“In solidarity with young girls and women who look like me and those who don’t — I want them to know that their braids, their dreads, their super-curly afro puffs, their weaves, their hijabs and their headscarves, and all other variety of hair styles belong in schools, in the work place, in the boardroom, and yes, even here on Parliament Hill.”
I said those words over two years ago when I was a Member of Parliament with the Government of Canada, after hearing of young black girls in Canada and the United States being removed from classrooms because their hair was “too puffy.” I faced microaggressions myself, at work. I had colleagues mistake me for, and tag me in pictures as, other black women. A male colleague once told me he wished to run his fingers through my hair. And despite working in Parliament since January 2016, and security being required to memorise the description of all Members, I was still asked why I was coming into my office building more than three years into the job.
So recently, when I heard of Gabrielle Union being fired from America’s Got Talent, reportedly for speaking out against racist utterances being made about other people of colour, I was saddened, but not surprised. And when I heard that Union had been told on multiple occasions that her hairstyles were “too black” for the show, my heart broke. I watched the show with my daughter, and together we watched Union in her braids, other times with part of it up and the rest big and poofy. My daughter looked at Union the same way she looked at me. With pride. She had another example to follow on prime time television. Union may have now been fired for looking like her.
We all know Union and have come to admire the stance she has taken on equity and justice issues, and the resilience she has displayed in the face of her own personal life challenges. In particular, her struggles conceiving resonated with me, since I had two miscarriages between my second and third child. I have respected her from across the border, and felt a kinship in her difficulties.
Most black women who live in North America can relate, because we have been there at some point. Walking down hallways and hearing comments about the size of our lips, hips, noses, and breasts. Going into spaces and being asked “Can I touch your hair?” or feeling someone else’s hands in it, with no warning. Having to conform to European standards of beauty and straighten our hair to “fit in” or otherwise be defined as “unprofessional.” As a black woman, I have had to hold my breath and pause internally as I wonder how to respond to comments about my hair. I have had to grit my teeth and force a smile so I don’t make the offender feel uncomfortable. I have had to clap back because I had enough, and nobody else was saying anything. And I have had to speak out to amplify the collective voices of those who felt like they couldn’t. Most, if not all black women, know each of these responses intimately. I can feel you nodding in agreement. You did not need Gabrielle Union’s recent experiences to validate yours.
This is a part of the narrative for women who are black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) — daily microaggressions, a death by a thousand cuts, that slowly erodes our feelings about work and our feelings about ourselves. So little black girls being reprimanded at school because their hair is too poofy, my speech, Union’s firing, and other stories like hers, hit us in the chest and force us to release a collective sigh.
But, while we are often the only BIPOC women in the room, we are not the only people in the room. There are others who witness and hear these atrocities and choose to say nothing, or choose to speak to us later in hushed corners. I want to challenge those people to do something differently. I want to challenge you to become a better ally. To simply ask, “Why?” Why did you say that to her? Why did touch her hair? Why did you make that comment? Then, get comfortable with the silence, because the offender will likely not have an answer. It’s not up to you to fill in the void. Let the silence linger. Let them feel awkward. In this time you have reversed the ownership of the awkwardness in one fell swoop. You have turned it towards the culprit and have provided a powerful opportunity for the victim to collect herself. You see, the beauty of asking why, right then and there, is that you can do it with any situation. It forces people to think about their racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, un-inclusive and/or discriminatory comments.
Unfortunately, when allies do not act, we often find that great people leave organisations because they are tired of the constant assault against their authentic selves. The burden of speaking out against racism cannot continue to fall on BIPOC individuals. Not only is it exhausting, it is not our responsibility. If you are looking for a little way to demonstrate your support, start by asking, "Why?" Why are we still holding meetings in inaccessible spaces? Why do we still have gendered washrooms? Why do you think that she does not have autonomy, and assume that somebody is forcing her to wear a headscarf? Sometimes our job is not to teach. Sometimes others just need to think.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes is the former Liberal MP for Whitby and a mother of three. A thought leader in equity and inclusion, she is currently working as a consultant and completing a PhD in Organisational Leadership. Follow her on Twitter @MPCelina.