Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

recognizing covert systems and disarming a racially charged haircut

       My hair clippers whirred in the hours between days. It was far too late to be up with my work schedule, but this hair cutting absolutely had to happen. The back of my neck and head began to feel free, to feel air passing over them, as thick chunks of brown hair intermittently fell into my sink.

       It was time. i was disarming my racially charged haircut. i’d reflected and decided to cut off my dread hawk. This process was long in coming and felt utterly cleansing. As my hair stopped pulling on my scalp i felt lighter. i was doing more than giving lip service to systems of racism, i had acknowledged that my actions had ramifications and was consciously moving into a more proactive position.

       Eight months ago i decided that normative femininity didn’t fit me, it still doesn’t. i stood in front of my mirror looking at my awkwardly shaggy, growing-out-phase hair. i thought out loud. “Why am i trying so hard to conform to beauty standards that feel like poison to me?”

       Having no answer to that question, i picked up a razor. i had other identities beside my trans* identity. My sense of coming up with a punk outlook seemed to be the perfect method to cultivate a new, non-poisonous femininity. i shaved the sides of my heads.

       At this point i didn’t even acknowledge the question of cultural appropriation. i’d dealt with it long ago, as a boy punk, and decided that cultures had always exchanged things. This line of thinking obviously ignores the fact that cultural exchange is, and has been, linked to systems of power, privilege, and oppression. Being good on issues of race is not something that punk culture is generally known for, and i’m definitely not proud of myself for having held this belief.

       But in the moment i felt good. i was rejecting a beauty standard; and a beauty standard exacerbated by the extremely high expectations of trans feminine folk to conform, no less. i felt free and beautiful and unique and like myself.

       i don’t know how i expected the world to respond. At that point i was less acutely aware of how even the smallest changes in presentation could shift moments of interaction. So, i was slightly dismayed when my floppy mohawk seemed to cause more people to read me as a boy than before.

       This was a problem. i was glad to have left behind a femininity that didn’t feel good to me, but wanted to be read as femme. i wanted to find a way to keep my mohawk, but to make it look good with straight bangs. My solution was anything but simple.

       i got a friend to help me dread the back half of my mohawk. So then i had a culturally appropriated haircut on top of a culturally appropriated haircut. Again, i was happy. i felt cute, and it had the desired effect of an increase in being read as femme while not conforming to beauty standards.

       This time i was not completely uncritical. i wondered about whether or not it was inappropriate, even racist to have this haircut. i became more conscious of my hair’s presence around people of color, especially those with dreadlocks. i wondered what they were thinking.

       This should have been enough for me to cut my hair, but it wasn’t. i felt like i was in a bind. As a trans femme there’s an exaggerated expectation to have long hair. Comments like “if you don’t want to get referred to as ‘he,’ then maybe you shouldn’t shave parts of your head,” are all too common. The reality of getting read more as a boy after cutting my hair was all too recent. Although i recognize this social logic as placing an undue burden on trans* people to present in specific ways to render their gender “clear” to others, often in ways that are not expected of cis folk (from what my cis friends have told me, they are rarely, if ever, questioned for their short hair), i still felt trapped.

       So i selfishly kept my haircut, despite my feelings of uncertainty. No one ever said anything, so i have no idea if i ever crossed paths with someone who was offended by it. i probably did.

       Then i went to a trans* conference where contours of privilege and power were incredibly stark. One particular moment stands out as relevant. A speaker who wasn’t from the states said the phrase “colored people” as opposed to “people of color.”

       It seemed clear to me that this was an honest issue either of translation or of a lack of cultural context. Obviously it was problematic, but it didn’t strike me as particularly vitriolic. But i don’t get hurt in a personal way by that phrase in the same way that i do by other epithets, so my opinion here doesn’t really matter. Someone did get really hurt and offended in that moment and said so.

       A pang. A realization. An obvious moment but a one that helped spark growth. i knew that people couldn’t always see one another’s intentions, and have made arguments for cautionary behavior on these grounds. And, although i’d been hurt in those types of moments, i don’t think that i’d fully internalized the incredible capacity for harm that those moments can carry for others as well.

       i resolved to interrogate my hair further when i returned home. i recognized it as a potential site of unintentional violence. Deep down i already knew the outcome. During my introspection and reading i came across the phrase, “Beingan anti-racist white person is counter-culture. Trying to present acounter-cultural image by appropriating other cultures is not.” It resonated strongly in my heart. It was the phrase i needed.

       i was still left in a quandary, i would have to shave. At that point, i was sure that’s what i would do, but was still terrified of being a trans femme with short hair. How much more shit would i have to put up with? Because i recognized that attitude, although based in a very real sense of oppression, as selfish in that it legitimated my cultural violence by positioning it as a response to my own oppression, i was able to come to embrace what i might experience as a necessary part of my cleansing process. This is not to say that i am or desired to be a martyr; just that i had to come to terms with the possibility that disarming my image may result in acute moments of gender oppression. But it was something i had to do.

       My remaining concern was that in shaving my head and leaving my bangs and side bits i’d be left with a Chelsea cut. This is a hairstyle that, in my experience, is often tied with skinhead culture. It would obviously not be productive to go from having a culturally appropriated haircut to having one that may call up images of racist violence. Again, i was concerned about how people would read this haircut, especially not knowing that it was the only option when cutting off my dreads.

       So, i made it a little longer on top than in back, essentially a flat-top with bangs. What i ended up with turned out to be a very cute, gender fucking haircut that may have had some reflexive impact on my gendered sense of self, but more on that in a future post. i felt free and beautiful and unique and like myself in a way that was much deeper than before. i had disarmed. The process itself felt cleansing, adding to a sense of beauty, this time an internal sense committed to justice and disarmament.

       Obviously people noticed that my hair changed. In all this introspection i’d been doing i hadn’t thought about how i’d handle the inevitable question of “why.” The first time it happened i made a snap decision, that to be true to my process i’d use it as a moment to discuss systems of oppression and my role in those systems. It would leave me vulnerable and open, but i hoped that my process would help those who asked to see that they too, were necessarily situated within larger structures of power and privilege that need to be interrogated and interrupted.

       Perhaps this snap decision was too lofty a goal, as people seemed to only be able to conceive of my hair as an individual decision that had no impact outside of my own happiness. Although it is true that it was an individual decision, it had a broader effect. Sartorial choices are political, no matter what they are. They exist within systems of power that are in many ways based in representations and narratives. Individual sartorial choices can work to either recast norms and expectations or interrupt them.

       People didn’t seem to understand that this could have an impact on others despite my best intentions. People didn’t seem to understand the significance of my disarmament. i had a haircut that normalized colonialism, that implied that i could pick and choose elements from any culture i desired. When i told folks that i didn’t want to do that, that i wanted to disarm it, they often had looks of confusion and said things like, “well, it’s your hair, do what you like.”

       This makes it apparent just how tacitly systems of representation operate. They operate without folks recognizing and, in this covert way, serve to reinforce and recast power and privilege. i want to continue to interrogate these systems throughout my life. i want to live as congruently as i can to my conception of a just society. This is a process that necessitates self-reflection and action. i want my existence itself to be work toward that society.