Are You Sure?

Natalie Dulka

I have always been told I have beautiful hair, cool hair, awesome hair, [insert your adjective here] hair.  It’s this giant mass of 3B type hair.  For those of you who aren’t well-versed in cosmetic jargon, 3B curls are also described as S-shaped, mixed diameter, or Botticelli curls.  A mane of unruly curls springs from my scalp with little rhyme or reason; some pieces are wavy, carving a snake-like path down my profile.  Other curls are as tightly wound as a metal spring in a retractable pen.  My hair is one step down from being classified as “natural” or “textured,” terms generally reserved for people of color.  I, however, am a white woman.

My mother is a 100% French, northern Minnesotan farm girl who has sported a brunette, boyish, wavy pixie cut since seventh grade.  My father is a collection of Anglo-Saxon European heritages culminating in a very stereotypical balding, middle aged white man.  

I have blue eyes and a Polish nose and cute little baby doll lips.  I am short and curvy and I talk with my Italian hands.  Despite all of these features that scream “Caucasian,” I am regularly mistaken for a woman of color.  The hair on my head has always been a defining feature of mine and an impactful part of my identity.  In the past few years, I have come to address the phases I went through on my hair journey as my four hair eras.

I was five and already had an impressive head of dark, curly hair.  My mother brought me into Kid’s Hair for a trim.  The hairdresser, a young woman with blue eyeshadow and hoop earrings, was smacking her gum the whole time.  As she raked her fingers through my hair, wreaking havoc on the pain receptors in my scalp, she turned to my mom and asked “Is your husband black?”  Before my mom could answer, the barber pulled my hair again and said “I just asked because your daughter’s hair is so textured.  Like black people hair.”  

At the time, I had very little perception of race. I knew that my dad looked like me and my mom.  I knew he had skin that matched the “flesh” Crayola crayon.  But I also knew that our next door neighbor, Mary, had skin that looked like chocolate and I knew she was called “black” even though she was really just light brown.  And I knew that her skin made her different from me and my family.  When we went home, my mom rehashed the whole thing to my dad. When I think back on it now, it wasn’t a “Let me tell you about this funny thing that happened today” kind of story.  When discussing my “black people hair,” my parents were upset.  They were insulted that their white child was mistaken for a mixed one.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents aren’t racist.  At least, not overtly.  But, no matter how accepting they are of people of color, my parents were still unsettled by the idea that their daughter could be seen as anything other than white.  Their indignation is, to some extent, understandable.  We live in a society shaped by systematic racism; white people generally have it easier than people of color and all parents want the best for their child.  No parent wants their kid to struggle through life justifying her identity and experiencing discrimination and oppression.  I get why my parents were upset when they realized my perceived race

was different than their own: they wanted what was best for me, and what was best

for me was to be white.

When I was in third grade, my parents moved me from Catholic school to public school.  

On the first day of class, I was rocking my favorite pink t-shirt and a pair of white jean

shorts with a butterfly embroidered on the back pocket.  I was feeling pretty fly until I

was approached by a girl in my class who asked me what I was.

“A penguin.  Can’t you tell?”  I replied.  I was a sarcastic little shit then, too. Flustered, the girl rephrased, asking me what my heritage was.  My answer was well rehearsed at that point in my life (I had been asked so many times, I should have just had cards made): “I’m half French, one quarter German, and one quarter a mix of Italian, Polish, Irish, and Czech.”

“You’re not Puerto Rican?” She asked.  “I thought you were Puerto Rican.  My neighbor is Puerto Rican and you look a lot like her.”  When I told her that, no, I was white, she asked me the most absurd question I had ever been asked in all of my eight years: “Are you sure?”

We treat others differently based on the assumptions we can make about them.  We most commonly treat people poorly because of the race we assume them to be.  When race is perceived incorrectly, identities are undermined and people are treated poorly because of it.  People like my parents – people who grew up sequestered from diversity – cross the street when they approach black men.  They assume that, because he is dark, he is dangerous.  

