About four months ago, as I recently recounted elsewhere, I took my older son, Jojo, to the barber shop. I told the barber not to shave off all of Jojo's hair and to just trim it. He then proceeded to shave Jojo's head practically bald. "Whoa, whoa, I told you that I did not want it bald, this is way too low!" I exclaimed.
"How can I tell you this?” said the black barber with clippers still in the front of Jojo's hair. “You've got a real n****r here. He is a native boy. He is from the tribe. This ain't pretty hair. This is the best cut for him." Despite the prevalence of the n-word in hip hop music, popular culture and the streets of my New York City neighborhood, I was both dumbfounded and devastated by the remark.
And I didn’t want to make a scene.
Because I’ve played the incident over and over in my mind since then, if I could go back in time, I know exactly what I would say. "Brother, this boy in front of you is my little king. How dare you refer to him as a ‘n****r’? That word was used to oppress us and it has no place coming out of your mouth or anyone else's. His hair is magical. It defies gravity and replicates the DNA helix. If you can't respect that magic, we have to leave."
And what if I’d actually delivered such a speech? The barber probably would have been both aghast and embarrassed. He probably would have perceived me as "too serious" and "uppity" and may have told me to get off of my "high horse." But perhaps if I had possessed the courage to reprimand the barber in that moment, I would have left there with more self-respect. I would not have felt sick to my stomach after the incident.
Instead, I was silent and my head ached with thoughts of how to protect my children from race-based self-loathing. When the hair cut was over, I actually tipped the barber "politely."
I’ve always thought I wanted to teach my children to be polite: please, thank you, excuse me, etc. I believe in humility and gratitude. But the incident made me think about the other "courtesies" that children are often trained to extend. As a child, I was taught to refrain from reprimanding others for fear of causing them shame. Moreover, many of us are conditioned to avoid the potential discomfort and social ostracism that such reprimands might trigger.
Later that evening, I was sitting in front of the television. "The Fashion Police" were critiquing Solange Knowles's choice of attire at New York's premiere of The Great Gatsby. Joan Rivers made a comment that suggested that an afro is not an appropriate hair style for a red carpet event—an implicitly racist comment, given that an afro is how a Sub-Saharan African’s hair naturally grows. The methods of making an afro straight, such as intense heat and harsh chemical relaxers, often cause scalp burns, hair breakage and hair loss.
Joan Rivers's co-hosts looked appalled. But no one challenged her racial insensitivity. They were all "polite." Perhaps they did not want to chide Joan Rivers. Perhaps they thought it would be uncivil. Or perhaps they did not want to call attention to themselves and risk being viewed as "overly serious" and "too politically correct."
This past September, comedian Sheryl Underwood, a black co-host of CBS's "The Talk," drew fire for commenting that Heidi Klum's custom of saving her biracial children’s shorn afros was “nasty”—but then suggesting that her white co-host, Sara Gilbert, could save her white child's hair because it is "beautiful, long, silky stuff." Again, no co-host challenged Sheryl Underwood's internalized racism in that moment. They just giggled "politely," thereby saving Sheryl Underwood the shame of reproach and foregoing their own risk of being perceived as "overly sensitive."
Unfortunately, ideas about the superiority, inferiority, beauty, mental capabilities and athletic predispositions of certain races persist. Recently, I attended a training event for New York City professionals who have signed up to mentor high school students. When we were assigned the task of discussing our high school experiences, a fellow mentor-in-training mentioned that she went to a high school that was so nerdy that the football players were outcasts. I asked her which high school she attended and she told me that she went to Stuyvesant High School. A surprised expression crossed my face. My uncle and brother attended Stuyvesant and Stuyvesant's rival, Brooklyn Technical High School, respectively, and those two men are the most passionate football enthusiasts that I know. "A bunch of Chinese and Jewish boys would not make a good football team," said the white alumna with a smirk. (Stuyvesant is known for having a large Asian student population.)
I uncomfortably looked around at the other mentor trainees. The others probably felt similar discomfort and instead of courageously leaning into the awkwardness and saying "that's offensive," everyone smiled "politely." The young alumna was spared the shame of being challenged about her racial callousness. Those around her, including myself, were safe from being called "unable to take a joke." If I could go back in time, I might point out that her comment was absurd, and that saying Jewish and Chinese people are inherently bad at sports is no less offensive than suggesting that black and Hispanic people are less than capable with respect to math or science. But again, in my mental battle, cowardice defeated courage.
Many would argue that the incidents that I describe are trivial; people were just making harmless jokes. But racism, especially the internalized racism reflected by the barber and Sheryl Underwood, is not always as obvious as a hooded Ku Klux Clansman burning a cross on a black family's lawn. It can be more subtle, but just as pernicious, when it manifests as the unacknowledged racial assumptions that underpin jokes.
These assumptions are often associated with bullying. Moreover, they have far-reaching consequences because they limit ambitions through stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the risk that a person will conform to a negative stereotype about his or her group. When individuals succumb to stereotype threat, the world loses out on great talent. What would have happened if Jeremy Lin had succumbed to his bullies and given up basketball because "Asians aren't athletic"? What would have happened if Ben Carson had not gone to medical school because "blacks are only good at sports"?
In the days after the barbershop incident with my son, I knew I couldn’t take back those moments in which I’d stayed silent. But I didn’t want my children to grow up to be people who stayed silent.I want my kids to develop a zero-tolerance attitude with respect to teasing, bullying, demeaning comments and insensitive jokes—whether they’re directed at them or at anyone else. It is true that by speaking up they will run the risk of being perceived as too serious, pompous and unable to take a joke. It is also true that they may be perceived as ill-mannered for consistently creating scenes and causing embarrassment to others. But these are small prices to pay with respect to promoting a culture of tolerance and raising the collective consciousness.
One of my favorite thinkers, Maya Angelou, has said that having the courage to challenge someone who is making a demeaning remark takes practice. Oprah often describes an incident in which Angelou puts someone out of her house for telling a racist joke. Angelou admits that she was not always capable of that, but she says that courage is muscle that she exercised.
I'm still building my courage muscles. But I’m hoping I can give my kids a head start.
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