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Jane was not her name, but her real name was an equally common one. In many ways, she was much like her name. Pretty enough, but not a stunner. Slightly taller than average, but not tall enough to stand out. Dark skinned, but not noticeably so. Neither curvy nor boyish. As I try to recall her appearance thirty years later, I can’t even conjure in my mind how she wore her hair. I’m pretty sure she did have hair because if she didn’t I would have noticed.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed her at all in our large school if we didn’t have several classes together, most notably a drama class that had perhaps a dozen students. It’s impossible to overlook someone in a drama class, especially a small one. She was, I recall, always friendly, but in a distant, quiet way.

If Jane was plain, Lola was a stunner. Voluptuous, sultry, a Puerto Rican girl with glossy, black hair, coffee-colored skin and large black eyes. She and I were rapidly becoming friends. I remember one day, standing in the hallway of our school. It must have been lunchtime because none of us were in a hurry. Jane mentioned to Lola that she was having a party that weekend. She asked her to come. She didn’t ask me. I shuffled my feet a little bit and tried to not look too awkward. I was making friends in school, so this wasn’t crushing, and although Jane and I were on friendly terms, we weren’t friends, so it wasn’t a shock that I wouldn’t be invited. I did find it a little strange that she would invite Lola while I was standing there. So, while this wasn’t a huge social humiliation or a dramatic personal blow, everyone likes to be liked and I wanted to be invited.

My discomfort must have been palpable because Jane turned to me and said, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to invite you. My brother and his friends give me a hard time about acting ‘too white.’ It’s bad enough as it is. If I invited white kids to my party, they’d give me so much trouble.”

Prior to attending this school, all my other schools had been mostly white. I could see from my first day there that some sort of self-segregation was going on in the school, but I hadn’t yet learned the whys and wherefores. I say self-segregated, but don’t imagine anything too terribly hostile. Outside the school, there was a grassy area shaded by tall trees along a small stream. If you walked by at lunchtime, you’d see teenagers eating bagged lunches or lunches bought at a nearby shop. You might see a cluster of half a dozen black boys with one white boy or a group of four or five white girls with a couple of black girls. In fact, I’d say that self-segregation along gender lines was more common than along racial lines. However, I had always gone to public schools and was used to mixed sex groups and knew what to expect and how to navigate them socially. A racially integrated school was still new to me. I still didn’t know how to navigate it. So Jane’s reason for not inviting me was in important piece of information. She was experiencing social pressure from her family.

A week or two later, in our drama class, as some sort of trust exercise, we each had to tell the class something the rest of the class didn’t know about us. I was a pretty straight kid with an unremarkable life and finding some deep secret was harder than you might expect. I can’t remember what I said. In fact, I can’t remember what anyone said, except Jane. She told us that her brother and his friends made fun of her for being a “wannabe” because she got good grades. It would be a few years yet before Spike Lee’s School Daze would popularize the term. She said that she told her brother, “I’m not going to get bad grades just because you think getting good grades is ‘white.’ I don’t think being ignorant is being ‘black.’ I going to do what I want to do and be myself and I don’t care what you say.” But she did care, she told us, and she tried hard to act “black” and to not seem “white” in any other way.

This memory was jogged by a short article by John McWhorter, “No, ‘Acting White’ Has Not Been Debunked,” the overall thrust of which is summarized in the title. I followed the link from his article to an opinion piece that was given as an example of the opinions McWhorter was countering. The core of Nia-Malika Henderson’s article, “What President Obama gets wrong about ‘acting white’” is:

The North Carolina based study showed black students, some in predominantly black schools, and others in predominantly white schools, negotiating peer pressure and class selection in much the same way that their white peers did.  The study suggests a common strain that sometimes has poor white kids dealing with the burden of being seen as “uppity” and “snobbish,” and black kids in predominantly white school settings, on occasion grappling with that same notion, with a racialized overlay.  It’s essentially nerds versus jocks, yet it plays out in very nuanced ways depending on the school setting and is complicated by class, race and in-group versus out-group pressures.

….

Harvard economist, Roland G. Fryer, finds evidence that the most high achieving blacks students at predominantly white schools taking a hit on the popularity front, but finds no evidence of the same trend at predominantly black schools. He also finds that “variants on acting white have been spotted by ethnographers among the Buraku outcasts of Japan, Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and the British working class, among others.”

The fact that a similar dynamic is at work in other society and among other groups does not negate the reality that academically high-achieving black students in some communities (note, some not all) are criticized by their family and friends for “acting white.” Now that Henderson has jogged my memory, I can recall having critical things said to me by working class boys about the fact that I got good grades, calling me a snob. It was ineffectual because they were not part of my social circle. Had I come from a family with a strong working class identity, perhaps my response to that would have been different.

It seems to me that the major disagreement between McWhorter and Henderson is not about the facts, but how the facts should be discussed.

One little note, as I experienced it, the conflict wasn’t between “jocks and nerds,” it was between those who felt themselves to be marginalized by the society and those who were trying to be a part of it.

It never ceases to amaze me whenever someone with a magnificent crown of fluffy, frizzy or curly hair straightens it. I was born with a topping of lank, limp strands that hang straight down into my eyes. Neither thick nor thin, and too shiny and slick to tie back easily, it slips out of knots and buns, and, no matter how tightly I tie a pony-tail, the elastic slips down to the end, so it feels as if I’m constantly fussing with it.

