Experiencing Otherness: My Trip to the Beauty Shop

I have this friend, Kathy, from way back in the 1990s. We met through work. She wrote software manuals and I developed training for the same systems.

Kathy and I got to be Friends-friends when she overheard me talking about playing Spades. Her eyes got all big and her hands started going all jazz hands (which is highly unusual because Kathy is very elegant and reserved). She confided that she loved playing Spades but hadn’t played in years, so that Friday night, four of us got up a little card game. And that was that.

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Her baby, Maiya, was the itty-bittiest baby I ever held, just about a week old. I got so scared holding that tiny little thing when she started mewling, but Kathy wouldn’t take her back. She said, “You gotta get used to it sometime.” Maiya’s almost done with college now. Kathy had two baby girls and a husband and a house and all those grown up things while I was just getting my legs under me. We stayed friends after I married and left town. Our little Spades group got together as much as we could. When Fartbuster and I divorced, Kathy talked me through it. When Richard and I met, Kathy cheered me on. When he got sick, she started praying for him. And for me.

A few months after Richard was diagnosed with leukemia, Kathy called me on a scorching hot summer day. She asked about Richard then I asked after her family. “You aren’t going to believe this when I tell you,” she said. “Vincent has cancer. Multiple myeloma.” I remember exactly where I was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking out over the backyard into all of that sunshine. How could this possibly be true? Two of us with husbands with blood cancer? Talk about being in the same boat, the one going right up Shit Creek.

Kathy and I kept in touch through the cancer journey. I told her what I knew about the path. Vincent had more options than Richard. His chemo worked…pretty much. I was ashamed to admit it, but there were some days back then when I couldn’t talk to Kathy. Her husband was getting better and mine was getting sicker. But I was glad for her and the girls and Vincent. It was just hard to have enough space in my heart with all that fear clanging around in there.

Well, Richard died. Kathy told me she couldn’t come to the funeral and I absolutely understood 100% why that would be too much. She couldn’t let the idea of dying into her mind when their hold on life was so shaky. I was glad for her family, that they had found a way out.

One weekend, I went down to visit and Vincent and I talked about painting (he was an artist and teacher). We were in his studio at the back of their house so he could show me some of his latest drawings. He pulled out a painting of a chanteuse, maybe Billie Holliday, done in purples and yellow. I commented on the range of colors that he used to create skin tone. He pulled out a companion painting of a young man in a bowler hat and bow tie, something reminiscent of the 1910’s. Yellow brought out his cheekbone, while purple made the hollow of the cheek. White wasn’t white–it was yellow. Shadows weren’t gray–they were red and purple. He tried to show me a crucial speck of green in the corner of the young man’s eye but the light in that room wasn’t strong enough. Vincent, so thin and cautious from the cancer, led me outside so I could see his painting in the sunlight. We marveled at how it touch so much color to make something as ordinary as skin. I stepped out of my own grief and felt alive that day, talking to a painter about painting. Learning again, feeling excited about the world.

Multiple myeloma is hard to beat. Vincent had a bone marrow transplant. It didn’t fix the cancer. Kathy and I talked more often but I couldn’t talk to her about being a widow. So we talked about the girls and the necessities and the good things.

Vincent died in October, at home. HIs students, his family, his friends–the whole town felt his loss. The funeral plans grew and grew and grew. When Kathy told me the date of the service, my heart sank. I was going to be out of state that weekend. She told me to go on the trip. She didn’t want me to miss any chance for happiness. But I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to help her through the hard days.

We came up with a better plan than me trying to be one more face in a thousand at the funeral. I took a Wednesday off work and came down to help her with all the things that had to be done. The girls were still going to school to keep things as normal as possible. I did the spare things–proofread the program for the service, helped her decide on a photo, zipped up his suit in a garment bag to take to the funeral home. She needed to run to the beauty shop to get her hair touched up but didn’t feel up for driving, so I drove her over.

The bell rang when Kathy pushed open the door to the beauty shop and every eye looked up to see us coming in. The owner gave Kathy a hug and patted her on the head. They started talking hair so I took a seat under the window. Once she was in the chair, Kathy introduced me over her shoulder and the salon owner gave me a small smile then got down to business.

That’s when a little girl sitting next to her mama on the row of dryers said, really loudly:

WHAT IS THAT WHITE LADY DOING IN HERE?

Her mama ignored her the first time. As the girl opened her mouth to ask again, her mama tapped her on the knee and shushed her. The whole place got quiet. I sat there alone with my magazine, trying not to be awkward.

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Many months later, Kathy and the girls came over for the weekend. In one of our late-night conversations, I told Kathy about that moment in the beauty shop and how it had stuck with me. At that point in my life, that moment was one of the first times I experienced my own Otherness. She assured me that I hadn’t been imagining the icy feeling in the salon–we had crossed a line. Kathy’s stylist gave her the cold shoulder for a few months.

I grew up in a small town where everyone knew me and my family. I went to a small school, a small church, a small hair salon. Everything and everyone around me was LIKE me. I grew up in a place that was still segregated by practice. Each half of town “kept to our own kind.” I enjoyed a position in the majority, in the ruling class (if you can call it that), so I experienced very little Otherness. That feeling of not belonging, of not being invited to the table, of trespassing.

When I wandered into that beauty shop–a place for black women, by black women–I did the trespassing and I realized I was Other.

What’s the point of this whole story?

Whenever we try to talk about racism in America, it’s tough because one side has a hard time seeing it–we’ve never been Other. And the other side has been made to feel nothing but Other. It’s our government and our schools and our lunch counter and our bus and our ourness. There’s us, then there’s OTHER.

