"You wouldn't walk around the office with 'Jackson 5' hair, would you?"
It was a typical Tuesday morning at College Sainte-Veronique in Liege, Belgium when those words confidently left my history teacher's mouth.
My initial reaction? Pure shock.
Being one of about a dozen Black students in the class, all of whose natural hair varied in curl pattern and colour, all of whom wore their hair proudly every single day, it was safe to say I was disgusted by those words. After an exchange of offended looks, and what felt like the longest hour of tense silence, I had to say something.
"I knew I was in the right and figured that even if he still didn't think so, at least he knew that I would not back down."
- Maëlys C.
"Sir, are you implying that afros are unprofessional?"
That's when I noticed the change of expression on the teacher's face, almost like I could see the wheels turning; he realized where he misspoke. For a second, I was convinced he would apologize, and we would all calmly resume class. However, if that were the case, I would not be retelling this story now.
Instead, he started a whole tangent. He explained how he was never raised around this kind of hair, that it was almost foreign to him, and that he has never seen it in office settings. Internally, I concluded that I would just drop it. It simply wasn't worth the energy to educate a middle-aged man who had lived half a lifetime basking in ignorance without realizing it. That was until he brought up a specific classmate, who was also black, and his choice of hairstyle for the day. It just so happened that he wore his curls in two buns on the top of his head. Although the school's "strictly business-casual" dress code generally did not allow for much femininity from the guys, everyone complimented his hair-do throughout that entire morning – everyone except this teacher.
"A constant reminder, to that teacher and to myself, that the curls that naturally grow out of my head are just as professional as the next person's undulous locks or pin-straight hair."
- Maëlys C.
"Don't you think it's a bit provoking? Perhaps to your fellow classmates, or even staff?"
At this point, the abundance of irritation and confusion I felt was running through my veins like adrenaline. I simply could not understand why anyone would feel that such comments are appropriate, especially inside of a classroom. During their exchange, I silently pondered what I could do. Either I could reinsert myself in this conversation or stay quiet. Either way, I wouldn't be able to go to administrative employees like I could in the United States; microaggressions are considered a waste of time for them. In other words, report blatant racism or keep your mouth shut. Ultimately, I decided against saying nothing and voiced my thoughts to the teacher.
"Mister, do you not see what is wrong with your statement? How it could be taken as derogatory?"
The ever-so-slight traces of regret that I'd previously noticed on his face completely disappeared. Instead, I was met with anger, clearly deriving from some level of guilt. And rather than getting a thorough verbal response, see maybe an apology, I got a:
"Everyone, turn your chairs towards the screen. We are going to watch a video for the assignment."
At the time, the lack of acknowledgment on his part was more than enough for me. I knew I was in the right and figured that even if he still didn't think so, at least he knew that I would not back down. Now, being a year older, I wish I had kept the conversation going. Not for my own satisfaction, but in hopes of opening his eyes a bit. It's always ironic when those who work in fields that are as social and diverse as education aren't as educated as they ought to be. Perhaps if we had an additional exchange, even after class, he would've come around to the idea. As primitive as it may sound, I should've trusted my gut more. Had I pushed myself to talk to him one more time, I could currently be indulging in the validation and thrill of knowing that I helped someone see things from another perspective, that I flipped someone's empathy switch on.
For the rest of the year, I made an effort to wear my "Jackson 5" hair out every chance I got. Although it may be seen as a petty move, to me it was like a silent protest. A constant reminder, to that teacher and to myself, that the curls that naturally grow out of my head are just as professional as the next person's undulous locks or pin-straight hair. Though the experience was extremely frustrating to endure firsthand, I am glad I had such an encounter at such a young age. I was able to learn the power of my own voice, for others' sake and my own alike. I was able to witness a microaggression with my own two eyes, which will only prepare me for the future. But most importantly, I was able to stand up for an issue that hit extremely close to home, and only feel empowered by it.
- Maëlys C.