Tuesday, 30 June 2015

What I Learned About Beauty After Straightening My Hair

Deciding to start my natural hair journey had been long overdue.

My hair had been so damaged from heat and the overuse of products not meant for it that I could hear it laughing at me every time I ran my fingers through it, contemplating to just let it be.

It was hard at first. It was in this awkward transition stage of being both dead and alive. It was kind of like that awkward stage women go through with their eyebrows when trying to grow them out.

Somehow, I managed. For months, my hair went untouched by straightening devices like flat irons, blow dryers, even serums and hair treatments that were designed to take away from its naturalness. My curls were making a come back!

Before embarking on my journey, I agreed that once every six months, I would straighten my hair to see how my growth was progressing. This week marked the sixth month. So I pulled out my flat iron, blew the dust off, and prepared to be amazed at my growth. But boy, was I disappointed. It went nowhere near as straight as it used to, and my ends were deader than I knew what to do with.

Maybe its time for a trim, I thought to myself. The very next day, I was in my hairdressers seat asking Leann to keep it as long as possible while trimming away the lifeless ends that really hadn’t looked that bad when my hair was curly.

I walked out of there feeling great. My hair was healthy and it looked good.

But before long, there were a series of unusual remarks, stares, and whistles that got me thinking about society’s standard of beauty, who fits into it, and what it means for those that don’t.

“Its like having two girlfriends,” my boyfriend said to me when he saw me that night. This was something I had heard before from men whose girlfriends alternated between straight and curly hair. I was tempted to ask him which girlfriend he liked better, but opted not to.

Before I met up with him that night, I had several clients compliment my appearance. Three of them asked for my number, and one of them told me I look “Spanish.” He seemed startled that I wasn’t grinning at his lame attempt to flatter me by essentially encouraging me to identify with something I didn’t.

It was strange. These were all clients I had served before. They had seen me on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. They hadn’t said any of these things to me when I wore my hair naturally. Where was all this attention coming from?

Walking to grab tea from Tim Horton’s, an older white man said “How you doin’ beautiful?” I note his colour only because I haven’t been hit on by a white guy since the last time my hair was straight.

Strangely, my treatment from women also underwent a shift. The female clients I had that were typically quite rude or standoffish were either extra nice or extra quiet. Why? I wondered. Be rude to me! I can handle it. But then I thought about it.

Personally, when I am face to face with a woman who fits into society’s standard of beauty better than I do, it can be intimidating. I find myself to be either extra nice or extra quiet. Hm. Was I being paranoid or was this an inferiority complex? If so, does this mean our treatment towards people depends on how they appear? How well they fit into the “skinny with white features” depiction of beauty?

For the six months that I wore my hair curly, I felt confident. I felt like I had been a one-girl revolution who walked with purpose, making a statement with every step. But when I wore my hair straight, I felt safe.

What’s the difference?

With curly hair, my sense of approval, the validation of my beauty, and my self-love came from the inside. It meant that even without the series of remarks, comments and whistles, I knew I was beautiful because damn it, I felt beautiful inside.

But with my straight hair, I felt safe. I felt like I looked racially ambiguous; maybe Spanish, maybe mixed, maybe straight white with a tan. Or maybe even full-black, but light enough to escape the dreaded implications of what that might mean in today’s society for my success in a job interview or the preferential treatment that men or women may have towards me because it was validated to me.

The truth is; natural hair represents an absence of fear. And for a lot of men, especially the men who specifically go after a woman based on her closeness to “beauty”, nothing is scarier than a woman who publicly displays an absence of fear. Natural hair represents an ability to ignore the media’s messages about what beauty is. It’s like wearing a fluorescent yellow t-shirt that says, “Yeah, I saw the commercial for that new L’oreal crap and I’m not interested.”

