I heard the gasps of surprise before my video connected on my end. I knew that the people in the meeting could see me. The green light of my laptop camera shined. In those few seconds delay as I entered the Zoom room, I set my face and held my head still. My hair proceeded me into the digital space.
I’ve temporarily dyed my hair purple, and I knew it was going to be a thing.
I did it on purpose.
I wanted to change my hair.
And I KNEW
Not because people don’t have purple hair.
Not because I haven’t seen other college professors with purple hair.
Not because the purple I’ve chosen is so outrageous or striking as never to have been seen before by the well-traveled folks I’ve encountered today.
No — I knew that my hair would be a thing because, well, my hair is always a thing.
I’ve got stories upon stories. My hair is frequently the subject of sidebar speculation and outright inquiry, whether it is straight or in its naturally curly state. I get questions and looks and off-hand comments if my hair is in a bun or twists. And just last week, I showed up to my Zoom square with wet, freshly washed hair, and it took up 5 minutes of the meeting.
What had I done?
Showered too close to the meeting time.
Zoom, with its unblinking eye, seems to have created new possibilities of unabashed scrutiny. My students. My colleagues. The bosses. The collaborators and detractors can all stare at each other without any of the social prohibitions of long looks.
This moment has increased everyone’s audacity. Students lay in bed during class, or, a favorite of mine, walk around with the rest of the class at arm’s length like they’re vlogging on YouTube. Stodgy profs, once known for their rectitude, cook dinner during the guest speaker, and administrators let their pet ferret lounge on their shoulders during the meetings.
And we all stare at each other.
And if you are me, you might have noticed more folks say the things about your appearance they had formerly kept to themselves or saved for when they cornered you at the function and spilled their thoughts about your “wonderfully strange” hair out in a rush of breathy confession.
In the world of Black women with natural hair, I am not unique, and my hair is not particularly interesting — though I like to think I style it well.
But in academia, especially in the circles I navigate, I am an odd sight.
A different colored — yes, like brown and black are colors and like old words with fraught pasts are words for folks with my skin tone — a different colored face in the perfect patchwork of Brady Bunch goes to College squares.
I am not a blonde or brunette — though I guess I could choose one. My folks sometimes do.
My hair is
even when it is purple.
Big, expressive, versatile.
(now striped with shock white greys)
I used to be worried about how I would be seen. Is my hair too big? A distraction?
I spent years trying to figure out what professional meant for me as a Black woman who had no interest in chemically treating my hair. Years unlearning all the good advice I’d gotten about being presentable.
I learned early in my career — before the protections of tenure, before this recent round of social media-driven, widespread rejection of hair-based race discrimination by employers and schools — that people were going to comment and stare and wonder and ask and talk about what I looked like on any given day, no matter what I looked like on any given day.
I didn’t stop caring.
Sometimes the questions annoy, sometimes they amuse, sometimes they cut, sometimes they flatter.
They never fail to reiterate how my appearance in some spaces is always already seen as excessive even before I open my mouth, even when I’ve smoothed down my edges and pulled my bun low and tight.
Instead of growing immune or accepting — I have chosen most days to follow the instructions I got growing up in the hood — let them look and talk — but make sure you’ve decided what they can’t ignore.
Make sure that if the room is going to pause when you show up, you show up in a way that says,
I am here.
There is nothing passive-aggressive about a Black woman, who comes from where I am from, who has styled her hair and thinks it looks good. This hair was styled to be seen.
So now, on my own terms, in the ways that suit me, I show up.
Well-meaning folks once tried to train the Highland Park out of me, tried to suggest that getting rid of the big earrings and sartorial penchant for urban Black popular fashion would help me gain access to authority, to acceptance, to fit in.
They were wrong.
I am always already excessive here.
There are always watchful eyes — guarding, trying to limit, trying to predetermine my level of access.
A revelation — a memory from a childhood spent watching Black folks dress like the world wasn’t ugly and being beautiful any and every way they could — a memory — an imperative — a call to self-determination.
Excessiveness is my access.
I am not waiting for anyone else to tell me I belong or give me permission.
Just like I wouldn't wait around for certain folks to give me advice about what leave-in conditioner to use, I won’t be waiting around for them to decide if I should have access to the spaces that I am credentialed, experienced, skilled, and required to appear in.
Choosing to show up in the ways that I think best represent who I am, who I want to become, and that brings to mind the folks from where I’m from when I show up to these little Zoom squares, pushes against one of the lies that anti-Black racism tells — that other people’s discomfort with my mere appearance is my problem. It challenges the widely held and weaponized belief that there is any person in those little squares who can deny me access to spaces I belong in just as much as they do.
The purple is not to shock them.
The purple is for me.
For me to look at — to see and to find beautiful and extra in all the good ways I want to be seen and be beautiful and extra — while I do this work …