In the same way, people see me and assume that, because I have what could be mistaken

for an afro on my head, I have a dead-beat dad and a poor work ethic.  It’s not aggressive mistreatment.  It’s not always even overt.  But it’s there.  People treat me differently when

they think I’m mixed.

During the beginning of my years in junior high, I began telling people about some of these interactions.  I’d bring it up to my friends over lunch and the response I would get was always something along the lines of “you’re just overreacting.”  I was bullied in middle school – girls excluded me because I looked dirty, boys pulled my hair and ran away calling “Gorilla Girl” over their shoulders – but it was written off as kids being kids, boys being boys.  A classmate told me that my “afro” was gross and I should shave my head.  Another classmate took it upon himself to inform me that my “natural” hair wasn’t cute and that I should “get rid of it.”  The people in my life told me that the treatment I was receiving was normal and a non-issue.  It wasn’t a race thing to the teachers and classmates who heard about it – it was a middle school thing.  But it wasn’t just boys being boys.  The message that my hair was unappealing came at me from every angle.  It was insisted upon in movies like The Princess Diaries that curly hair wasn’t good hair.  Not a single celebrity or model in the magazines at the grocery store check-out had hair like mine.

In seventh grade, to better fit in, I started straightening my hair.  My mother hated it.  She lamented that my hair was so beautiful and special.  My siblings all have, at most, slight waves.  She recited a list of drawbacks, both real and fabricated, of straightening one’s hair.  “It’s damaging!  You’ll go bald and look like your father,” she cried.  My mother pleaded with me to let my hair be what God had intended it to be but there was no moving me.  

What my mother didn’t understand as she tried to talk me out of “destroying those beautiful curls” was that when my hair was straight, boys flirted with me and the popular girls talked to me.  When my hair was straight, I felt beautiful.  When my hair was straight, I looked white.

For the following three years, I would wake up every morning two hours earlier than need be in order to straighten my hair.  There is something extremely degrading about standing in the mirror for hours on end, getting cramps in your hand, burning your scalp, and breathing in copious amounts of hair spray in the name of beauty and still not being “pretty” after that.  For three years, I spent hours proverbially punishing myself with a hot iron for being born with something that wasn’t “normal.”  My self-worth revolved around the effectiveness of a fancy piece of ceramic.  I had Stockholm syndrome for my flat iron.

In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, tragedy struck: my flat iron broke.  It up and quit after three years when I was halfway through my daily ritual of burning my hair into place.  After panicking and trying to revive the poor, overworked beauty tool for at least a half an hour, I accepted defeat, wet my hair down so it was all one texture, and went to school.  It was terrifying.  My high school friends had never seen me without my hair straightened and most of them didn’t even know I had curly hair.  I entered the building with hood up and head down, holding on to the hope that no one would see me all day.  I made it about twenty feet in from the door before a friend of mine came up and said “Did you get a perm?  I love it!”  All day, I received nothing but positive reviews on my natural hair.  I decided I wouldn’t bother buying a new flat iron.  Encouraged by parental pleas and the praise of my peers, I was going to wear my hair the way God intended it from that day forward.

After rocking the natural curls my mother had so dearly missed for about a month,

I realized people were treating me differently again.  It wasn’t classmates mocking me or hairdressers asking for an in depth family history this time.  It was strange men on the street calling after me, telling me to bring my “Latina ass” over to them.  It was elderly couples sitting anywhere but next to me on the city bus.  It was the looks I got when I walked into a store with my little sister – all eyes assuming I had made bad choices and was raising a kid

on my own.  Near the end of the school year, I auditioned for a production of Hairspray and was called back for the role of Little Inez – a black girl.  I told the director that I couldn’t play Little Inez because I wasn’t black and he looked at me like I was crazy.  “You’re not black?”  

He asked.  “Are you sure?”

In my frustration, I went to my hairdresser and told her to dye my hair blonde.  I wanted to look white.  I was tired of being used as the “token person of color” in a group actually made up of 100% white kids.  I was tired of giving out my ethnic heritage at every turn.  I was tired

of being told I sounded so white for a colored girl.  I was tired of being told I looked “exotic.”  