Whenever some narrow-ass terrorist starts talking about “taking back our country,” that’s someone who is afraid of Other. The more I travel, the more chances I have to experience Otherness. The wider my circle of friends, the more I listen, the more chances I have to understand Otherness.

Racism won’t go away because we pray or legislate or circulate a picture on Facebook. Racism can only be overcome when we break down the essential idea that divides Us/Other.

That was a long one. I could use a scalp massage.

 

23 thoughts on “Experiencing Otherness: My Trip to the Beauty Shop

  1. April

    Come to Ebenezer with me Sunday. It’s beautiful!! I have no words. You just have to feel it for yourself. Bring a snack! 🙂

    Reply
  2. Amanda Harris

    When I was 7 years old, I had my first experience of being Other. I went over to a friend’s house to play. Nice neighborhood, and her family treated me the way families do when their young child has a play-date: offering us a snack, making sure we had stuff to do, etc. When we went outside to go on the swingset, the other kids in their backyards started asking my friend why she had a white girl at her house. It never became anything more than those statements, and that friend and I remained friends and continued to have playdates at each other’s homes until I moved 2 years later. But until that moment, it had been a non-issue to me because I had had the privilege for the first 7 years of my life (and pretty much since then, too) of going wherever I wanted to without thinking about it. I’m so grateful that I had that experience so early. I hope I would have been empathetic to others’ feelings of Otherness anyway, but I know that experience made me forever aware that for many, they always have to be aware of the color of their skin.

    Reply
    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      Exactly! Sometimes invisibility is a privilege. Or really, the ability to shift from visibility to invisibility, depending on what you want at the time.

      Reply
  3. Jennifer Foehner Wells

    This was poignant and lovely. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this. In today’s climate, white folks have to stand up and say these things. We must stop tolerating racism. We must keep breaking down these barriers that separate us. It’s just a skin pigment.

    Reply
    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      We need male feminists, white anti-racism crusaders, etc. Thanks for reading, Jennifer!

      Reply
  4. Terri

    Jessie has gone on occasion with friends while they’ve had their hair done — entertained one sister while the other is in the chair. They are LONG appointments, and she has always come home fascinated with the braiding, etc. I wonder if she has noticed her Otherness aside from having shorter hair appointments.

    When I was in kindergarten, we moved to Okinawa. I attended a DoD school filled with other military brats of all colors. While we waited for a spot to open up in base housing, we rented a house in a “regular” neighborhood. There were a few other American families in the neighborhood so I wasn’t the only student on the school bus, but we were definitely in the minority. I remember being invited to a birthday party right after we moved in, and I was the only non-Okinawan girl there. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese and was unfamiliar with all of their customs. It’s been 40 years and I can still recall feeling completely alien. The girls were all nice enough, but it was an uncomfortable afternoon for me.

    I’ve always been glad that we had that experience living “with the locals” because I made some friends and I loved going to their homes and experiencing their customs. But I was always very conscious of my Otherness. It certainly altered my perspective when we moved back stateside.

    Reply
  5. Chris Antenen

    This is so you, Ashley. Beautifully written.

    I’ve had my experiences with otherness, too.

    Before she died, and remember she didn’t know she was going to die, Amy asked me to write about two things on my blog. One was to write about her son’s four dwarf guinea pigs named Margaret, http://www.chrisantenenmaybe.com/2014/02/the-tale-of-multiple-margarets.html, That was easy, and a joy to write.

    The other was to write about my involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the sixties. She had most of the files I brought from Florida, but somehow they got lost. I did find a letter and a newspaper picture, but I somehow am embarrassed to say we didn’t even make a dent in the racism, well maybe a dent, but a very small one. And the worst thing about that is that we worked so hard. One of these days soon, I will have the guts to write about it, but it’s very important to say that the women I met during that time have allowed me to sustain my belief that we can get rtid of racism. Maybe not in my time or your time, but maybe for Vivi and Carlos.

    Reply
  6. Genie Smith Bernstein

    My otherness experiences mostly come from marrying into a Jewish family. When I find myself facing antisemitism just because of my last name, it always sucks the wind out of me.

    Reply
    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      Yep. That reminds me of a funny line from Chris Rock about the stupidity of racism: “don’t hate me because I’m black. Get to know me and I’ll give you 100 reasons to hate me.”

      Reply
  7. Colleen

    Interesting story! I never really thought about “Otherness” before because, like you, I grew up in a place where everyone was like me. In college, I took a class that taught about the differences in Catholicism in various cultures and one of the assignments was to go to a Haitian Church service. It was the first time I felt “Otherness”. My class and I didn’t do anything right. We sat in the front row, which was generally reserved for the elderly and the sick. We didn’t arrive at the right time. We didn’t know the rituals. It was really an eye opening experience and I will never forget the looks from the congregation that clearly said “Why are you HERE?!” It was awkward. Ultimately, though, once my teacher talked to the priest after the service, we were welcomed with open arms and answered questions, but I’ll never forget their initial reaction…

    Reply
    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      All groups need a safe space and it’s polite to respect those gateways. I blundered through a gateway into the safe space of the beauty shop. Your class blundered into a safe space, but once you honored the congregation by explaining your presence, you were welcome. I think we often, as majority, don’t remember that every door isn’t open to us.

      Reply
  8. Kathy

    Ashley–dear friend. Thank you for making an experience we shared together so relevant to our present time. I’m honored to be a part of a story that shines a light on the thoughts we all have, yet can’t express so eloquently. Thank you also for bringing my memories to light again.

    Reply
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