs I wanted and gelled hair, and the whole spectrum of natural hairs. Yes, I wanted to touch it. Being in so much awe of how many POC were around me, serving me in restaurants, eating at the fancy spots, even going to a night club where in a twist of all events,my partner was the only non-POC. A culture shock as I listened to the south Philly dialect contrasted with the DC tone of word (where everyone sounds like a congressman). It was blisful appreciation of the culture that was lacking in Maine. But I also remember feeling awkward asking my server to bring me a different drink because I suddenly felt so aware that my server was black and I didn’t want to ‘be that girl’. While back home in Maine, I change drinks 3 times before settling on the first.It was such a mind-trip and identity crisis that I couldn’t wrap my head around. All I could manage to say was ‘I love your hair’. Which again made me wonder if I sounded like one of those ignorant non-POC.
It’s a hard role to navigate and come to terms with. Notwithstanding the fact that I also feel inclined to paint a good picture of Africa while I am at it. The worst part of it all is now, looking back to living in different countries with different cultures, I can’t help but wonder if I had been naive all those years in thinking that I had friends when they too were probably in-the-closet racists.
Of course I have examined my circumstances to try and determine whether I am naive to my blackness because I am an immigrant who didn’t have to grow up with the systemic and institutionalized racism that is America and thus do not see some actions through that lens.(I do now). As well I do understand that I didn’t go to college for African-American studies and therefore may not understand the intricacies of how this pertains to all POC. But I do know that I am a lady who is trying to live her best life in a country that so deeply wants me to internalize my color and needs me to educate my all-white team at work that the NFL players are not protesting the flag.
So going back to this cocktail hour. I stayed for all of 30 minutes. During which I spoke to only two people, possibly the organizers. Because I looked around and noticed that there was only one other person of my color in the room of around 300. Why this bothered me suddenly, I don’t know. But it bothered me enough to hail an Uber. And on my way home, tweet recklessly about how devoid of diversity Maine is and how disheartening that was.
And this my friends is why I didn’t go out much this summer.