Don’t say that! Huh?

One of the things I know for sure is that common sense or common knowledge isn’t common. We each see the world through a lens shaped by family and family values, life experiences, and acquired knowledge.

I was reminded of this when a white friend commented that she’d never again say that a person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest, having been chastised, strongly and simultaneously, by several Black friends who heard the comment. She continued, noting that while she wouldn’t say it again, she really didn’t know what was wrong with it. She had been describing a person, not actually saying it to someone.

Without an explanation, this friend may have thought that her comment was perceived simply as rude, but there was so much more.

Nuances, history, and connections would never be understood by her, or by other white people, solely by reading books about the Black experience, racial injustice, or Black culture. That academic knowledge must be woven together. The dots must be connected to reveal why that combination of words – describing a Black person’s hair as a rat’s nest – evoked a visceral, negative response by the Black people in that room. Months later, Black friend-to-white friend, the following information was shared.

Rats as a sign of filth.

Neighborhood filth.

Rats are often associated with filth/dirtiness. Rat infestation is seen as an indicator of accumulated filth and a problem unique to some communities. The cleanliness of Black neighborhoods has often been questioned, giving many white people an “acceptable” reason not to want Black neighbors. But few know what Richard Rothstein revealed in his book, The Color of Law. In some cities, in the early through mid-20th century, trash was not picked up with the same frequency in Black neighborhoods as it was in white neighborhoods. It wasn’t the lack of cleanliness by the residents, but the racist practices of the cities that contributed to the rat problem. Is it possible that those practices continue in some places today?

Personal dirtiness

Also built on the connection between rats and filth, a Black person would immediately think of all the myths regarding personal hygiene. The dirtiness – real in some cases, imagined in others — of Black people relates back to enslavement and their inability to have access to soap and water to bathe and, of course, the time to do so. The sentiment of Black skin as a sign of dirtiness continued in the 1800s and early 1900s with Black children depicted as being  washed with a certain brand of soap to become white. Black skin as a sign of dirtiness was seen as recently as 2017 with a Black model in a brown shirt becoming a white model in a white shirt after using Dove soap.  The subliminal message is there: dirty, ignorant, lowly.

Natural hair

Hair is a person’s crowning glory. The connection between hair and your sense of beauty is inextricable. Sadly, until recently, natural hair has often been described as unkempt.  It wasn’t until the Black Pride/Black is Beautiful movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that many Black people recognized the internalized racism that made them not see the beauty of their natural hair. Until then, many wanted the texture of white hair, using chemicals and applied heat to get it. But even after Blacks embraced their natural hair and natural styles like dreadlocks or braiding, many whites continued to view those styles as inappropriate for the workplace. As recently as 2019, California and New York saw the need for legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on their hairstyle or hair texture.

All of this information, and probably much more, went through the minds of the Black people listening to their white friend. All of it. In the blink of an eye.  What they had heard was a statement mired in years of subliminal racist messages. But all they said was “Don’t say that.”

Months later, one of the Black people in that room, no longer able to let the comment stand, reached out to the white friend. After hearing the full explanation of why saying that a Black person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest was an awful comment, the white person shared that she had been describing another white person. She thought she had said that, but in hindsight, she wasn’t sure. Wow, had the Black folks simply assumed that she was speaking about a Black person based on their life’s experience? Maybe an in-the-moment conversation would have been clarifying, but not speaking immediately allowed for the more thoughtful, and possibly less emotional, later exploration of the topic. The white person acknowledged a bit of initial defensiveness about what was interpreted from her comment, but also had three important reflections: she wants to learn more about race and culture; she appreciates those who pull her aside and educate her; and she recognizes her privilege to move in and out of discussions about race because she is not living it (hmmm … a topic ripe for a future conversation?).

Bottom line: Friendships are built on trust. Have those conversations that need to be had if not in the moment, have them when you can. We’ll all be better off. Here’s to a more racially just 2022.

Happy New Year!