I was stopped on the street the other day by a woman who said, “I love your black hair!”
“Thanks,” I replied. “It’s the most common hair color in the world.”
There are many who will wonder at my inability to graciously accept a compliment. At first, my answer might seem rude, until you consider the subtext of what this woman was saying. Over the years, many people have complimented my hair. “It’s so long,” they say. “So straight. So shiny. So…Asian.”
Their admiration of my hair is not because my hair is particularly lovely. It is because they view my hair as exotic, as foreign, as something that deviates so far from the American standard that it is noteworthy.
In the Philippines, my hair is nondescript. It is your standard-issue dark, straight hair that is prevalent in that part of the world. My hair might have stood out on my grade school playground populated with blondes and brunettes, but among the billions of dark heads in the world, mine is just one in the herd.
When I was a child, the parent volunteers who watched over us at lunch and at recess would often come up to me and comment on my hair. Many of them would ask if they could touch it. I was too young, then, to realize that they were not transfixed with my hair but with my otherness. They were intrigued not with the length of my hair or the intricate braids my mother would weave into it but by my foreignness. They marveled over me in much the same way that captive animals are gawked at in the zoo.
Their fascination is mark of just how isolated America is. This is a vast country made up of many ethnicities and races, and yet the knowledge the average American has of the world beyond our borders is staggeringly underwhelming. Anyone who isn’t white is still viewed as an outsider. We, as a nation, are still divided by color.
I am expected to accept comments about my complexion and my hair color and my small eyes and my petite frame as compliments rather than as verbal reminders that I am seen as not being white enough to fit into America’s framework. I am expected to smile, say thank you, and go on my way. The unspoken code of our community is to fit in, to not rock the boat.
But silence doesn’t just hurt us. It hurts America. If I smile and say thank you, how is someone supposed to know they are being offensive? It is these little microaggressions that we gloss over that keep us marginalized, even in 2017. It is our silence that keeps our society stratified.
So no, I won’t thank someone for “complimenting” me on my black hair. And I certainly won’t say “go ahead” when they ask to touch it. And neither should you. As Asian-Americans we are not exhibits on display to be examined like scientific curiosities. We are a strong and vibrant part of this country deserving of respect.