I Am Not Your Costume
By Jessica Grobman
Briiiiiing. Briiiiiing. Briiiiiing.
I think to myself as the moment arrives: 6:45 am. Rise and shine. After maintaining an ounce of self control, I force myself out of my warm and loving bed and stare at the woman in the mirror.
Okay, so, what are we doing with you today?
With a mind surprisingly conscious provoking for this un-G-dly hour, I decide that today is the day that I take to wearing something that I’ve come to see as beauty and power: my head wrap. Now, as a Biracial woman with hair that doesn’t fit the European standards of beauty acknowledge and revered in this country, I have taken to the “Natural Movement” quite nicely growing more and more confident in the texture, feel and beauty of my hair each and every day. This head wrap, for me, was a symbol of showing yet another way in which my hair can be styled and still look beautiful without needing to “flow in the wind.”
I dress for the day and fix my head wrap pushing thoughts of doubt and insecurity to the back of my mind.
You look fine as heck and you are going to own today.
These mini pep talks came in handy when not only insecurity looked to soil my day, but anxious thoughts of what my classmates might say when I walk into class that morning crept in my mind as well. I flashback to moments of frustration and anger the semester I began the journey of owning my natural hair where my classmates and even my instructor were more interested in the “fluffiness” of my hair and having me answer questions of “what about you is so different?” than the words coming out of my mouth and the ideas rolling around in my mind. Again, I pushed the thoughts away and walked out the door.
My summer classes are as follows, to give some background to my situation: mostly White, cis-gendered, heterosexual women, a few men (only one of which is an education major), and 3-4 people of color per class – myself being the only one who identifies as Black in all three classes. With that being said, it’s easy to see how this already creates a power dynamic that is uncomfortable and marginalizing from the get-go. Me, being the person I am when it comes to social justice, find it not only empowering but obligatory to speak up about and for people of color, systems of inequality and all the conversations that may ensue. I include all of this to help readers understand who I am and that being speechless and shocked is something of a rarity for me, especially in this program – it’s simply not beneficial.
I walk into the class and automatically I’m on edge – there are drums set up in front of each seat and a power point displaying the main picture of an array of children of color on the whiteboard. Now, I know for a fact that we are not going to be educated on African culture in a way that dynamically displays and pays homage to the beauty and culture that is this crater of civilization, but I still had hope for some ounce of respect. Forgive my crudeness but in my experience in this teaching program, cultural competency is not on the forefront as concerns.
A young lady notices me and smiles. I, not being one to turn down acts of kindness, smile back and keep walking to my seat.
“Wow, you’re dressed for the occasion, huh?” she says.
I pause and chuckle nervously at the statement.
Dressed for the occasion? What? How dare you?
My mind races as insults come swimming into my head as I realize that my head wrap was nothing more than a piece of my “costume” – an accessory used to play along with the theme of the day and impress my classmates. I was on display. Looking around the room at other women looking at me and smiling as they see my “outfit” and nod in approval at my “courage” I start to feel sick and defensive. In that moment, I notice my teacher, an Asian woman from South Korea, look at me beaming to say,
“You look so different today! What is different about you?”
There it is. My “costume” validated by the authority figure in the room and I couldn’t even really believe it enough to answer more than a passive aggressive,
“Yeah, I don’t have work out clothes on today.”
I was not going to encourage your spectacle. I was not going to be the model of culture you’ve never seen before.
This is why speaking out is so important and why change is imperative.
This may seem to those reading this as an incident blown out of proportion but for me it was a moment in the ProTeach program that reaffirmed my position as a woman of color within this college. I was not the norm. I was not what was expected. I was not their standard. It’s one thing to understand it, and it’s another to experience it. This is why speaking out is so important and why change is imperative. White women and men need to come to knowledge about cultural competency because as a woman of color who can understand these issues and problematic situations, it’s easy for me to stand up and read this narrative or have these uncomfortable conversations but for young students who are faced with these situations, they may not know how to react or even identify micro-aggressions such as the ones I’ve listed above.
Head wraps are not simple a “fashion item” or a means to complete some tribal costume to appease the masses. Head wraps have a historical and cultural significance which spans back centuries. For African American women wraps worked practically when they helped to steady the heavy loads they were to keep on their heads, socially when they denoted a symbol marriage, but most importantly, they were a symbol of resistance and connection to their African roots. Wearing the head wrap helped to show that though they were enslaved, they were still their ancestry.
This was just a short explanation of historical context of head wraps and even this could be enough to prevent ignorant comments such as, “you’re really dressed for the occasion, huh?” It provides humanity to what people see as a costume and empowerment to those who pay homage to their ancestors. Also, it’s just more respectful to be in the know before opening your mouth.
Multicultural competency and curriculum should not longer be a thought but second nature and the norm. If not, we are only perpetuating these systems of inequality that have plagued this school from its opening in 1853. No student from elementary to undergrad should feel like their physical appearance, verbal essence and thoughts and values need validation by those who do not share in their practices and culture.
We are not your entertainment. We are not your displays of culture. We are not your costumes.
Jessica Grobman studies elementary education at the University of Florida. She has a passion for social justice and for being a huge voice for those whose voices aren’t as large. She loves to sing, dance, laugh and she is very skilled in the language of sarcasm.