Sunday, October 20, 2013

Presuming Incompetence: A Hairstyle and a Lesson in Chicago

Top - Sofia Pertuz in Chicago with new hairstyle, Bottom Left - Book Cover for Presumed Incompetent, Bottom Right - Sofia Pertuz with book co-editor Carmen G. Gonzalez

I have a confession to make.  I presumed someone incompetent. I felt bad, took action to reverse that presumption and then I redeemed myself.  Please let me explain. A few weeks ago, I took a leap of faith with my hair that really made me think about how natural it is to profile each other based on misconceptions.  I was in Chicago attending a conference planning meeting for an organization in which I have a leadership role.  Since I got there early I took a walk to get something to eat.  I happened to walk by a beauty school that offered, “great deals for walk in clients” and I was sold.  I imagined my 10 year old daughter laughing and saying, “Mami, you even got your hair done on sale?” But who could resist a good sale?  I thought it would be pretty simple, but nothing ever is.  Anyone who knows me well is aware that I have become my own best hair stylist because I have an aversion to hair salons since I am usually not too happy with the results.
As an Afro-Latina, I have been blessed with what some would label “Black hair,” but I choose to straighten it with chemical relaxers (still working up the courage to stop doing that, but that’s a blog for another day).  The thing that gave me the nerve to walk in was seeing in the window that most of the hair stylists in training appeared to be African American.  What can go wrong if Black women are handling my Black hair? So in I went to ask how much.  The price was right, but can I really consider signing a waiver (yikes!) to allow a stylist in training to work on my hair? I walked out not really sure if I could really go through with it. I even called in support from my husband who has entertained many a hair salon worry conversation with me.  He encouraged me to take a chance, so that’s what I did and I went back to the beauty school.
So here is when I admit to my shameful presumption of incompetence of another human being.  I took one look at the young White woman who was introduced to me as my stylist and almost ran out. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that in that moment, I completely profiled her.  Based on my biased outlook, I was convinced that a White woman would not know how to handle Black hair.  But then I stopped myself and had an inner dialogue (more like an argument) about how I suspect that I have been profiled in many instances, especially in academia and how much I hate the thought of it.  I reminded myself how I really wish we could live in a world that could function with courage, hope and openness to move past stereotypes and preconceived notions and give each other the benefit of the doubt.  I also knew that if someone in the same situation called me, I would tell that person to stop being silly and to give this young White woman a chance.  How is she going to learn the complexity and intricacies of Black women’s hair if she does not get the experience to handle it?
This situation reminded me of a book I read that was recently published titled, Presumed Incompetent: the Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris.  This excellent book is a collection of stories from brave women in academia who share experiences about how because of their identities, they had been underestimated, insulted, belittled, doubted, denied tenure, and the list goes on. Women of color in higher education have been trying to successfully work against stereotypes and have been and will continue to do great things despite being presumed incompetent. I had the pleasure of meeting Carmen G. Gonzalez when I attended her presentation at Columbia University (see picture above) and it is clear that we have a long way to go, but exposing some of these heinous situations has been a start to bringing awareness.
So back to the hair - I took a deep breath and signed the waiver.  Two hours later, I was glad I did.  The stylist in training did a fantastic job on my hair and in the process (no pun intended) we had a great chat about life, following your passions and taking active steps to realize your goals.  This young lady had moved to Chicago from Michigan and left her planned college path to pursue a cosmetology degree and license. Despite her family’s disapproval, her dream is to open her own salon one day.  We were having such a pleasant conversation that I didn’t even get upset when she admitted to me that mine was the first human head on which she was able to practice her hair relaxing skills.  I was so impressed by her bravery and thought about the times I held myself back from following my dreams because I thought others around me might not approve. It turned out to be an unexpectedly affirming day. Not only did I get a nice hairstyle, I also received lessons in keeping my mind open, actively working against presuming incompetence and taking risks to follow your dreams. Not bad for a day in the windy city.