White people: It’s O.K if you don’t understand

I must say: I grew up in a predominantly white town which was labeled number 10 in an opinion article titled “The Top 10 Redneck Towns in Virginia”. As a second grader (or what feels to me now like second grade) I was taught about slavery and how it was wrong and how it ‘made no sense’. At that age I was not told why it happened, instead I was clear that the U.S was past it. I remember feeling that slavery was something not to talk about.  I deduced from the context of slavery and the teachings of “everyone is equal” that black people were just like white people (me). black=white. I then looked over at the one black girl in our class of white (I imagine every other person in the class did the same) and thought:

“she’s just like me”.

Although good intentioned, I think this may be what mislead me moving further into my life and racial understanding. My interpretations of the teachings stimulated me to ignore race entirely, because I felt that acknowledging skin color differences would be acknowledging slavery which would be acknowledging something that ‘made no sense’ which was wrong. Treating someone differently because they were a different skin color was wrong. So as a 2nd grader who has never seen racial injustice before, what am I thinking? I’m thinking: I don’t want to be wrong. So not wrong = not treating people differently. But they are different. They look different-BUT… I don’t want to acknowledge their differences because that’s treating them differently and that’s wrong. So if I want people to like me then I do what I’m supposed to do. So I kept telling myself [in regards to the black girl in class]:

She’s the same as me. She’s the same as me. She’s the same…

I lived a big chunk of my life this way. Instead of learning about the differences in historical European vs. African culture, about the slave culture and the culture within the civil rights movement…Heck, even instead of learning about the biological differences in skin color and hair texture:

I learned that we were all the same.

In high school I had a few black friends who I treated as such…as though their race didn’t exist. Joking about race with them was fine because it wasn’t just slavery and racial mistreatment that was [seemingly] in the past…race was in the past.

It wasn’t until I went to college…. until I joined a Native American sorority, that I saw the importance of acknowledging racial differences.

However, Native American knowledge wasn’t enough for me to be completely politically correct when it came to African American culture, which I found out pretty quickly when I arrived in Ghana.

First, it was a debate about white girls wearing box braids.

Now, I had wanted box braids for some time. I wanted them simply because I love the hair style… I think it’s pretty. Upon sharing this with some friends I was quickly confronted with: “No, do not do that. I would not respect you”.

This can lead to a lot of emotions. White people, I understand. However, it’s not their fault you don’t understand. It’s not your fault you don’t understand, either. At the end of the day, I simply didn’t understand. So I asked.

And asked.

And asked…

Until I finally understood, enough, to be content. It wasn’t just a hair style. African tribes had (and have) major significance around their hair. Braids and cornrows were also used throughout slavery and became a significant part of slave culture.

That said, this is a confusing issue as there are many people in support of white  box braids on the stand that it is cultural exchange. White people, this happens. Not every person of a minority skin tone is going to agree on an issue relating to them. Not every white person agrees on any issue, at all, so don’t let this invalidate anyone’s point of view. What’s important to see is the only stake I have in this debate is an agenda to do my hair how I want. It’s not my culture…my everyday life…nor the life of my grandparents and great grandparents that’s being discussed and affected.

I decided no to the braids.

The next thing that happened, and the most embarrassing,  was the dread incident. We found a dread on the ground at the international hostile. I thought it was funny, almost like seeing a dead fish on the ground. I mean, hair was just hair, right? (WRONG, TOTALLY FREAKING WRONG).

I sent a picture of it over our group chat on Whatsapp as a joke, asking if it was Qualo’s (The only one in our group with dreads).

This offended him. I didn’t really know why, but I felt terrible.

I mean, not just like, ah I didn’t mean to offend you man. But like, “Holy crap I’m a terrible person and everyone hates me” kind of feeling. Mixed with confusion. It appeared as though I was in second grade again and I: “wasn’t supposed to do that”. I had broken the rules when I value so much following them. The fact that I didn’t know what I was doing when I did it didn’t matter, I should have known. I was stunned, I couldn’t move.

So white people, I get it. Any escape from this, even blaming Qualo for being offended, is relief. However, there’s more whole, healthy and satisfying ways to resolve this feeling. I recommend being authentic.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think about the consequences of my actions. I know this isn’t that serious, but I want everyone to know I am ignorant. If I do anything to offend you, please educate me. Thank you”.

Is the message I sent to the group before the sweaty tears of my past escaped my eyes.

And that was it.

I asked my friends (and of course Qualo) if there was anything left incomplete about the issue of which they said it wasn’t even a “thing” to them anymore. In the process, I learned why what I did was taken offensively.

Now, lets talk about the debate over the offense Qualo took over a joke about his hair. It seems to me that every time a minority group is offended, it becomes a debate over whether they should be offended or not. Why? The only stake I have in this debate is an agenda to avoid being wrong, and I want to avoid being wrong because I care about what other people perceive of me. Which includes Qualo… he is a person and he was offended. So why would I rally up a bunch of people against his offense taken for my own security, rather than taking a concern for his security? It’s not my hair, culture, history and life being discussed. Who am I to dictate how someone else reacts?

Again…The only stake I have in this debate is an agenda to avoid being wrong…

So white people: It’s ok if you offend someone unknowingly. However, if you don’t use the moment to get clarity for yourself you are continuing to hurt yourself and the people around you. To use the fact that you don’t understand as your grounds to continue offending, or to not be around those offended, etc. is completely unfair.

They are offended based on their history. Not simply the history of their ancestors but their lived history. Your only stake in the debate is your agenda and most of the time your agenda is to avoid being wrong!

You’re not in 2nd grade anymore. You can ask about someone’s hair, clothes, history and culture without being wrong. So start asking. And please… stop hating.

 

 

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