Wow, I’m still reeling over the events of Tuesday night! Red, white and blue glitter is running through my veins… this country is on the move, baby!!! What a president. Seriously, what a guy – I’ve watched his speech at least 3-4 times by now. What a country we live in, we are so lucky! It’s strange then, that it’s actually the events of Monday night I can’t shake from my mind.
I had just published my knapsack on Monday afternoon, melting in a mind-boggling whirlpool of guilt and possibility, with all types of hair clogging the drain. My wavy, air-dried blond locks hiding under a fedora, I walked down the street wondering – even more than I do on a usual day – about the unspoken struggles of those passing by.
Soon, I stood swaying back and forth on a shoulder-to-shoulder, tushy-to-tushy m14D crosstown bus to improv class. We were all on this crowded bus together, but I wondered… where was everyone’s real journey taking them?
Breaking a pensive moment, my eyes lock with a pair of glossy, thoughtful, smiling ones a few feet away. They belong to a little girl I place at about nine years old, very dark in complexion, with long, pink-beaded braids. We exchange a smile. Conversation rarely sparks up on public transportation, but when it does I love it. The little girl says: “I like your hair.”
Wait, what? I must be hearing things. I’m wearing big sparkly earrings so I realize that must be it. “Oh, thank you!” I say as I pull my earrings out from behind my hair. “You said earrings, right?”
“No, I like your hair.”
My jaw drops. I don’t remember the last time anyone randomly complimented my hair on public transportation. Let alone now, on this day, after everything I have just internalized and revealed to the world. A little girl who could have an afro looks at me, decides she liked my hair, and tells me so. Does she read my blog? She trollin’!?
“Thank you so much!” I explode, embarrassed to imagine everything she might be thinking. “I love your hair, too.” My god, if she only knew how much! She and her mom smile at me. My response surely just sounds like dumb obligatory compliment reciprocation. She is quiet again. I am upset. I want to tell her about my fro obsession. I refrain.
As the girl and her mom are exiting the bus a few moments later, I look the little girl in the eye again and reiterate: “Hey, seriously… I LOVE your hair. It’s beautiful.” It is. It SO is. I feel ashamed, knowing she may still not believe me.
Just mere weeks ago, I may have thought of this chance encounter was just that. A very sweet compliment, and a beautiful New York City moment of strangers crossing paths on a crosstown bus. But instead, I felt guilty. I had so many questions. Has this little girl been taught that my hair is superior to hers? Does she wish her hair could be like mine? Does her mother make her feel bad about her hair? I pray not. I feel horrible projecting such things. My mind was now putting her in a marginalized place, as I felt bad for what may or may not be her situation. After all I have read from you, I can’t help but beat myself up about it.
This incident made me think back to high school. I used to volunteer as a mentor at a public elementary school in Paterson, New Jersey a couple times a month. Paterson is a very low-income city made up of mostly minorities, and a good majority of the students stay until 6pm in the after school program. During these hours I’d help third and fourth graders understand math equations, we’d make up games to learn spelling, and we’d share stories about life. It was surely one of the highlights of my high school career.
As part of the mentor program, we learned that most of these children come from poor families and broken homes, and it was important to be sensitive.
My sense of sensitivity always came with ease. I just had so much fun with these kids! My mentality was, when I hung out with them, let’s let the socio-economical walls flatten in our minds and just connect. Let me teach you like I would teach my sister. Let me treat your life situation with deep respect, but not with pity because you deserve to be treated, in my mind, as equal. Although my heart would often break at their words, I would try not to let myself “feel bad.” I’d channel only love, positive energy and “FEEL GOOD” their way.
Life is good! People need other people who dignify their experiences and feel inherently happy for them, because happiness is contagious.
So now, I return to my life-casted movie moment on the m14D crosstown bus. I have questions I’ve been pining over, and I’m hoping you guys can weigh in:
Was it productive for society – and for the little girl – that I felt guilt echo through my body when she paid me a compliment on my hair? Did my deep worry for the status of her feelings spark a deeper connection between us, or did it bear negative, dispiriting energy in my response? And if she knew I was so concerned about her days later, would this make her feel special, or put her up on a pedestal of unwanted pretense?
Or, would it have been more productive for society – and for the little girl – if I took this compliment at face value as I might have weeks ago? By accepting the compliment as simply that from an adorable, outgoing and friendly little girl on the bus, would I have subconsciously and systematically empowered her? Would my ignorance to her possible hair struggles have cheapened the interaction and belittled this country’s history, or would it have stood as a sign of equality and progress?
I know there are no easy answers (if any answers) when it comes to race relations, but I can’t wait to hear all your thoughts!
As a total side note, since I’m on the subject of amazing NYC bus moments, this one back in January was one of my favorites.