Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pride and Prejudice... and Multiracial Ambiguity

A few years ago, I visited Chicago after being away for three short months. I had recently moved to Kenosha, WI to serve a UU congregation as Director of Religious Education and teach a college course. I returned to the Chicago rarities I frequented, including Medici on 57th, Nookie's Tree and the Seminary Coop Bookstore. My hair was getting long, so of course I went back to my favorite guy-in-a-barbershop business on Broadway. I liked this barber for two reasons. First, he likes real conversation and always entertains. He's not like those college student stylists and Great Clips who feel they must work for their tips by chattering. This guy talks politics, religion and all the topics I appreciate. Second, he knows how to cut Asian hair, as he himself is Asian. There are so many cool hairstyles I have wanted, but my head would never cooperate.  I know I look Latino or Greek or Persian or something exotic--not Asian.  Still, I have strong Filipino genes. My hair needs to be cut either very short or very long. Anything in-between gives that legendary "Asian hair" that "white people hair products" simply cannot tame.  Sorry, Crew brand.  The shape of my haircut must never be blended, or else a horizontal spike grows around the sides of the head and on the top.

This guy went to Great Clips:

Frequenting this guy-in-a-barbershop storefront had always ensured my hair would look nice for the next three weeks, and I always complimented him on knowing what to do with my Asian hair.  He always thanked me and told me my mother raised me well.  I always tipped well.

You know how those Great Clips college students pretend they remember how you liked your hair cut, even though you have never visited that location before?  Well, an Onion News in Photos installment riffs on this phenomenon.  But, apparently, Great Clips is not the only forum for this white lie.  When I returned to my barber on Broadway shortly after leaving Chicago, he said he knew me and that he remembered how I like my hair.  I continued our normal discussions and told him I couldn't wait to have my "'Asian hair' cut" again.  There was silence in the barbershop.  Tension.  He paused for a few seconds, then he asked me what I said.  I repeated that he really knows how to cut "Asian hair."  For about eight minutes, he was silent.  No talk of politics or religion.  No eye contact, just trimming.  I tipped well, and he took my money.  I left the shop, though, with one of the worst haircuts I had ever received.  When I got back to Wisconsin, I had to do more trimming, but my bangs were too short, and the sides and top were all wrong...  Then I realized: he had probably been too proud to admit that he didn't remember me, though I had visited only a few months prior.  He pretended to know all about me, and I assume his intention was to make me feel welcomed.  When I resumed our conversations that he indicated he remembered, he probably picked-up on the fact that I was telling him that I like how Asian people cut my hair, but of course he missed the fact that I am also Asian.  I look Latino or Greek or whatever.  Taking his false cue, of course I did not remind him that I am, in fact, half-Asian and that my hair is a gift from my Asian mother.  He must have assumed that I am racist, and he punished me by butchering my hair in a way that would make any Great Clips stylist blush.

In our categorically oriented society, any exception of a norm requires apology and explanation.  We like normativity, which creates bigotry on both sides.  With heteronormativity, gay people have to "come out" (read: apologize) to their parents because they have no chemistry with people of the opposite sex, and bisexual individuals have to advocate for their existence to both heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities.  Mixed-race individuals can be rejected or unrecognized by those who share our ethnicity.  The barber on Broadway helped me understand that.  With racial purists, some white people pretend that Obama has nothing to do with them, and some black people pretend that any opposition to Obama is racially motivated.    People on both sides of the political aisle have said terrible things about Obama and race.  These violators are all bigoted and oppressive.  They are like barbers and stylists who make damaging assumptions about a multiracial President.  Whether they are non-mixed black or non-mixed white supporters of Obama, they tokenize Obama as a racial object to support, and that bigoted act dehumanizes Obama.  (Unfortunately, the mainstream media rarely attacks Obama's supporters as tokenizing and dehumanizing Obama.)  Similarly, non-mixed white detractors who create slightly clever bumper-stickers about "A village in Kenya is missing an idiot" are also dehumanizing Obama.  Both experiences are equally racist.

Given the above, I understand.  I really do.  Yet, I object.  We are no longer living at the dawn of the 1900's. We are in the second decade of the third millennium in the common era.  Regardless of whether one is completely heterosexual or perfectly gay, purely black or totally Caucasian, we need to get beyond this categorical thinking.  Our inability to do so creates destruction.  Whether it is political destruction or an embarrassing haircut, it is our pride that disables us.  Our pride makes us look weak and incapable.  When we embrace the full complexity of humanity, then we are strong.  Our failure to look beyond the binary or the categorical has created the political hostility during this national downturn. I have a feeling that this period of economic downturn and the racial contentiousness will be the reason posterity looks back at this generations as another "Great Depression."

1 comment:

  1. whoa. all from a bad haircut. :)

    Love u brother...glad to see you're doing well.