I dyed my hair to look my race not because my race is superior but because I didn’t want to

be mistaken for someone I wasn’t.  My actions and words were perceived as the actions and words of a person of color. I was assumed to have the lived experience and authority that a person of color has on certain topics that I just didn’t have.  Because of the white/black racial history and tension in our culture, it is inappropriate for white people to speak for or as people of color.  I am not entitled to the attention and privileges that go with being a person

of color because I don’t feel the weight of the oppression people of color face.  I didn’t want

to speak with a voice that was not my own.

What I discovered after the bleach had set and the foils had been detangled from my curls was that I had the makings of a social experiment sprouting from my scalp.  As a blonde, doors were opened for me, teachers liked me more, and I got hired more consistently.  As a white girl who looked white, boys flirted with me, elderly couples told me that I was “such a lovely young woman,” people assumed I was babysitting when I had a kid with me.  As a white girl, I forgot what it felt like to be treated with disdain.  I forgot what it was like to be treated like a blemish on the face of our Euro-centric society.  I forgot I had ever been discriminated against due to my perceived race.

After graduating, I moved from my fairly diverse hometown of Minneapolis to the overwhelmingly Scandinavian small city of Moorhead with a head of very convincingly

blonde hair.  In Minneapolis, even as a blonde, questions about my race still came up once

in a blue moon but, upon settling in at college, the questions stopped almost entirely.  In a

city like Moorhead, where there is little diversity and even less interracial marriages and children, the assumption made about a blonde girl with curly hair was that she was white.  Maybe Irish.  But definitely white.

I made a new home in this town that didn’t even talk about race, let alone question it.  I started thinking that maybe all of that mistreatment I had dealt with was just in my head – an exaggeration on the part of an active imagination and a faulty memory.  So I didn’t think twice before dying my hair back to its natural dark brown.  My partner, who had met me during my blonde days, loved it.  “I always preferred brunettes,” he said.  But as much as he was enticed by it, I hated it.  I didn’t know why, at first, but then I realized people were less willing to talk to me at parties.  I, all of a sudden, was asked what ethnicity I was a lot more often.  All of a sudden, men cat called me with more vigor than before.  I got shifty eyes from store managers and young mothers at parks.  A friend of mine who had met me while I was blonde asked me why I dyed it brown.  I told her that it was my natural color and I wanted to see if I liked it so I could stop spending money on bleaching my hair.  She nodded, reached out, touched my hair, and asked “So this is your natural color, huh?  Are you sure you’re not mixed?”

Having my identity questioned has always been one of the more irritating aspects of my

life with curly hair.  Being quizzed by strangers and people I’ve known for years about my heritage so that they can feel good about debunking the myth of my whiteness is

extremely frustrating.

After a few months as an adult with brown curly hair, I noticed a lot more micro aggressions than I did as a kid.  When I was young I didn’t quite grasp all of the instances of changed behavior due to my hair.  I missed the weight of comments like “You would look like Hermione if you weren’t so dark” and “Do you even know your real father?”  On the last day of exams that year, I was packing stuff into my truck to move home for the summer.  Carrying 2 totes full of junk from my room, I passed a group of boys who all slowed down, watched me walk by and began yelling after me.  “You steal that shit, baby?”  “You don’t need to be a thief if you get with me.  I’ll buy you the finer things you never had.”  “Ay, lil’ mama, don’t be rude.  Put a smile on that pretty face.”  After crying in the front seat of my car for a few minutes, I put the key in the ignition and drove to my hairdresser, demanding that he bring me back to blonde.

I chose to damage my hair with heat and bleach for so many years because I was told that my hair wasn’t beautiful.  Our culture told me, for so many years, that my “natural” and  “textured” hair was disgusting.  I was convinced that the thing that is so central to who I am was unsightly.  Pushed by “color blind” directors and the sudden appearance of street harassment in my life, I started bleaching my hair.  I fell into comfortable ignorance about perceived race and the mistreatment of those who look different.  I returned to the natural color and texture of my hair and I loved the way I looked, but I hated the way I was treated.  So I went back to blonde.  I’m sure I always will.