Hair Ap­par­ent

I grew up in a black fam­ily, but never felt black enough

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Jack­son Weaver

My mom wa s one of the first black chil­dren to be adopted by a white fam­ily in Bri­tish Columbia. In 1969, the Van­cou­ver Sun fea­tured her in an ar­ti­cle headed “Ne­gro Or­phans in De­mand,” de­scrib­ing her as “Just One of the Fam­ily.” The story it­self presents a bait and switch: she’s first de­scribed as a “prob­lem child,” but then it comes out that the only is­sue she has is be­ing too cute; the joke is that you’d as­sume that, as a black child, she would be “a prob­lem.” In 1969, this was thought of as ac­cept­ing.

Most black peo­ple have far worse sto­ries. As a kid in Oakville, On­tario, my dad ducked rocks thrown by his class­mates af­ter he moved with his fam­ily to a white neigh­bour­hood. I was never short of these sto­ries grow­ing up. They were pre­sented along­side the ones all black chil­dren are told about Rosa Parks, Har­riet Tub­man, Em­mett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vi­ola Des­mond. Sto­ries of the peo­ple you’re sup­posed to live up to. Peo­ple who share a cul­ture.

I had to ex­pe­ri­ence that cul­ture sec­ond­hand. Un­like my par­ents, I was just the lone mid­dle-class black kid at a good school, not long be­fore a black man be­came pres­i­dent of the United States. I was so far re­moved from the cul­ture they be­longed to, it felt like a lie to say I was “re­ally” black. I wasn’t pelted with rocks. I wasn’t sprayed with fire­hoses. I didn’t even sound like the black peo­ple I saw on TV. In­stead, I’d look in the mir­ror and know that the only thing black about me was my skin. I was half­way be­tween each group: su­per­fi­cially of both, but re­al­is­ti­cally, of nei­ther.

So I was ter­ri­fied of hair­cuts. Black hair has sur­vived cul­tural in­te­gra­tion; it’s a dif­fer­ent ma­te­rial than white hair, and you need to go to peo­ple who know how to work it. We’d take the hour drive, and I’d go to black hair­dressers and sit in the chair, star­ing in the mir­ror, ter­ri­fied to open my mouth. I didn’t want to miss a ref­er­ence I should know. I didn’t want to re­veal what I imag­ined ev­ery­one in the room knew: I was a cul­tural fail­ure.

That fear made me spend the early 2000s study­ing Kunta Kinte as he gri­maced in the movie Roots, lashed to a post, re­fus­ing to give up his name. I mem­o­rized Kanye West lyrics, then pre­tended I’d al­ways hated him when my cousin laughed and told me that was “white peo­ple rap.” I read The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Mal­colm X for a sixth-grade re­port, telling my teacher I could fin­ish a book that turned out to be twice as long as any of the oth­ers cho­sen. I said it was be­cause I loved read­ing. In truth, it was be­cause stay­ing up late ev­ery night, strug­gling to keep to the chap­ter sched­ule I’d set for my­self, was a form of suf­fer­ing I had in­vented. In high school, a white friend with a tougher home life and far bet­ter knowl­edge of hip hop told me he was more black than I was. I fought him on it. At the same time, we both knew he was right.

At thir­teen, I went to New York to see my black aunts, un­cles, and cousins. They had ex­pe­ri­ences, knowl­edge, and pat­terns of speech that granted them en­try into the club I still didn’t know how to join.

I said hi to my cousins. They laughed a lit­tle when they spoke to me. I smiled back awk­wardly.

They asked, “Why do you talk so white?”

I didn’t speak much af­ter that. Back in 1947, psy­chol­o­gists Ken­neth and Mamie Clark asked chil­dren to look at dolls that were iden­ti­cal ex­cept for their skin colour, and then de­cide which ones were “nice” and which were “bad.” Nearly all the chil­dren, whose skin tone ranged from light to dark, iden­ti­fied the black doll as “bad.” This ex­per­i­ment showed, among other things, the neg­a­tive ef­fects seg­re­ga­tion can have on self-con­fi­dence and self-per­cep­tion. We’ve moved past bla­tant seg­re­ga­tion now; my mom was adopted into a white fam­ily, and my dad even­tu­ally stopped hav­ing to duck rocks. But we still see race. For my white friends, be­ing white was a fact — it was what they were sup­posed to be. My be­ing white sig­ni­fied a fail­ure. I was born with black skin, but had done noth­ing to de­serve it.

I still walk into bar­ber­shops feel­ing like a tres­passer in my own skin. I sit un­com­fort­ably, as if just breath­ing is a cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. I speak and am re­minded that the peo­ple we are, the peo­ple we ap­pear to be, and the peo­ple we iden­tify with can be vastly, painfully dif­fer­ent. Some­times they go to­gether. Some­times they don’t. Some­times, we’re or­phans.~

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