I called the beauty salon where I’ve been a client for years to ask for the name of someone to cut my hair. My previous person had moved out of state.
“How about T.?” said the receptionist. “She’s the stylist who teaches new stylists how to cut hair. She does a great job.”
“Okay, why not?” I responded.
I entered the shop for my appointment, announced that I was there for T. and out she came to greet me. She washed my hair and pointed to her chair. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” she said.
As a writer and reporter, I tend to interview everyone. T. was no exception. I found T. and I had a lot in common. Her husband is a jazz pianist; my youngest son is a jazz drummer in New York. We knew many of the same people since jazz is a small and almost incestuous world. Several musicians we both mentioned used to hang out at our home when our youngest was a teenager and budding musician.
I starting going to T. on a regular basis. And each time, we would talk about music and our kids. She has one daughter. I have one daughter as well, who is much older than her child. We compared notes. Her daughter is interested in theater; my daughter was a theater major. We talked about the process, auditions, schools, how difficult it can be to make it in the business.
Most recently, I came in to get a trim before a big event and said to T. that I needed to look terrific. Then we started to schmooze. I told her that my youngest son was asked to play for the Black Caucus at the Democratic National Convention. It was quite an honor. He would be the only white guy to play with the group. She said I know how that feels in reverse as an African-American in a white-centric world. And from there we began talking about what it’s like for African-Americans today, which led to a discussion about those parents whose young men (and less often women) are subject to discrimination and racial profiling. This segued next into a conversation about Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile to name a few, who died at the hands of the police and how a black mother prepares her child to deal with racial profiling by law enforcement today.
“What do you tell your daughter?” I asked.
“Right now, I have taught her to respect her elders. It’s not much of an issue. When it is, I’m not sure what I’ll say. Thank God I have a daughter. I don’t know what I’d tell a son,” she stressed.
“Have you ever been a victim of police profiling?” I asked.
She paused. “Yes” and her eyes started tearing as she related an experience at age 17 when driving with her 19-year-old sister to Oklahoma for college. It was the summer before the start of her sister’s freshman year and happened about 20 years ago.
“We were in a small Oklahoma town and stopped at a gas station. My sister was driving a brand new car. I got out of the car to buy something inside the gas station office while my sister filled the tank. We were polite. The people inside the store were polite. Suddenly, I noticed that a white policeman had come up to our car. He asked my sister for some form of ID. As I walked to the car to find out what was going on, the policeman confronted me and asked for my ID too. ‘Why?’ I questioned him: ‘What did we do? I’m not giving you anything. We didn’t do anything. What did we do?’ I kept asking. I was the sister with attitude. My sister gave them anything they wanted and told me to shut up. ‘Just give them what they want,’ she instructed. But I refused and got in the back seat of the car with my arms folded. Soon two other policemen came over demanding that I show some form of ID or else—what ever that was supposed to mean. My sister was pleading, ‘Just give it to them.’ I finally complied. And then they let us go without any explanation. We were both shaking and crying. It was traumatic. I’ll never forget how humiliating it was.”
I was incredulous.
“Oh, it happens all the time,” she said dismissing my disbelief. “It happened to my mother. It’s happened to many other blacks I know. That’s just the world we live in,” she shrugged, although she did admit it sickens and still upsets her to talk about it.
As I left the shop, I thought, “Yes, how we look is important for our self-esteem, but some days it’s good to have a jolt of reality.” A haircut that seemed so important and was supposed to change my appearance ended up changing my perspective about what really matters in life.