There isn't a hairstyle I won't try: crochet braids, box braids, small 'fros, medium 'fros, a tapered cut, unicorn wigs... the list goes on. I'm not as bold as Rihanna, and I don't wear ankle-length inches like Nicki Minaj, but I still enjoy experimenting with different styles within my own comfort zone. It's mine (yes, bih, even the weaves and wigs), and after years of relaxing and fighting its texture, I'm proud of it in all its natural glory.
That's why I was so excited to get my hair woven into jumbo, gold-adorned box braids last week just in time for Afropunk (a festival in Brooklyn that celebrates Black art and culture). I was feeling good vibes all weekend with my new 'do. I made new friends and connected with old ones, shot lots of fantastic pictures at the park, and just basked in the glory of my Blackness. Things got even better when hairstylist Vernon François stopped by our offices a few days later — after styling Solange for her set at Afropunk two days prior! — and wove my braids into an intricate crown. I felt like a real-life queen.
That same day, I braved the rain to check out Lady Gaga's Joanne World Tour at Citi Field. Riding high off my magical weekend at Afropunk, I was looking forward to another concert that continued the self-love train. I stepped onto an elevator full of other young people adorned in glittery body paint, rainbow hair, and tattoos — feeling myself and my gorgeous metallic braids in the mix. And that's when a middle-aged white Monster approached me.
"I LOVE your braids!" she exclaimed, sticking her hand out and stroking them without a second thought. I jumped back and shot her a dirty look. "Thank you," I responded curtly in my strongest "fuck off" voice. I thought that the icy darts I was shooting from my eyes would hopefully send a message, but instead she kept grinning like an idiot and turned to her other white friend. "Aren't her braids ammaaazzzzing?" she asked. They nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
You know how Sex and the City's Charlotte York Goldenblatt had a speech prepared for the day she ever ran into Mr. Big? Well, I had a whole internal script locked and loaded if someone ever dared to touch my hair. But once I actually found myself in the situation, I was rendered speechless. And honestly, I was a little afraid. What if I had popped off on this lady? Would anyone back me up? Or would the entire elevator think that I was being too sensitive? Hell, would I even get kicked out of the venue?
In hindsight, rather than getting angry, I could've patiently explained to this uneducated woman why her action was a micro-aggression and an invasion of my bodily autonomy, and by touching my hair she was reinforcing centuries of racist behaviour. It could have been a learning moment for her, and a lesson in assertiveness for me. Instead, I did nothing and she left the elevator to enjoy the show. But I couldn't. The interaction stuck with me all throughout the night, even as Gaga did vocal acrobats — and actual acrobats — in the pouring rain.
I would have been upset regardless of where this encounter happened, but it felt especially hurtful considering the venue. Gaga has been vocal about her concerts being an inclusive place. When she started, she welcomed "the whole motherfuckin' rainbow," to quote her exactly. And you can see it in the crowds that showed up. There were tutus, crop tops, and leather pants; glitter eye paint and blue lipstick; an entire field of rainbow-streaked hair. But you didn't see anyone stroking someone else's faux lashes, or tugging at their blue-streaked wig. So why did people think it was it okay to touch my box braids? Even surrounded by people praising diversity and shouting lyrics of acceptance, I felt singled out.
It all reminded me of an experience I had at a previous publication where I attended an event with Solange, but was too afraid to actually speak. When I recapped the encounter to my editor later, she had one question for me: "Did you touch her hair?!" Umm... no. In fact, she literally has an entire song about why you shouldn't, I reminded her. She insisted, "I know, I know, but how could you help it? It's so fabulous!"
I laughed it off in the moment, but the lyrics to "Don't Touch My Hair" echoed in my head... just like they did last night. "They don't understand what it means to me. Where we chose to go. Where we've been to know." There's no way that the woman in the elevator fully understood my pain in that moment, but I'm hoping that my experience might educate others (who should know better) in the future. And if it ever happens to me again, I've practiced my speech this time.