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  • Writer's pictureAmrita Maharaj-Dube

"Look at she ******* hair"

Updated: Feb 26

I never intended for this blog to be a personal memoir. But since my last post about an instrumental mentor in my life, Raviji, there has been much emotional unearthing. During that process of sifting through my past, wounds have started surfacing. There is one in particular that I stumbled upon, and I wasn't sure whether to write about it at all or let sleeping curs lie.

My curly hair.

No, having curly hair wasn't the wound God inflicted on me. Gosh no. It's the discrimination that comes with it. The fact that we give power to an ugliness inside us all, present in varying degrees. Let's be real. We all discriminate against each other.

The rich and the poor.

The 'pretty' and the 'ugly'.

Those with lighter complexions afraid of tainting their offspring's skin colour.

The never-ending doubts of bringing home someone from another race.

And because we are non-telepathic beings, we are saved from being exposed.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has unquestionably stirred an internal debate about my own thought processes. Not to trivialise the atrocities meted out against persons of African descent, but I feel compelled to add my voice to this broader narrative. I, as well as you, need to confront that ugliness that lives within us all.

So here's a story from an Indian, curly-haired girl growing up in Trinidad.

I remembered the pain of those stinging words. “Don’t go out with her. Look at her hair. Her father is probably some African man.” I didn’t mind that his family snubbed my medium brown complexion nor my acne riddled skin. Nor the fact that I was living in that uncouth place called 'Raghunanan Road'. I was prepared to fight.

But my curly hair. The scorn of being seen in public with someone who might be associated with the African race. He delivered this message to me one night on the phone. I was dressed, waiting to be picked up to hang out at a friend's house. As per his family's instructions, he never came for me. We were both young and fully dependent on our parents. Therefore, their final decision was THE ONLY decision. That was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I don't measure someone's character by their skin colour or hair texture, although as a child, I was taught to see things differently. I focus solely on one's attitude to life because physical attributes are pointless. I mean, when I look back at some of the tough decisions I've made at University, work, or in my personal life, appearances never solved anything. I've actually felt sorry for those who blissfully rode on the high waves of 'attraction', only to come crashing ashore when exams/projects/realities of life came around. And when they fell, they fell hard.

I was summed up as 'unworthy' and 'substandard' by his family because of something I had absolutely no control over. And it felt like to worst kind of human betrayal. The funny thing is, we betray each other, every single day...

I ended it, whatever 'it' was. I stopped trying to defend my curly hair. My 'impoverished' state. I couldn't change my past. I only had control of my future.

Lo and behold, my husband walked into my life whilst I was exiting this dramatic episode. This week, we celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary with two high-strung toddlers.

Then came the job interviews after graduating from University. One, in particular, was with a popular East Indian media house. The Managing Director interviewed me. I was excited about a prospective career in the media. Covering events. Interviewing leading voices from all walks of life on every possible subject matter. The places I could go. The person I could become.

But then there was an on-screen 'test'.

I was placed in front of several cameras. I remembered the blinding lights. The nerves. The excitement of seeing myself on a screen. Then the MD said to me, 'that very wavy hair... It looks odd. Can you let it down? No, don't bother, tie it back up.' There was a drastic change in his tone and facial expression towards the end of our session.

I had spent at least 30 minutes ensuring that my hair was the tidiest it could ever be that morning, wrapping it in a bun like I had done a million times because I refused to deal with the thick, often unwieldy curls. Somedays they were more cooperative than others, but that day was too important to focus on my hair.

My exit from the studio was rather awkward. My poor father had taken the day off to drive me around to my rounds of interviews and career meetings in Port of Spain, even being robbed at one point. All so that his last daughter could find a job (I did not have a car at the time nor was I an experienced driver). I never got the promised job nor did the MD return any of my calls. Things were going quite well until my hair 'got in the way.'

Perhaps the worst indiscretion came after my marriage. I thought that adulthood will make me less self-conscious about my hair. Then one day at a small family gathering, my husband's relative held my curls and remarked to others-

"Look at she niggery hair!"

I was shocked and embarrassed. The brazenness of that racist attack was 'joked off' and everyone continued with their evening but for me, it became a festering wound. Yes, I’m going to say this. It’s revolting that we can speak about another race in this abhorrent manner. But before we run off to put all East Indians on full blast for being the ultimate xenophobes, remember that at some point in our lives, we have conjured up ugly thoughts about each other. All of us. And too many times, we remain silent. We brush off these remarks without interventions of wisdom. We allow the monsters to grow.

Over the last five years, I've resorted to straightening my hair and invested in several magical gadgets and hair products to achieve the Kardashian look. At corporate events, I used to enjoy the praises from colleagues when they tell me 'wow, your hair looks amazing', praises rarely heard when I wore my regular curls to work. I remembered going into a hair salon in Lange Park a few years ago, and the owner looked at my hair with such disdain. "It's just so thick and curly. Let's just straighten it."

But the more I tried to change my hair, the more God started tapping into my conscience.

I can say now that I am arriving at a place of acceptance. And with that, the curls are coming back.

I have curly hair. I no longer weigh 102 pounds. My body has carried children. My greys, well, I'm still coping with that. But I have come a long way from these repulsive moments. The moments that I remember.

We all have some introspection to do. The monsters need to be starved. Our ignorance feeds them.

Me. Taken in July 2007. My hair isn't as curly, but still lovely!

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