Last week, I had to hand in something called a privilege diary for my Women’s Studies class. We had to detail how privileged or unprivileged we were in certain cases. I noted that the fact that I am a woman of colour makes me less privileged than a white woman. But the fact that I am a lighter skinned woman of colour makes me more privileged than a dark skinned woman. The fact that my hair can transition, naturally, from kinky curly to bone straight makes me more privileged than women who have to use artificial hair, relaxing treatments and the like, to be more like what the media tells us is beautiful.

Despite all of that, here’s one thing I know to be true: I am not my hair. But society sure has a way of making us feel differently. Especially women of colour.

Why is it that when women wear their hair naturally they are complimented by being called “unique” or “brave”? When I started wearing my hair naturally, people joked that I had “tamed the beast.” I still have no idea which beast they are referring to. But when women have straight hair, or straighten their hair, only then are they “sexy” or “beautiful.”

So to all the men, especially the black men, who felt the need to compliment me on my “remarkable beauty”, ask for my “digits”, or tip toe around my temporary whiteness, thank you. But men like you are a huge part of the reason black women don’t embrace their natural hair. You are a huge part of the hostility that exists between light-skinned women and dark-skinned women. You are a huge reason the media hasn’t changed the message.

And what message does that send to young women? What message did it send to me when I was growing up? Because in retrospect, the media was a big, scary adult that whispered this in my bi-racial ear, “Kid, you’re gonna wanna identify with your white side more if you really wanna make it out there.”

It wasn’t until I saw the Charmsie’s and the Halfie Truth’s and the Lipstick n’ Curls of the world that I realized that curly hair is okay, natural hair is okay.

And it certainly is beautiful. And sexy.

And brave. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Unexpected Lesson I Learned at My First Rave

This past weekend, I learned a very valuable lesson about perspective. And accountability.

It came at an unexpected time, in an even more unexpected place: Beach Club Fest 2015.

Thousands of Toronto’s hottest party animals descended on Muzik Nightclub Saturday afternoon for an all-day, all-night party. Women wearing bikinis and stilettos walked past muscular, shirtless men.

There I was in the midst of it all, wondering what I had been doing there. I had never been into electronic dance music, but when my two friends insisted I would have a good time, I felt compelled to accept the invite.

I lay there in my yellow bikini under a tree, taking in the sun. I realized a long time ago that I have an abnormal obsession and love for the feeling of the sun on my skin, and not for the tan. I just love feeling the warmth of the sun on me. So much so that whenever the sun got trapped in the big tree ahead of me, my smile turned upside down.

I had been laying there for about half an hour when I realized that the sun was diminishing. It was moving very gradually away from me and was almost completely hidden behind the tree.

My friends had suggested moving to the pool where there was more sun. But I insisted on staying where we were. I knew that after a short while, the sun would be back in the open sky and I would feel that warmth again.

Another half hour passed and the sun was still hiding behind the tree. While it had indeed moved, it still had a long way to go before it was out in the clear sky again. Fed up, my friends said, “Stephanie, there is sun at the pool, we just have to move there.”

The idea of getting up, gathering all my belongings, and trying to find comfort at the pool seemed daunting. But I wanted the warmth of the sun more than I wanted to stay where I was. And so I picked myself up, gathered my belongings, and walked over to the pool.

When we got to the pool, I couldn’t believe how warm it was there. The sun was directly on me! People were dancing. Heck, I was dancing. There were beach balls everywhere. But more importantly, there was sun. There wasn’t a cloud-or a tree-in sight.

I was crushed that I hadn’t moved here earlier. I could’ve been feeling the comfort of the sun all this time. Mid-dance move I asked myself what had been stopping me the whole time I was laying by the tree.

Truthfully, I just didn’t want to move. I was comfortable. I knew the sun was going to come back in due time. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to do anything. I was being lazy. I just wanted to lay there and feel the sun.

Then it hit me.

Constantly, easily, and unforgivingly do we make excuses for ourselves to stay in whatever situation we might be in at the time. We get comfortable, we tell ourselves it will happen later, or next time, when really, those are grounds for it, whatever it might be, to not happen at all.