I mentioned how my sister had taught me to dress in the popular mode. Slowly, bit by bit, I was turning into a teenager. As a child, I had some unaccountable obsession with my hair. I wanted it to be as long as possible. I’d scream when my mother tried to cut it, so eventually she stopped trying. At one point, it was long enough that I had to move it out of the way to sit down. Then adolescence came.

The late seventies. Farah Fawcette and hair that swept away from the face in patterns known as “feathers” and “wings” were all the rage. My sister got her moderately curly hair cut and she spent every morning with the blow dryer. Her hair is naturally thick and she managed a big, fluffy, Farah Fawcette ‘do quite well. The next step in my transformation was being dragged to the hair dresser’s. I went willing since I had already learned how some small changes in footwear or brand of jeans could make one’s life so much more pleasant. With the right look, you could live at the library and no one would care. If clothes are unimportant, I reasoned, why get beaten up over them?

Off to the salon to have my long hair cut to a length just below my shoulders, still officially “long” hair, and to have my hair cut to form bangs, with would be angled and layered in preparation for the final step of blowing them into “wings.” My hair was too straight for the massive feathering like my sister had and the look did resemble the avian anatomy for with it was named. Perhaps if I actually found the style attractive I would have been less bothered by what followed. However, I had taken on this look for social, not aesthetic, reasons.

The next morning, I was in for a surprise. My slick hair was exceedingly reluctant to stay in the flipped back position into which it was blown. Fifteen solid minutes in front of the mirror making the right side go back. Then fifteen minutes on the left. Now they were noticeably asymmetrical with the left side higher than the right. Back to right side for five minutes. Now that one was higher. Back to the left. After about forty-five minutes I was finally able to leave the bathroom with hair that wouldn’t lead to endless mockery and social ostracism at school.

At the end of the day, my straight hair had reverted to its natural shape, just as it always had, and I arrived home with my hair hanging in my face, a stray bit of the angled bangs defiantly curling inward and poking me in the eye. I sat on the floor, hiding on the other side of the bed where no one would see me and cried. I didn’t cry because I disliked the way it looked. I cried at the thought of spending forty-five minutes every morning playing with my hair. Over five hours every week. Two hundred and seventy-four hours every year. I was horrified by the thought of so much of life being wasted looking into a mirror.

The official school picture was taken that week. In it, I’m glowering like a typical maladjusted teenager. I was angry, angry everyday that I had to spend time playing with my hair. What to do?

I convinced my mother to give me money to go back to the salon. My mother, a former cheerleader, felt that my new interest in my appearance was a positive development, so it really wasn’t the indulgence it would seem to be to someone outside our family. I sat in the hairdresser’s chair. The hairdresser was a young, perky, slightly flaky woman for whom I had a natural liking. She asked what I actually thought did look good. Another woman who worked at the salon was a small bird-like woman with a big poodle’s mane, like a 1970s rockstar, was working behind us and I could see her reflection in the mirror. I said, “Like that.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “We can’t do exactly that, but we can do something similar.”

“Will it be difficult to style in the morning?”

When I heard that it was about the easiest thing I could have chosen short of a crew cut, I said, “Great! Let’s do that.”

Of course, like all other beauty treatments, this was a time-consuming process. My hair was tightly wrapped around dozens of tiny little plastic curlers. Then a foul-smelling chemical was doused all over the top of my head. While I was sitting baking under the dryer, my scalp started to itch and my ears felt as if they were on fire and I started to wonder if I hadn’t gone out of the frying pan into the fire. I was seriously contemplating how that crew cut might look.

After a half an hour, the hairdresser took me out from under the dryer. She unraveled one curler. Back under for another ten. Ten minutes later, the ritual was repeated. Back under for another five. She started to get nervous because she was afraid to burn my hair off. In the end, my stubbornly straight hair needed fifty minutes to be forced into a curl, but finally I had a head like a poodle.

The next day at school I was greeted with “Hey what happened? Did you stick your finger into an electric socket.” No one could claim that suburban middle school students are original. I must have heard that jeering line fifty times that day. I didn’t care. That morning, I bent over at the waist, toweled my head dry, fluffed it up with my fingers and was out of the bathroom in about two minutes. Maintaining this style would take about two hours once a month. Two hours times twelve months, that’s twenty-four hours. Comparing that to the nearly three-hundred hours for the wings, I tossed my new corkscrew ringlets over my shoulder and turned my back on the people laughing at me.

The joke about the electrical socket got old really quickly and by the third day, when someone said it, another kid said, “Jeez, that one’s old.” Then a funny thing happened. A few days later, someone else showed up at school with a big head of curly hair. Then two. Then three. Eventually, even my big sister, who had taught me how to dress, went to the salon to get her hair cut in layers that would make her naturally wavy hair look curlier. Soon enough, all the girls in my school were looking something like Peter Frampton on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive!

It might seem like a rather trivial incident about hair, and in a way it is. But I learned something really important about negotiating social situations that week. If you can brave the initial mockery, other people often come around in the end. The key was that I didn’t apologize or seek to explain away what I had done. I was proud of it and showed it off.

It would be another five or six years until I’d get that crew cut.