A List of Rose-Colored Microaggressions, Said With Love
- I was seventeen, and a stack of college brochures collected dust atop my bedroom vanity. I sat up against my headboard, eyeing them in the mirror—UCLA, UC Davis, Boston University, NYU. “What if I just applied to an HBCU instead?” I said into the phone. Historically Black Colleges & Universities—Howard University, or maybe Spelman. I laughed nervously, and he reciprocated—heartier, deeper. “Nah,” he said, a sound difficult to hear over his continued laughter. “You’d be so out of place,” he said. He took a deep breath and cleared the phlegm from his throat. “You’re right,” I said, still looking at the mirror and saying words that I didn’t believe. Laughing a laugh that wasn’t my own. “You’re so right.”
- My grandmother taught me how to braid hair using a blonde Barbie doll. The doll’s hair was long and straight, and mine was not, and my grandmother said, “If hair is not long and straight then it must be braided into submission.” So I see-sawed between microbraids and dizzying chemicals, until scabs formed on my scalp and this thing on my head caused more pain than anything else. I was an adult when I first looked at the bag of used hair extensions at my feet and asked, “Why?” My fingers were crying from eleven hours of sleepless work unbraiding, and half of my head had yet to even be touched. I stomped into the living room—left side long and tame, right side as wild as my tired eyes. “I’m going to shave it all off,” I said. The weight of the words I spit from my mouth left me hovering above the ground, I felt so light. “Calm down, Babe,” he said. I didn’t want to, but I calmed down anyway. “Okay, but really,” I said. “People do the whole ‘big chop’ thing. Maybe I could too…” My voice trailed, as he stood and walked towards me. He wrapped his lanky arms around my waist and laced his fingers at the small of my back. I was not yet calm enough for him, so he created a makeshift straitjacket out of his own body. “Babe,” he said, looking through me. “You don’t even know how beautiful you look when your hair falls around your face.” He then reached across my face and tucked my Combination 2B/4B Yaki braid behind my left ear.
- When we were together, he always drove, which was fine because I preferred to explore the world from the passenger’s seat. There were times in his absence, though, when I had no choice but to drive. I had a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee with an engine that constantly needed fixing. We were kindred spirits in that way. The mechanic would oil up its tank while I would butter up my hands. And knees and ankles and the cracks between my toes. I was not meant to be white, so I quenched my skin’s thirst every single day—two, three, four times if necessary. Sometimes, when I would check on the engine, oil and grease would find their way onto my hands. It was just part of the game. And sometimes, when I had no choice but to drive, butter—Cocoa or Shea or a mixture of the two—would find its way onto the Jeep, leaving the steering wheel slick to the touch. Then we would be together again, and of course he would drive, and of course he would cringe, and of course I would carry a ball thick in my throat. “Hmm, lotiony,” he would say, crinkling his nose. I wanted to tell him that it was just part of the game, but he did not care to be a player.
- “Men don’t like make-up,” a Russian cosmetologist once told me. I thought about that as I used a moist towelette to wipe the tinted cream from my forehead. I thought about how that could not be true, at least universally speaking. I thought about that as I tossed three used face wipes into his trash can. I thought about how some men liked make-up on women. I thought about that as he stood in front of the mirror thereafter, brushing his teeth or shaving his beard or plucking the hair from his freckled nostrils. I thought about how some men liked make-up on men. I thought about that as he looked into the trashcan and saw the brown from my face smudged across discarded wet rags. I wondered if in them he saw mud or dried vomit or his own shit when he said, “That grosses me out.” I thought about the moments when his sister and mother and very best friends stood in front of their respective mirrors, wiping peaches and roses and delicate porcelain from their faces, and I thought of the Russian cosmetologist. I stopped wearing make-up, but I continued to wonder what he saw in my face.
- He enjoyed the texture of my hair. It was a foreign object to him. He was a cat with a toy. I was his toy. With his paws, he would claw at it, pulling it as far as it could reach, letting it go and watching it snap back into place like a 99 cent slinky. Sometimes he would press his hand into it, leaving a five-fingered imprint. “It’s just so spongy,” he would say in awe. When he was done playing, he would promptly wash his hands—hands clean, mind satisfied. He would watch me watch him, careful to fill the lines of his palms with just enough soap. “It’s just so oily,” he would say. His eyes were apologetic. Mine were not.
- His aunt was dramatic; he knew it and I knew it, and I’m sure that she knew it. We planned to see her and her drama at Thanksgiving, as we always did. “She texted me and asked that we not wear any fragrant lotions this weekend,” he said looking over at me from the driver’s seat. “Allergies.” My skin crawled underneath my baggy pullover, so I protested, “I’m not going to go all weekend without lotion…and cocoa butter is all I brought.” This was not up for discussion. We both believed this was not up for discussion. “So you would rather have her die than give up your butter lotion?” I was the villain. I tended to be the villain—my eyes with their indistinguishable pupils or my face with its refusal to show in back-lit photographs. Wrong, wrong, wrong, all wrong. “She isn’t going to die, and I’m not going to be in pain with cracking, bleeding skin this weekend,” I said. Drama was a two-way street. I was being unfair, I knew, but he stayed silent as we drove past two Walgreen’s stores, a CVS pharmacy, and a Safeway market, and I did too.
- “It’s just the most ideal,” he said to me. He had a friend who soon became my friend too, and she had fiery red waves floating down her spine. “Imagine her walking down the street with her hair flowing behind her. The way the sun would catch the shine of it all?” My hair stood on end, short and unforgiving, wrapped in a scarf with a neat bow tied at my forehead. “It’s just the most ideal,” he said.
Author’s note: Stories told from personal experience and/or with permission from the experiences of others. Some details altered to preserve anonymity.