How could I have possibly laid there under that tree for almost an hour waiting for the sun to come back when there was sun elsewhere the entire time? It’s like I was standing in a dark room complaining there was no light and there had been a switch in front of me the whole time. All I had to do was reach for it.

That tree had represented every piece of adversity I had ever faced. It represented the word no. It represented every excuse I had ever made for myself, and every excuse I made for others.

We get so familiar with the darkness that we forget what the warmth of light feels like. We forget how to remind ourselves to look elsewhere when our current circumstance isn't good enough for us. We forget what good enough is.

It is so easy to stumble across mediocrity, unhappiness, or complacency. It’s so easy to fall into a rut and decorate it and call it home. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s okay.

This weekend I learned that in life, there is only so much sunlight before the darkness comes. And you’re going to want as much of it as you can get, not only because it feels good but because you deserve it. You have to be willing to get up and move sometimes.

As I stood there on the side of the pool, looking all around me and feeling kissed by the sun, I learned two very valuable lessons. The first is that if you want it, whatever it might be, you have to go after it. The second is that the music of life really isn't so bad once you start dancing.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Monday, 23 March 2015

Where the Fight Against Racism Went Wrong

Today I watched a documentary on the issue of human trafficking. It featured the stories of ex-prostitutes, pimps, johns and the people of law enforcement who serve in the fight against the sex trade.

Toward the end of the documentary, I realized that amongst the many reactions I had, one of them was the gratitude that I had toward the men who chose to fight this particular cause.

One of the officers, Daniel Steele, the Vice Sergeant of the Denver Police had described the reason behind his passion for fighting sex trafficking.

“I just have no tolerance for people who think it’s okay to force women into being slaves.”

Looking at how powerful the influence of men fighting for injustices against women, where most of these acts are committed by men themselves, got me thinking about non-marginalized people fighting against racism, acts mostly committed by non-marginalized people.

A few weeks ago there was the issue of two white student journalists being banned from attending and covering a Racialized Students Union meeting at Ryerson University.

While people debated the merit of both sides of the issue, the stance I took was very difficult to articulate. It was a mix of understanding the importance of safe space for marginalized and racialized groups, but a lack of understanding as to why the journalists were not permitted to attend the meeting, which RSU coordinator Vajdaan Tanveer confirmed was because the student journalists were white.

Since then, I have heard the argument of how them being there would have compromised the ability for group members to be open and honest about their experiences.

Since then, I have heard the argument of how they wouldn’t have been able to understand the experiences of others because they had never experienced racialization.

Since then, I have heard the argument of how they are a part of the problem because they belong to the hegemonic group that essentially, has done most of the racialization.

But since then, I have pondered the irony of students being banned from attending a meeting focusing on the experience of being racialized based on the colour of two peoples skin.

I have wondered how a group that prides itself on “campus-wide” initiatives could possibly contradict their own mission statement by being exclusive to only the racialized group.

And since then, I have truly wondered if their lack of acceptance for the two white students was an act of racialization in itself, believing in my heart that it was, but feeling too guilty of being “part of the problem” to admit it.

Here’s the real problem.

Somewhere along the lines, pride and pain took over the mission of conquering and peace. The lines of division and segregation that a racist society drew in the sand in history got darker and bolder over time and separated us even more.

And now we’re not even in the same sandbox anymore.

In another case, protestors gathered in Downtown Toronto for a Black Lives Matter protest towards the end of 2014. The organizers instructed non-black protestors not to speak to the media if they were approached. They wanted the protest to focus on black voices.

While I understood the intention, I truly did not comprehend the method.

After watching this documentary today, and seeing far too many race crimes, protests and just everyday acts of intolerance, I’ve come to the conclusion (or at least now can confirm what I long believed) that racism can’t just be fought by blacks.

It can’t be fought by sitting in a room and talking about the instances you were the victim of racialization. That might help you heal, but it won’t help stop racism.

