Youth, Hair, and Sex in America
This is a paper on race, bullying, privilege, and gender. It is also a paper on America. I will attempt to describe my America.
It is also a paper on hair.
My natural hair is black, thick, wildly kinky and uncooperative with any kind of humidity. Apparently I realized this pretty early during childhood, because from second grade forward I kept a brush under my desk, in my locker, in my purse. I used it to flatten out the curls. They were a pretty reliable target for bullies.
Then it was hair oil, and then it was crunchy gel, and then it was the flat iron and tying my hair up in a knot to get the curls to fall just so, and then it was the senior year cut. The cut changed things. People saw my face and decided it was all right; I had to take a semester off ballet due to a back injury and joined a little indie-pop outfit with some indie-pop friends. I felt better. It was dramatic.
I’ve thought for a while about why hair is a such a source of embarrassment and pride, of confidence and identity and deeply-wrought insecurity. The source of this confusion is race, gender, and difference.
I come from a town which saw a great influx of immigrants, from all different countries, but especially from India. Indian families with first-generation kids, Indian families who had just arrived. I will not lie or cut corners. The community was both subtly and obviously hostile. My experience of the treatment toward Indian people in New Jersey, especially growing up, and especially toward immigrants, has left in me a wholly negative impression of childhood and early adolescence. Sometimes the bullying came from your Indian peers. It was nuanced and lasting and hard to pinpoint unless you were experiencing it yourself.
I did it too. While I was obsessing over my hair, I picked on kids who wore different clothes, who had funny accents and hair like my own. Kids with perfect grades. I was, in my mind, a resident weirdo and desperate for acceptance. I waxed my mustache at age nine and tweezed the living shit out of my eyebrows, absolutely compulsively. At points they were nearly gone. I was insecure about my race and ethnicity and dying to find an other, someone to give me a sense of power and control over my attempts to assimilate. I was embarrassed about my clothes and needed someone just a little less acceptable to target. Such was my American coming-of-age.
When I think about the kids I picked on who, like me, were anxious to assimilate, it makes me sad. It makes me sad that I would break someone who might have been my ally, someone who understood my anxiety most of all. When I was bullied in school I went home and cried. To think about people who did the same, because of my words, is making me cry in this moment. It was about their difference.
Without the support of a generous ally, each of us is an island, repellant and utterly alone.
Now I will discuss gender, and what it means to me to be an American.
When I left New Jersey for Sarah Lawrence College, some of the racial anxieties left me. If they resurfaced it was in the form of a thrilling new sexuality, a backwards compliment meant to undercut the wholeness of identity, to fetishize, exoticize, fantasize, and diminish.
“What’s your background? I never been with an Indian before.”
“I always thought foreign girls were sexy.”
“You look exotic.”
“Do you know the Kama Sutra?”
And what felt like the worst: “What do you mean, ‘You’re American?’”
To explain to someone what it means to be several things at once is mostly impossible. In high school a student wanted to start a “White Culture” club. The administration vetoed it and suggested renaming it the “American Culture” club. To me, the implications of that are much worse.
How can I be both Indian and American, a dancer and writer and student of race, attend a hippie-dippie drug-saturated lib-arts college with a bunch of white kids who went to private school? How do my parents feel that my profession is not in the medical field, or even economically lucrative? How do they feel about my hair? I wear it short, natural, and lately, ash blond. How about the hand-done tattoos? The lip piercing? How do they feel about the fact I take birth control?
The general assumption is that I’m attempting whiteness. But white girls dye their hair all the time. They, too, pierce their faces and ink their skin and experience the thrill of newfound sexual freedom. They are doctors and professors and writers and artists and nurses and politicians. But it’s not enough for me to express an interest in learning about my ethnicity’s culture: I don’t assume a one-dimensional racial identity, I don’t go to temple or follow the religion, I don’t always date Indian men. And the list goes on. It’s not enough for me to learn the mythologies or wear a sari around my relatives, because I cannot identify solely as Indian. I’m a human, a woman, an artist, a browngirl, a bluegirl, et cetera, et cetera. I’m Indian.
This is my America. The town and the air and the childhood and adulthood. The freedom and the people. My freshman year of college, I dated a white man who was a graduate student of African American Studies. At that time I wore about a pound of gel in my hair, which I would spend about a half hour on each day. One day he told me he liked my hair right after it was washed, before styling, and he liked my face without makeup. It was a strange thing to hear. I thought he was criticizing me. I did the whole nine yards of it, full face and hair, every single day--and I don’t anymore. Not all the time. I’m not wearing any makeup right now (though for the record...it’s two in the morning). I still loved to get dolled up and make my hair big and curly and put on a cocktail dress sometimes, but I don’t need to do it every day to feel attractive and acceptable to other people. The man who loved me then appreciated the entirety of my identity, my Indian heritage and American girl-ness, my tomboyish-ness, and my woman-ness too. And the man who loves me today loves all of the things that I am, the compound of identities and the imperfections. You taught me something really important. Thank you both.
The man that came in between can kiss my sweet hippie ass.
Anyway. This is my paper.
I feel good tonight, pouring this out, all at once, because today I decided I had something to say.
One last thing. To the man, the men, and the women who have said to me, “What do you mean, ‘You’re American?’”
Fuck yeah. I’m American as hell.
Over and out.