And This Is Why I Love The Bus

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.

NYC bus

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. 

old people on bus

8 thoughts on “And This Is Why I Love The Bus

  1. I have thick, straight, slippery hair and I grew up in a fairly multicultural setting. I was often jealous of my black friends’ kinky hair (in varying levels of coarseness, curliness, softness, you name it) because their braids never fell out and their hair could get BIG. Of course, many of them would perm their hair to make it sleeker, flatter, ie. “better.” I would be told with a fair amount of frequency that I had “good hair” by girls who routinely would have their hair processed until their scalps bled to make it “good.”
    Good hair, the best hair, on my black girlfriends was always the straightest, longest, most white-looking hair. That always upset me. So many of my black girl friends cannot imagine their natural hair to be beautiful because it isn’t soft like my hair and the hair of other white girls, so compliments on my “good hair” always make me feel kind of gross. I have no answers to your questions, but I can relate to your befuddled feelings in this situation. Way to go with starting this dialogue!

  2. I’m not sure how closely you read these comments but I’d like to offer you my own opinions of what you’ve written. First off, I think the “white guilt” or whatever it is your obviously trying to work through here is very problematic. Like your last post this recent musing seems oddly self-congratulatory and narcissistic. POC don’t need you to feel bad for them or empower them, it comes off as super patronizing and alienating. For a more eloquent argument about the problematic aspects of white guilt. I would recommend you watch this video :

    Reading your last few posts I get the feeling that you’re trying desperately to stay relevant. This reads as an attempt to keep capitalizing on the internet notoriety you received from your controversial first blog posts, long after you’ve realized that you can’t keep blogging about the things that got you so much attention in the first place. Admittedly I, like many others I assume, was first made aware of your blog post through an article on a racial justice website and kept coming back to read your updates because they were fascinating in the way in which blatantly offensive and ignorant things on the internet sometimes are. I’m assuming thats why there was so much interest in your blog, and now that you can no longer carry on with your offensive experiment I’m assuming that interest will sharply drop off.

    I do not mean this as a personal attack, but this is the only reason I can come up with as to why you feel the need to keep writing about race. I never thought I’d be the person to say “shut up about race already”, but please please please STOP WRITING ABOUT RACE. There’s still something about the way you go at it and the fact that your new found “enlightenment” came from such an ignorant and entitled place that leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. And frankly, there are racial justice bloggers who have incredibly more nuanced, intelligent, and enlightening things to say who’ve been writing for years about these issues and not from a place of such woefully ignorant privilege. I’ve decided to no longer check in with your blog because frankly I don’t want to give you the page views anymore. I wish you luck, and if you’re really interested in writing about race you should check out these blogs and consider trying and sending your writing there so you can finally shut down this whole tired experiment.

  3. Here is what I hope: that, that little girl was able to compliment your hair while still loving her own.

    That’s not all I have to say on this matter, but it is all I will share for now.

    And let me add that your reflection and honesty is truly inspiring. You share the thoughts of a person who wants to grow and change for the better. Great post.

  4. I knew Michelle through the fashion magazine she created at the University we both attended. I designed the layout with her sister after Michelle graduated, and knew not much of her except for the fact that she was intensely passionate about what she loved. I’ve been reading through this entire firestorm her blog has created and I just don’t understand how so much hate and negative feelings have been spawned from a place of intentional love and admiration.

    I am also a white ‘privileged’ female who never experienced feelings of racism to or from a person who came from a background that was different from my own. When I was 10, my mother married an African American man who continued to be my father-figure for another ten years until they sadly divorced. I went to countless family functions, including a huge Williams family reunion, and I never once felt unaccepted, or was un-accepting of anyone in his family, who was now also my family.

    I’m remembering now, this time in 5th grade when we were asked to play wax figures of anybody famous we admired, and then dress up and emulate this celebrity as sort of a show-and-tell for our parents to come and see. They would press our ‘button’ and we would become animated and speak a little blurb we wrote about the famous person we were impersonating. I picked Diana Ross, and my awesome African American grandmother leant me one of her old afro wigs to wear for the occasion.

    Not for one second did I think, or ANYONE think that a little ten-year-old girl was being racist, nor did my new grandmother think twice before lending a piece of her culture to me to wear. Not for one second do I believe that Michelle ever had a single bad intention, or comes from anywhere but a place of love and admiration for a culture other than her own.

    I think everyone needs to CHILL OUT and let it be. LET IT BE. We’ve all gotten a bit of education about how some others feel about certain cultural differences, but isn’t the point of moving forward EMBRACING our differences? It must be exhausting for these people to keep pointing out how stupid and ignorant they think Michelle is being. If she’s not mocking the Afro, then she’s not mocking YOU. She loves the afro. She loves YOU.

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