When I was young, I wished that I were white. In my hometown, you were either white or you were Mexican; I was neither. My desperation to fit in extended so far that I once pleaded with my mother to let me change my name to Jennifer because it was a more “normal” name. I hated my hair and the fact that no one knew how to tame it, I hated that my skin was so much darker than my mother’s. All of the unique qualities that I am now so happy to call my own are the same things I once wished were different.
I now understand that my intense desire to fit in was foolish and fed by my surroundings; I was always the other. The more I learn about my Ethiopian-American heritage, the more I appreciate every bit of it because it’s all helped to shape me into the woman I am today. I’ve learned to love my hair, my skin, myself. I really know who I am now.
Then, I came to Jamaica.
For the first time in my life, I get called “white girl.” And I hate it. “I’m not white,” I say. “Yes you are,” they reply. And just like that, my identity changed without my consent.
For the first time in my life, other black people tell me that my hair looks dry and untidy. When I flat iron my hair, my students tell me that I look like a supermodel or a Barbie doll. I haven’t felt this self-conscious of my hair since this one time in 9th grade math class when the boy behind me asked me if I could “move my hair” because he couldn’t see the board. I didn’t wear my hair down for the rest of the year.
When I joined Peace Corps, I understood that I would have to conform to Jamaican norms to some extent. I asked for advice about what to wear to work, how long my shorts needed to be, what kind of fancy clothes to bring. I never imagined that I would have to worry about my hair.
Most Jamaicans are not shy about telling you what they think about your appearance. When I comb and slick my hair back into a tight bun, I get complimented and told that I should do my hair like that more often. On the few occasions that I’ve flat ironed my hair, I get asked if it’s my real hair, if I’d ever cream my hair (use relaxer to make it straight), why I don’t do my hair like that more often. When I wear my hair curly, I only get compliments when it’s wet and looks like it’s laden with copious amounts of hair product. If I braid my hair, I get asked, “who braided your hair?” or reassured, “oh, I see you tried…” I can only imagine the implications for young, more impressionable girls who hear comments like these.
It’s challenging at times for me to sort through what might be cultural difference and what might be a closed-minded view of what a person ought to be. What is culture and what is rude?
In her novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s character Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman living in the US, writes a blog from the perspective of a Non-American black woman. In one entry where she discusses shades of blackness, she urges, “But beware what American blacks consider ‘light.’ Some of these ‘light’ people, in countries of Non-American Blacks, would simply be called white.” So everywhere outside of America, am I just white? How much self-determination am I allowed? Am I even in control of my own identity?
In a different scene, Ifemelu has just learned to love her natural hair and is sporting a small afro. Her naysayer auntie comments on her new ‘do with a scathing, matter-of-fact comment: “There is something scruffy and untidy about natural hair.” Ifemelu – I feel you, girl. Although my hair is different from the kind Auntie Uju was criticizing, the negative comments about the natural state of my hair are still hurtful. I’ve straightened my hair for a job interview in order to look more “professional” before. I’ve tried to conform to what people expect me to look like and have since forgone that approach to embrace what I actually look like.
Most days, I love the way that I look. I can’t say that my experience as a foreigner in Jamaica hasn’t tested my self-assurance, but it has taught me a lot about what is important to me. Thankfully, I, like Ifemelu, have discovered the wonderful world of online natural hair communities and feel validated. One of my favorites, NaturalHairRules!!!, shares some clapbacks (or comebacks) to toss at those who would criticize natural hair.
There are two versions of my identity: the way I define myself and the way others define me. Peace Corps has been an incredible test of my ability to relinquish control. Through my experience I’ve learned to accept that I cannot control what others think about me, but more importantly I’ve learned that my perception of myself is the one that matters the most.
So even if I get five insults to every compliment, I’m going to keep rocking my curls. Because they’re mine. They are me.
(Yes, Lena Dunham, I am my hair.)