Last month, my white friend apologized for a crime she committed eighteen years ago.
“Suzie,” she said, using the nickname given to me by my elementary school peers, “I often think about how I used to make a spectacle out of your hair. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for how that may have affected you.” There she was, my friend of twenty-three years, apologizing to me for the role she played in my struggle with my racial identity.
You see, I was the only black person in my grade until the fifth grade. And until then, my family was the only black family at the school. This didn’t bother me much because I knew no better, and none of the other kids seemed to notice or care, so neither did I. Except for when it came to my hair.
My hair–the hair that was woven together by the love and sweat of my Congolese mother, coupled with my own stubborn tears. Braids and relaxers, cornrows and pigtails with barrettes in the shape of bow ties. For a brief stretch of time, my mom would braid all of my hair onto the top of my head, forming geometric patterns and shapes that were only noticeable from a bird’s eye view.
My hair was my mom’s masterpiece. Her weekly work of art. Initially, I loved this routine, scalp pain and tears aside. I loved the end result, and I loved the versatility of my hair. Then after a while, although I still loved it, I began to wish there was a “please do not touch the artwork” sign slapped across my forehead.
In time, I said the words: “Don’t touch my hair,” and the hands of my classmates begrudgingly stopped reaching for my head. But they continued to ask. They asked constantly. “Can I touch your hair?” No. “Can I play with your hair?” No. “Can you play hair salon with us at recess?” Clever, but still no.
I began to resent my hair. I resented the spectacle that it became. I resented that it became the center of attention, perhaps even more well-liked than I was. I resented that it looked different from everyone else’s hair in the school. I resented that I looked different.
Eighteen years later, my hair is still a spectacle, and to be honest, I do sometimes resent it. But I know now that this is misplaced frustration. My frustration is not actually about my hair, but rather about society’s views of conventional beauty and femininity. My frustration lies with the lack of representation and knowledge around black hair, natural hair, and teeny weeny afros (a club I recently joined). It lies with the idea that “normal” is still assumed to mean the white standard.
When my friend apologized to me, I didn’t minimize the ways in which her childhood actions truly did contribute to my racial identity struggles throughout my life. But I also didn’t cling tight to a grudge against her nine-year-old self. I was honest. I shared my appreciation for her apology and that she spent so much time thinking about something that I too had spent much of my life grappling with. And then a deeper dialogue was opened about the innocent curiosities of children and the social responsibilities involved in parenthood and raising white children.
My friend’s apology did not change my past. It didn’t make the past okay, nor did it ameliorate my lifelong struggle of being an “other.” But it did do the work of reparations, even on a small scale. It reconciled any unconscious bitterness within the friendship. It reconciled my friend’s past self with her current awareness of her own whiteness and the effects her whiteness has on others. And honestly, it just felt good as hell. It felt validating. And on some level, it even felt freeing.
In most cases, “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. In most cases, nothing will ever be enough. In some cases, though, “I’m sorry” can be the start of some beautiful healing.