Yesterday, my boyfriend and I made our weekly sojourn to the grocery store. (Even Pre-COVID, we shopped weekly to save time, energy, and money.) We slowly wound our way through the store we simultaneously loved and hated—large selection and great prices, narrow aisles and never enough cashiers.
A woman’s cart stood between us and the almond milk, one of the last items on our list. Eager to get this trip over with, my boyfriend moved her cart a few inches so I could push ours past. The movement must have caught her eye, and she turned to look at me.
“You’re so beautiful!” she exclaimed.
I thanked her, secretly wondering how she could think such a thing given the cloth mask covering half my face. Without missing a beat, she continued.
“Where are you from?”
That was the first of many microaggressions to come.
I quickly replied, “Kentucky,” and pushed my cart closer to the dairy case in an effort to end the conversation. But she inched closer, maskless (!) and babbling.
“Your hair is lovely. What do you do to your hair to get it like that?”
The answer? Literally nothing. (The few sprays of water I applied before the trip didn’t count—I didn’t even put any product in it!) I shrugged and responded, “It just grows this way,” struggling mightily to keep myself from rolling my eyes. I was brought up to respect my elders, and even though the gray-haired woman in front of me was trying my patience, my mama raised me to be polite.
I tried to leave but the woman continued, following one awful comment with a string of several more.
“African women are so elegant, very regal and classy. You know, I could tell you weren’t from around here. You don’t act like the Black people in Wisconsin. I work with them and they have such an attitude. They wear their hair in the braids and it just comes out. I’m from India and I help them, boil the coconut oil and castor oil to make something to help it grow back. Your hair is beautiful and healthy, and you wear it just as it is! They should be more like you.”
Racism, wrapped in compliments. From another woman of color, at that! I wanted to disappear.
As she turned and walked away, she noticed the large ginger root in our cart.
“Healthy too! You are so good. May God bless you.”
My boyfriend, having ventured to get the almond milk himself, returned to find me standing next to our cart. Seething, I recounted the interaction. We headed toward the checkout line, watching carefully to avoid seeing her again.
Usually, I leave that grocery store anxious and frustrated because of the crowded aisles and lengthy checkout lines. Today, anxiety and frustration were replaced with anger and sadness.
You cannot uplift one Black woman and simultaneously put others down.
You cannot talk badly about Black people in Wisconsin while ignoring the fact that it is one of the worst states in America for Black people.
You cannot celebrate Black hair in its natural state while trashing the protective styles many of us (including myself) wear regularly.
You can, though, be racist and a person of color at the same damn time.