Racism can’t be fought by silencing the voices of others, hoping the audience will then hear our voices louder.

Racism can’t be fought without making alliances with other races, to show the rest of the world that racism is the issue of people who haven’t even been victims of racism.

To show them that yes, racism is your problem too.

Racism isn’t just an issue that ethnic minorities face. It’s a society-wide issue that needs to be addressed by those who are oppressed, those who have been oppressed, the people belonging to the groups who historically, have been oppressors, and those who know nothing about oppression whatsoever.

Racism is not a competition.

It’s not a competition to see who’s been the most oppressed, or who’s worthy of fighting the cause vs. those who aren’t. It’s an issue that needs to and especially cannot be defeated by society unless we stand as a united front.

After I watched the documentary today, I imagined what my response would be if I were a man.

And if I were a man watching that documentary, I would realize that sex trafficking is a widespread issue. I’d see that there are men; fathers, brothers, police officers, federal government workers who prioritize this issue, one that doesn't affect my gender nearly as much as it does to another, as a worthy cause of being fought.

And so I might not be so intolerant the next time I see a street worker and call her a derogatory name.

When people see their own people fighting a cause that doesn't affect them negatively, they get to thinking twice about the affect of the cause in a broader sense and might even feel more compelled to fight, too.

Sadly the reality is that people need to identify with a cause before they decide to partake in the fight. That’s why racism is a cause primarily fought by minorities, feminism by women, university strikes by university students and TAs, anti-Islam by Muslims, anti-semitism by Jews, etc.

So if we continue to minimize the face of racism by making it seem like a “black” issue or an “Asian” issue or a “Middle Eastern” issue, how will the importance of fighting it ever really mean anything to the group of people that seem to benefit from minorities being racialized the most?

Maybe I’m confused. But closing the doors in people’s faces and telling them their voices don’t matter, at least not in this instance, was what got us to where we are in the first place. Sometimes the only way to avoid the legacies of a brutal and discriminatory history is to rewrite it.

Luckily, we all have pens.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

This Week in Toronto: LOL in the North Comedy Show

            Laugh-hungry audience members trekked in the snow to get to Toronto’s John Bassett theatre Saturday night for the LOL in the North comedy show. Headliner Faizon Love, alongside comedians Capone, Jay Martin, Trixx, Rip Michaels and up and coming Aaron Lewin performed in front of an audience of almost 1,000 people.

            Lewin began the show by warming them up with some hearty laughs. His natural ability to grace the stage with comfort and a comedic response for everything got the crowd in the mood for the rest of the performers. His performance included him removing some clothes, all except his boxers.

            While the move was gutsy, comedian Trixx agrees that taking risks is necessary to be a good comedian.

            “If you don’t take risks, you get too comfortable,” Trixx said during a pre-show interview. “If you’ve never taken risks, bombed a show or been booed, you never go home and think ‘what do I need to work on’?”

            This was Lewin’s second time at the John Bassett theatre. He enjoys performing there because it forces him to be a creative and comedic centerpiece for the 1,300-seat venue.

            Before shows, Lewin spends time in his dressing room looking in the mirror, dong push-ups, and mentally preparing himself for his skit. With a list of words penned into his left hand as just-in-case-cues, he takes on the tremendous responsibility of setting the stage for both himself and the performers after.

            When Jay Martin announced to Lewin that there was a switch in the order, he handled it with grace.

            “You’re up first, rooks,” Martin said to Lewin backstage shortly before showtime. “First, first.”

            The same ease and grace that Lewin had in this instance was brought with him to the stage. His routine included racial jokes, what it’s like being the only black guy in his suburb town of Richmond Hill, Bill Cosby’s news headlines, and of course, the difference between a white man and a black man approaching a girl in the club.

            The crowd enjoyed Lewin, as most of his audiences do. He meets the difficulty of stand-up with an impressive calm, one that forces the audience to feel calm, too, in between laughter of course.

            Lewin’s next shows are set for February 15th, 22nd and 26th.