When she worked on New York’s ultra-liberal Upper West Side, more than one white customer asked whether she knew how to cut “white hair.” And when she learned to work with braids, they did not admire the hours of effort that had gone into that. Instead, they questioned even more intently her ability to cut “white hair.”
Two customers, she said, would not even speak to her or to another black hairdresser. Only white hairdressers, their actions said, should cut “white hair.”
But by that argument, should only men cut men’s hair? Can a woman understand a man’s hair styling desires as well as another man can?
Okay, although barbers were, at one time, exclusively men (with beauty salons for women), we’ve gotten beyond those dark ages. Still, I am continually surprised when I stumble over residual prejudices in others and in myself — leftover ideas, perhaps, from childhood. Several years ago, when I lived in a Santa Monica apartment building, a black couple with a baby moved in – the building’s first black residents. In the back of my mind I wondered if, as I had learned as a kid, property values would go down, or our neighborhood would become less snazzy.
I soon became friends with the couple, however, only to become enraged when a single white neighbor reported them to Child Protective Services because their baby allegedly cried too much.
In this case, the prejudiced view would inform me that my white neighbor, whose complaint was investigated and found unwarranted, was not diminishing my neighborhood’s value, while the black couple was. I, on the other hand, preferred the black couple as neighbors. By the time a second couple – he black, she white – moved in, my unconscious prejudices about property values had been exorcised. Instead, I was curious.
The white girl was from an Armenian family, who threatened to disown her should she marry her black boyfriend. She nevertheless married him without most of her family at the wedding. A year later, however, her sisters and family were asking both of them for advice and help with their own problems.
Not only did her family benefit; so did I. Her courage inspired me to follow my own dream: pulling up roots from 20 years of Santa Monica living, and moving to New York.
With both of these neighbors, I benefited by confronting unconscious prejudices. And this gets us back to the Presidential election which, pollsters say, is neck and neck.
Question: Would the election be neck and neck if Obama were white? Answer: No, I don’t think so. So, is the election really about race? Haven’t we Americans gone “post racial?”
I asked Simone about the other objections to Obama.The first was that he was allegedly born in a foreign country (let’s not quibble about which one from the multiple choices we have been given). Next, that he is a “secret Muslim,” concealing his identity, a la Clark Kent, by attending a Christian church and getting married by a fiery Christian pastor of whom you may have heard.
No, said Simone. Those objections would get no traction if Obama were white. The real issue is race.
An NBC poll released Monday seemed to back her up. Among white men, Romney leads Obama 64 to 31. And the lead would be even wider if the poll were of only straight white men - gay men and women disproportionately supporting the President.
So, is this gap really about policy, or about something else? And what price are we, as a country, paying for our prejudices?
On a personal level, should I forgo Simone’s services because of childhood fears that, since black hair has a different texture, a black woman can not properly cut “white hair?” Would I prefer second rate services from a white person to first rate services from, in this case, a professionally trained black one?
Doubtless, many Romney supporters do not back him out of racial animus, but believe that he is the better candidate. Still, in an election this close, the balance can be tipped by even a relatively few haters coupled with others who might sit it out because they are unaware of their prejudices. And then we, as a country, pay the price.
So if the choice is more a equitable administration led by a black man, or policies favoring the extremely rich led by a white man, who will we choose? Will we rouse ourselves to vote, or take a pass?
We’ll find out November 6th.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist