Here’s the Facebook post that started all this.
Ok I need my FB community to weigh in on this. Tonight I had the privilege of attending a performance by the Dance Theater of Harlem. Amazing! By far the most diverse crowd I’ve seen in Portland. Almost a third African American. As I sat waiting for the show to start, an older white man asked me to take my hair out of the bun that it was in because it was high and blocking his view. Before I share my response I’m curious how others of you view this interaction and what lens you would use to interpret it.
Since my fabulous FB community did weigh in- I decided to write out a more thorough response than could fit in FB comments.
Lens #1- The dude just wants to see the stage.
I get this. I was at a play last week and the women sitting next to me was holding the program on her lap and the stage light was glaring off of it in a weird way. So I politely asked her to put in on the floor. She did. I was no longer distracted. I believe this was part of what was going on.
Lens #2- My hair is less political than a Black woman’s hair
My first thought, after feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed by his request, was to be glad that he hadn’t made the request of a Black woman. I was in a theater full of Black women, wearing their hair natural, or in braids that were in buns much larger than mine. White people commenting on Black women’s hair is racially, politically, socially, and historically charged. I was annoyed, but sort of glad it was me instead of one of the women around me. Cause having a white guy tell you to change your hair, as one of the only Black folks in Portland, while you are waiting to watch the Dance Theater of Harlem is NOT where it’s at.
Lens #3- Cause he’s a man.
The women he was sitting with were clearly embarrassed by his request. They were laughing and I could hear them whispering “He asked her to take down her bun.” I don’t think that a woman would have asked me to do that. One, because a woman understands that another woman has put some time and energy into her appearance, and asking her to change it while she is in a fancy theater is pretty rude. But also because it assumes a type of power that women typically don’t exert over each other directly.
Lens #4- Intersection- Thank you bell hooks
One of my FB friends asked why I made a point of describing his age, race, and gender. I included that he was an older white man, because I believe it was the intersection of those identities that made him think he could ask me to take down my hair. Try to imagine a young Black man asking an older white woman to change her hairdo. It wouldn’t happen. The man’s request reflected privilege and it affected how I experienced it. If an elderly Korean woman had told me to take down my hair, I would have experienced it differently. Context matters.
Do I think he was trying to “oppress” me? Not intentionally. But did he act out of place that was both rude and privileged? Yes. And I’m left processing the interaction, while he is enjoying the show- without the obstruction of my bun.
Because though I was surprised by his request, I was caught of guard and just acquiesced. And then I spent the rest of the night trying to articulate why it bothered me so much.
I would have felt self conscious pushing back, and that would have made me feel embarrassed. I’m direct when I’m talking about other people’s oppression. But I turn pretty indirect and Asian American in my communication when I feel personally offended. Do I wish I was different? Do I wish I had had some sassy response in the moment? Sure. But that’s why it’s feisty thoughts- where I have time to put things in writing. Not feisty improv comedy that fights racial and gendered micro-aggressions.
In the big picture this is not a terrible interaction.
But when you add that to the older white guy in Starbucks who made weird slanty eyed gestures and asked me what I was from
And then you add that to the seminary class where the 8 (mostly white) guys talk non-stop for 2 hours, as the 4 women in the class sit silently.
And then you add that to the man who called me the other day and mansplained my job to me.
And then you add that to the consistency with which older white men in Christianity talk to and about ethnic minority women with a condescending and patronizing manner.
Then it becomes something more than just a rude guy at the theater.
When people tell me that I’m making something out of nothing- I want them to understand it’s a part of a much larger experience, not just an isolated incident.
But if my response to this man is really strong, I get interpreted as crazy and inappropriate, because people don’t see the buildup of multiple other “isolated” interactions. And getting dismissed only drives up the crazy.
Would love to hear more of your experiences with this type of thing.
And here is a photo of the bun of oppression. Thought much less cute than how I had it at the theater.