March 26, 2013

Afro Puffs, Politics and Privilege


by Erica Thurman of EricaThurman.com
 "So what? You wear your hair natural. Now, add darker skin to that. Add a different physique. How much harder do you think things would be for you? You’ve been acting like there is an equal playing field even among people who occupy the same category of oppression. The fact is that you’re a skinny, light skinned Black girl with curly hair and that buys you lots of passes in your everyday life."
 I felt like he had slapped me. My friend wasn’t done yet. He continued, “What you’ve been doing is speaking on behalf of a group that you don’t belong to. You don’t know the experiences of darker skinned, heavier Black women because you are shielded by the politics of beauty.”

Resistant to my friend’s claim, I pushed. I explained that as a Black female, my looks don’t conform to standard notions of beauty. I further stated that being Black in America didn’t buy much in the way of social or political access. My friend responded by telling me that I was literally looking at this issue as if it were just Black and/or white and that I was ignoring the “degrees” of acceptance based on skin tone and physical appearance. Essentially, he was telling me that I was blinded by my own privilege.

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Privileged? Of course I recognize privilege. That is what I do professionally. I examine privilege and oppression and the roots causes of discrimination in the United States of America with an understanding that most people, even those who fall within multiple categories of oppression, have some sort of privilege. For example, a poor woman of color might have religious privilege if she is a Christian in this country. An uneducated man might have heterosexual privilege if he identifies as such. A Muslim female might have economic privilege. My point is that I have always understood that I occupy many privileged categories.

Still, he had me there. Running through my categories of privilege (Education. Religion. Language), I recognized that I have always been comfortable acknowledging the privileges I have the power to change. I was far more reluctant to acknowledge the categories of privilege obtained by birth, those beyond my control (outside of maybe plastic surgery). In that moment, I understood why so many groups are resistant to the idea of being considered privileged. I felt what dominant groups must feel when they are sitting in one of my workshops. I finally got why those workshops often culminated in heated discussions and flaring emotions. The idea that I have access to and opportunity based solely on my physical appearance did not sit well with me. In short, I felt like I had done something wrong. That feeling was guilt and as I tell my clients, such a feeling is counterproductive to progress because it often paralyzes us. I felt the immediate result of that paralyzing emotion because I considered whether I should stop writing about certain issues altogether.

I would be remiss to not admit that living in such privilege sometimes causes a disconnect. These issues are so pervasive that we all become socialized to conform to the norms of such. As illustrated, I am not immune. It is important to routinely recognize our privilege and to use them to eradicate categories of oppression. The issue is not that we have privilege; the issue is what we do with it. Like education. I have two options. I can either feel guilty about educational privilege or I can use that privilege to bring awareness to issues of oppression, even if those experiences are not always my own. I’m choosing the latter and I am grateful for the honesty of friends who are willing to call me out. More often than not, teachers must be taught.

You might be asking how this relates to hair. In the last few weeks I have had many discussions about whether natural women are truly embracing their texture or whether many naturals are simply feeding the economy in an attempt to capture "perfect curls." I staunchly argued that we have embraced our hair. Perhaps arrogantly, I implied that all Black women with natural hair have experiences similar to mine. I was speaking from a place of privilege. I spoke from a space where discrimination against natural hair is mitigated by the many forms of privilege I can call upon. I can wear a twistout during a presentation because I have the privilege of working for myself. I can wear my Afro to a presentation because I know that my academic/employment privilege buys me a pass. I can walk out of the house Diana Ross style because I can expect that someone will compliment me on my hair. I am privileged.

To be clear, I don’t know the plight of every Black woman in America. I can’t speak to the experiences of being a Black male in America. 9/11 didn’t make it dangerous for me to be vocal about my religion. I cannot speak for my beautiful sistas of a darker hue or for those blessed with curves. I don’t know the journey of every sista with natural hair. What I can do is bring attention to the injustice of oppression of any group in hopes of eliminating such categories. I am grateful for the reality check and the reminder of how painful these discussions can be for members of both dominant and oppressed groups. I don’t ever want to speak for you. My purpose here is to speak with to you and with you. Should you ever feel that my position is privileged, please, in loving honesty, call me out.

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