Newly Minted

Newly Minted
Right after I was hooded

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Happy Holidays! My family celebrates Christmas, and it has been a Christmas full of joy and family. I am writing today from our oldest son's tattoo shop. Uncle Tom, Dad, the 20 year old and the 18 year old all got tattoos from me for Christmas. Today I am thinking about the occurrences of family and community. It is weird where you find family and community. But the sense of togetherness and love that is in this shop today ... we can add tattoo shops to the list of shops where people come together to create community.

I really appreciate the culture of the hair shop/barber shop. I grew up in an Italian community where the old Italian men would go each week to get their hair done. What that really was about was building, nurturing and maintaining community. I remember the first time my Irish husband went to the barber shop, he said he felt really out of place and they all started speaking Italian. "They got me in a chair, got me done, and got me out of there" was his account. "I was clearly a customer, not part of their community". At the time I thought he was just being oversensitive. It was, after all, only a barber shop.

My memories of hair shop culture were buried deep. They were painful and unpacking them for this blog has been difficult. The hair shop was one of the places where the intersection of my physiology and the reality of my race/culture/ethnicity not only intersected, but created painful dissonance in my identity development.

I remember my first hair shop experience. My mother was not inclined towards community or beauty, so I had never been to a hair shop. My mother struggled with the nappy mess herself. Having no experience in black hair, and being convinced there was no differences in people, therefore no differences in hair, I usually looked like a misplaced version of buckwheat from the little rascals. I know now that this was a discussion amongst the few black people who were in our community, how "this is why white women should not have black children". I still would take bad hair over being an orphan... just sayin' Anyway. My mother worked with a woman at the hospital who finally had "the talk" with her about how my skin and hair needed special care. So, at 12, we went off to the hair shop.

There was no community there, not for myself and my mother. I remember feeling very out of place and no one spoke to myself or my mother except the woman who did my hair. I didn't understand it then, I do now. People like my mother and myself did not belong in an African American hair shop any more than we did a white hair shop. Dissonance. My hair came out terrible, by the way. Because my hair was mixed, the softer hair burned and I had stubble. The hair dresser covered up the damaged hair by styling this big quasi bee hive. When we got home my mother had to shave my head. My mother cried the whole time and then held me, apologizing for not being the right kind of mother. She was the right kind of mother, she was MY mother.

I didn't attempt to do anything with my hair again until high school. I was in a fashion show. The choreographer took me to her house and straightened my hair. It looked AMAZING. When I returned home, my mother was so upset that someone would do my hair and not ask her permission. It wasn't that she didn't my hair done or that she did not want me happy; it was yet again being disregarded as my mother. I remember as the choreographer was doing my hair, she was saying something like "this is why white woman should not have black children". I wish I had been able to articulate to my mother that this was not how I felt. Instead, I never had curly hair again.

When I was 28, I was making good money and wanted to get my hair professionally done. I had learned, quite by accident, that the BET girls had fake hair. Yes, I was 28 before I realized that I could have THAT hair and that African American women had been getting weaves and wearing wigs for generations. Black hair care is an epistemological knowledge, I had no access to this knowledge. Communally, people have genealogical understandings of who and how they are. That includes things like traditions, rituals, food, language, and I now know, hair. What was not lost on me however is an appreciation for the hypocrisy that weaves and wigs signal in my lived experience. If a white woman should not have a black child, why do black women pay for white looking hair? (really it is Asian and south Asian hair, but we don't have time for THAT conversation right now).

In my sales district there was a black hair shop. Clearly forgetting my earlier experiences, I eagerly stopped in one day to see if I could get my hair done. The owner was lovely and stopped what she was doing to schedule my transformation... The woman in the chair was much less impressed. She yelled at the owner "don't you leave my head to go wait on that little white bitch". My illusion of blackness and black communal membership was shattered. I left the shop and never returned. Later that afternoon, I asked our tenant if she would help me negotiate this space. She informed me that she was not going to talk "nigger" for me and that just because I was "high yellow" (which I am not) and married to a white man (which I am) I thought that people needed to bow down to me, and then she slammed her door in my face. Sometimes learning really hurts. It took me a very long time to understand that I had asked for access to a community that I was not welcome in. I didn't know the codes. Many of the mixed race individuals I have interviewed, especially women, have shared this or a similar moment in their identity development. This is the moment when you realize you don't fit, you don't belong to either of the binary possibilities; and you are left drifting in between.

One of the realities of my mixed raceness and my inter-racial family is that my racial identity has been subject to manipulation, interpretation and shifting boarders that I do not control. I am well aware that my scholarship and the dissertation are my attempt to grab a hold of something, to develop the translation tools needed, to be in my own racial skin. The hair story, which has rectified itself now that I have found a shop where my intellect and humanity is appreciated, is one of the biggest pieces of my racial evolution. While J, the best hair artist ever, was putting in my most recent illusion (they don't call them weaves anymore?) I thought about this journey. Mostly, I thought about the rejection, how I did not have access to the racial and communal codes that would gain me access to "my people". I started to rethink who "my people" were supposed to be. My first trip to this hair shop, full of warm, loud, gorgeous women of color, women of every possible shape, size, and color; I remember the "what color is your husband?" question. I almost lied. I had been passing for about an hour and a half. I had been black. I had been a well off black woman, and no one had questioned it.

When I admitted that my husband was white, J said, I thought so, your mixed aren't you. I didn't understand the correlation, but then she said, Your hair has such a great texture, I knew you were mixed. And then the conversation moved on. It just moved on. My husband, my racial identity, my children, my upbringing; they were all just part of me, not all of me. I have made myself very unpopular by sharing honest accounts of the racism that I experience inside the black community. I often don't share because the backlash has been fierce. The reason sharing these experiences is so important is because it creates a space to think about what really shapes race, community, and communal membership. I liken it to a rulebook that we don't all have access too. These codes are the birthplace of our multiplicity, this is our illusion.

More soon...


  1. Great article on being mixed race, We would love to post some of your content on our Mixed Race UK website. Would that be ok?

  2. Noelle!

    HEY! i just saw your post on my blog. I totally did not see that before. I am so sorry for leaving so abruptly. It was a very confusing time and things happened quickly. However, I have made it to Brooklyn and it is my temporary home where it seems race is nothing because to me there are all shades and types of people. As a New Yorker I have been pretty used to that.

    how have you been!?