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Wednesday, September 9

"You Look Like Buckwheat": A Natural Hair Horror Story

I had recently turned 22 before landing my first job at a prominent advertising agency in Chicago. I remember being nervous about moving away from my family to a place where I had no family, but at the same time, I was excited about being on my own. At the time, my parents lived in Hawaii because my dad was stationed out there. My brother lived in Texas because he was stationed at a base there. And my uncle and grandmother were still in South Carolina. But, I sucked it up like a big girl and moved to the big city. I stayed with one of my cousin’s friends for two weeks until I could find an apartment, and I navigated my way through the city through lots of trial and error.

I really liked my new job, even though I had so much to learn about the unspoken and unwritten rules of Corporate America. Luckily, my direct supervisor, a balding white Jewish guy, took me under his wing.

I should mention here that I cut my long flowing, permed hair off when I was 21 and a senior in college, which left me with half an inch of hair on my head. By the time I moved to Chicago, it was longer, but not by much. So, I started my first job with a short afro.

Now, over my direct supervisor was the big boss, who was a white woman from North Dakota, I think, and hadn’t worked or interacted with Black people very much—especially not Black women with natural hair. I picked up on this very quickly and just as quickly developed a dislike for her and her for me. But we had to work together, so I did my best to play the Corporate game I was just learning. Every now and then, however, my outspokenness that was accepted in college, would surface and cause problems.

Anyway, this lady and I tried to relate to each other by talking about sports. She was a huge baseball fan. And my grandfather’s relative, Larry Doby, was a famous baseball player. I ran track in high school and college. She ran track in high school. And as we started making ground, I would make it a habit of going into her office every morning to check in.

One particular morning, I did something different with my hair. I double strand twisted it and wore it twist out. So I had crinkly pieces sticking out all over my hair. When I walked into her office, she and my direct supervisor were in there. When she saw me, she started laughing.

When I asked her what she was laughing at, she started to say, “You look like…..” But she couldn’t think of the person she was trying to compare me to. My direct supervisor must have known, though, because he tried to warn her before she actually said it. He knew it could be a lethal statement. I, on the other hand, was still lost but was getting upset that this lady appeared to be laughing at me. Then she thought of the character, and she said, “You look like Buckwheat!”

Insert dagger here.

I was offended by the comment, and I was hurt. Here I was a recent college grad on my own in Chicago trying to make something of myself, and my boss was laughing at the way I looked. Even though I was not yet well versed in Corporate America, I knew enough to go to HR.

Human Resources ended up doing an investigation and getting statements from people. At the end of the day, the big boss got written up and had to write me a letter of apology. She read the letter to me in a private meeting, with tears and sniffles, and then asked if I would accept it. I did. But both of our guards remained up until I left to move back to North Carolina two years later.

On a side note, I don’t really think this lady was trying to be malicious. She was just trying to be funny. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize the cultural implications of her joke. I learned from my sociology class in college that this is called White Oblivion, and most white people have it. Most white people do not see themselves as having a race. They are oblivious to it, and race obliviousness is the natural consequence of being in the driver’s seat. According to Dalton, author of Racial Healing, the inability or unwillingness of many white people to think of themselves in racial terms has decidedly negative consequences. For one thing, it produces huge blind spots.

Hence the Buckwheat comment. In no way am I excusing her behavior, but over the years I learned not to take things so personally. I’ll still gladly go to HR if someone crosses me with some mess, but I’ve learned not to be offended by the mess…if that makes sense……

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