perm & prejudice

erika nichols


Ever since I was young, I’ve been getting a perm. It was like a mini-ritual that I began to look forward to because it made me feel America’s Next Top Model fabulous. But, to be technical, a perm is a chemical treatment that you put in your hair to style it. Watch any 80’s movie, and I can promise you that at least one of the characters had one. Normally a perm is meant to make your hair curly, but for my type of hair, it makes it silky and straight. By no means is it good for me, like I said it is a chemical and it sure burns like one, but for me it's worth it. Sure, my hair suffers and it could be considered a mild brand of torture, but I looked like Raven-Symoné for a few months (The “Doctor Dolittle” years, not “ The Cosby Show” ones). It became the norm for me. I never thought of it as trying to be something I wasn’t or going against nature or even being ashamed of my hair. It was all I knew and frankly all I could handle. I didn’t know how to style my natural hair, but I didn’t really worry about that. My straight hair made me feel pretty. It got to the point where I began to squirm when my baby hairs started to curl up and my kitchen started to get nappy. I craved "good hair." Not surprisingly, since all I saw on TV everyday was flowing, silky hair. Growing up, I identified with Tia and Tamara or Ashley Banks, but I was definitely also a Mary Kate and Ashley or Hilary Duff. I never thought much about myself in terms personality vs. race. I was just who I was, which was a Bobby Jack loving science olympiad. Until I got to middle school, and comments like “ you don’t talk like a black person” and “ you’re really pretty for a black girl” became more and more common. Evidently, I had missed the memo where all black people talked the same, and finding a beautiful black girl was like trying to find Waldo. Couldn’t I be a little bit of everything? Couldn’t I want to date Shawn Hunter but still swoon over Usher? Couldn’t I have a Mariah Carey poster on one side of my closet, and a Breaking Benjamin poster on the other? Maybe I wasn’t exactly like all of the other black kids in my school, or on TV, or even my family, but I thought that was ok. Yes, you would color me in as brown…but couldn’t my personality fit every crayon in the Crayola 64 pack?

It was disorienting, and throughout middle school I did my best to fit in. By the time I got to high school though, I was tired of playing the part everyone else had written for me. I started letting every bit of me shine through. Yes, I loved science. Yes, I hated to swim. Yes, I celebrated when they played hip hop at school dances. Yes, I also sang along when they played Katy Perry. I defiantly declared to my mother that I was attracted to men of all ethnicities (thinking this was completely rebellious to the dating scene) and prepared for her combative response, but was simply greeted with a simple “Ok." It wasn’t a big deal to my family or my friends anymore, so it became less of an issue for me. I understood the look that strangers gave me when they first heard my voice, and though I knew what they were thinking, I tried not to focus on it. Unfortunately, there were still days when I just wished that I was white, or that I sounded differently, or that I had grown up somewhere else. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t still have those days. I understand how fortunate I am having never been subjected to extreme racism considering stories that I’ve heard, not only in the media, but from my very own friends. Friends who grew up in the same neighborhood, school, or state as me. However, at the same time, it’s important that we realize that it’s also the little comments, the ones we don’t think twice about, that can also leave a bit of dust on us and dampers our self esteem. That can make us carry a complex far into our lives that we may not even see.

When I first brought up some of these points to my friends, I were greeted with some confusion. Where was the harm in telling someone that they don’t act like a normal black girl? Well, that’s the problem. We don’t see it until it’s too late. I don’t want to hide who I am to fit into any preconceived stereotypes. I don’t want to make anybody of any race feel obligated to play a part. It is now officially 2016, and I have begun to construct my life like a puzzle made up of many different pieces, and I hope all of you do the same. No matter what you look like. And yes, I still get a perm. And no, I don’t feel bad about it, and you can’t make me.