Black Hair and Climbing Part VII

Part VII: Perception

   I have talked a lot about white presenting and Black presenting through facial features, hair texture, skin color, etc. How we are seen in the world is how we are able to move through it experiencing oppression or privilege. Presenting to the world as a light skinned person with Afro hair and Black facial features is how I walk around in the world. And in different situations these things can be attributes or hindrances depending on who I interact with. But I would like to acknowledge that on the whole my particular skin color is a form of privilege because it is light and therefore can be more relatable to white people. But what of people who are Black that do not present as discernibly Black? To explore this question, I took a look with someone half Black and half white who does not necessarily present as Black in their features or hair, but does not present as white.

   Enter John Bartlett (he/him), owner of local gym Belltown Strength and Conditioning. John is “Black American or Mixed Black American or a Mixed Person of Color”, with one white parent and one Black parent which has given him light skin. John represents here a part of the population who does not necessarily present with typical Black features, therefore his perspective walking through the world as a Black person is widely different than those who do present with Black features and have dark skin. And why is this important?

   As humans, we are programmed to decide on a moment’s notice, a glance even, if something or someone is deemed a threat. It’s basic survival. And unfortunately, due to centuries of programming the general population, Black features (including hair) can be deemed a threat more so than white people with decidedly white features38, especially if they are perceived to be men. But what if you are Black but are not perceived as such due to your hair and facial features?

   John shares: “…they might not know what that something is but they know it is not all white. Of all the things that people have guessed what I am, none of it is just white. Whether it is Middle Eastern, whether it is Italian, Hispanic, literally all across the globe but they know it as something else and so when I have my hair in cornrows and people would look and they would be like ‘OK is it just a white dude with cornrows, no, he is something…’ and so it is those types of looks that as people of color we know what that feels like. We know what that look is and that gets difficult. And the other thing is I absolutely have passing privilege; where I can change my hair; I can change my beard’s configuration and blend in with 3/4 of the planet. Being a lighter mixed person who, when we actually see the sun (which we do not see the sun often is Seattle), I get tanner very easier and the olive skin comes out in easier ways and so people just start guessing…so I recognize that privilege that I have as being able to pass for damn near anything I wanted.” I would also like to note here that history has shown us that worldwide, it has always been more desirable to be anything but Black due to chattel slavery. So even passing as “something else” is still a privilege. John continues: “But, in and of that, being able to pass and yet not being accepted has been a huge source of contention within myself and my own journey in life.”

   This middle ground of in between may be a familiar story to mixed heritage people. But as mixed people, we have to realize that we also carry white adjacent/passing privilege as John has said. “[M]ost folks cannot pin down what I am, it becomes the guessing game but it comes from more a place of curiosity rather than fear…it absolutely plays into mixed privilege and passing privilege where my friends who are darker skinned…the purse clutching moments that they have experienced in their life is very different than the ones where people may not clutch their purse around me but the look that they give me of trying to figure me out…”

   Threat perception or curiosity? In this case curiosity. It is definitely a privilege to be dubbed a curiosity that can extend as far as living a longer life due to that perceived threat level being lower in everyday society. I also want to acknowledge that any Black story is still valid with whatever the struggle may be: but it may be very different across shades of skin and textures of hair. “…my friends who grew up on the East Coast and the South: very different because they [people] are used to that gradient [of race, of skin]. They are used to seeing all of the shades whereas in the Pacific Northwest it is not as obvious…” Black folks do exist in a large variety of features, skin color, hair, culture, ethnicity, etc. But one thing a lot of us have experienced in common is unfair treatment due to centuries of discriminatory policies and attitudes surrounding what constituted a Black person, which usually comes down to appearance and most especially skin color. The one thing we cannot change. In the future I will tackle colorism, skin color, passing as well, but right now we are going to focus on hair. Something many of us do change and with it perception about who we are and what we are racially can shift depending on one’s features.

   John has described his hair as “not even kinky and coily hair, when it is longer it is just in ringlets” who sometimes wears African based hairstyles such as locs and cornrows. Does the perception change when someone who doesn’t present as Black dons cornrows? John replies, “I have had people ask why I was doing it [wearing an ethnic hairstyle]. Some of them know [that I am half Black]…so having different reactions of people depending on what it [my hair] was looking like at the time…even people, even friends would see me doing something different with it and their attitude would change or their views would change because either they had not seen me in it before or maybe they forgot that I was Black because unfortunately as a mixed kid that happened all the time.” Confusion, curiosity…it can be hurtful to the recipient of these questions. It is sad to hear that views and friendships shifted in possibly negative directions due to John honoring his ancestral hairstyles. Yet on the flip side, as someone who is lighter skinned sporting that hairstyle, they are still deemed as less of a threat, possibly even a white person playing around.

   White folks should not be utilizing African based hairstyles. So should a person who does not present as Black be wearing African based hairstyles with the possibility of unintentionally inspiring white folks to wear them carelessly? That is a difficult question to answer. John mused: “If I want to do something with my hair I have done it…It was still something that I did because I wanted to and if people had their thoughts on it, their opinions on it: OK. Because I might not have as many African features as some other mixed folks; I have a very angular face, complexion or tone…I do not have as obvious as stereotypical African features so when I would do an ethnic hairstyle and be in a Black space and I would get complimented and everything and it would be like, cool, that is great. Have I definitely had those looks though where people see it and question why I am wearing it? Absolutely.” John does it because it is part of his heritage and that is something to respect, to honor. If it is not part of your heritage, just don’t do it. Due to the policies alive even today, the power of being white in society still reigns supreme which makes it inexcusable for any white person to be wearing Black hairstyles. Let’s look at one example in particular: The Crown Act.

Works Cited

38. Lopez, German. “Study: people see black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men” 26 Dec 2022

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