No Safe Zone: Coping with Internalized Oppression
“I never ever ran from the Ku Klux Klan
and I shouldn’t have to run from a black man”-rapper Kool Moe Dee
The quote listed above is taken from the song “Self-Destruction”, a rap tune from the late 80s which assembled an all-star cast to discuss violence in the African-American community. Kool Moe Dee’s words looped through my mind as I reflected on an incident which took place this past weekend among my family. No one was felled by a gun. But the weapon that was employed is one which has assassinated the self-esteem and worth of generations of African-American children: the words of our own.
It started out innocently enough.We had a party for one of my uncles, who turned fifty this weekend. My four year old niece darted by and I hugged her, then pulled out my phone to take a picture with her. Her mother stopped me
“Don’t take a picture of my baby with her hair looking like that!”, Chantay protested. I looked at my sister, perplexed. I couldn’t see what was wrong with my nieces hair. My sister had pressed and flat-ironed her hair earlier in the day. Though her hair had escaped her ponytail holder and hung down her back my sister didn’t want me to take the picture yet.
“What is wrong with her hair?” I asked, “it’s fine to me.”
“No, it’s not; my baby looks wild! Everyone knows my baby has good hair, let me at least put it back on a ponytail real quick.”
I paused and waited while my sister brushed my niece’s already straight hair and pulled it back in order for her to fit my sisters’ definition of presentable. I took the picture, but my sisters use of a knowingly loaded term had immediately changed the energy. I wasn’t the only one who was rubbed the wrong way though. My other sister, Nicole, spoke up.
“There’s no such thing as GOOD HAIR based on texture alone! Why would you even say something like that?”
“WHAT?” Chantay replied, “what is wrong with what I said? She DOES have good hair!”
Nicole sighed. “If you say that one person has ‘good hair’ you imply that there is an opposite. You are saying that others have bad hair.”
“Well they DO have bad hair”, Chantay retorted.
“Really”, asked Nicole. “So what’s bad hair?”
“Oh that’s easy”, my sister Chantay replied, pointing to her right at me.”Bad hair is hair like hers-you know, nappy hair!”
“Mmm hmm, yes Lawd”, my aunt said, chiming in,”she got that nigga hair,guinea nigga hair at that!”
I froze. I have been down this road with my family so many times before. It doesn’t hurt as much as it angers me. They have been talking this way about my hair since I was in my teens. I have tried to reason with them on this subject but they never listen. They carelessly use the most negative cruel taunts to describe one of my basic characteristics-and don’t see why it angers me. I really didn’t want to say anything, as I know it would fall on deaf ears. But my nine-year old daughter was next to me, hearing her aunt and great-aunt denigrate my hair. I had to say something-not for my sake, but for hers. I raised my voice and joined my sister Nicole in the trenches.
“There is no such thing as good or bad hair based on texture alone“, I stated forcefully. “Good hair is hair that is healthy, well-maintained and conditioned. When you say that someone’s hair is good/bad based on texture you perpetuate that plantation mentality and pass on the brainwashing that our people have been subject to since we were enslaved.”
“Oh no, here she goes”, my aunt said, throwing up her hands,”please don’t start up with this mess. It has NOTHING to do with slavery; some hair is just bad and nappy. That’s all there is to it.”
I looked at my aunt. In her mind it was fine for her to constantly denigrate my hair. But my attempt to speak up for myself and confront the mentality underlying such sentiments was ‘mess’ that she didn’t want to hear.
Given that she is my aunt, I still have to give her respect as an elder. So I did not engage her as forcefully as I would anyone else.I was glad that my sister Nicole had spoken up and called our relatives out. Nicole’s actions that day were unprecedented. Though I have tried to look at the silver lining of Nicole’s actions and support, the incident still left me fuming.
As an African-American I learned at a young age that I had to be guarded in public and on alert. I was black in a white man’s world, so I could not be fully at ease in other environments. But being ‘at home’, being in the company of those of one’s own ethnicity and blood is supposed to be different. You are supposed to find respite from the racism that lurks outside. But as I sat in my aunts living room, listening to my own blood relatives use one of the most vile racial slurs to describe my hair, I once again faced an uncomfortable truth:I had no true safe zone. Even when in the midst of those who look like me, I cannot escape the legacy of white supremacy. I cannot escape the ugliness of internalized oppression. This realization is made all the more frustrating by the fact that my own people expect to accept it with a smile.Whenever I challenge them on such statements I am told I need to relax, that I’m too militant, that I’m a radical and I shouldn’t object to what they say. But to flip the words of Kool Moe Dee: if I wouldn’t tolerate such treatment from the Ku Klux Klan, why on earth should I accept it from my own? I cannot and I will not.
Since Saturday evening I’ve reflected on the complicated relationship that I’ve had with my family, and by extension, other African-Americans. Though I have always had an immense sense of pride in my culture and identity I have struggled with relating to and being around African-Americans. This is not because I think we are inferior. I have struggled with this because the cruelest and most painful experiences I have had in my life over skin color and hair have come from other African-Americans. Even when I picked up the shattered pieces of my psyche after my journey through the Color Complex I had to fight to not hold it against those who did it to me. There is much I could forgive, but forgiving my own people for teaching me to hate myself truly tested me. I managed to do so…but the continued nonsense from my family has made it harder to keep that healthy balance. For my own happiness and well-being I believe I have to distance myself from those who are toxic. There is no benefit in being around people who would treat me this way. I have to continually fight to procure a safe zone where I can simply exist as an African-American woman, free of the effects of the past four hundred years.The lack of a haven is one of the most insidious effects of internalized oppression, and it is one that I confront daily.