Monday, October 1, 2012

The Importance of Hair, Among Other Things

As you all know, in May I left the job that I'd spent the last three years of my life working for, and in August I got a new job.  It's been quite an adjustment-- there are so many things that this job does differently from my last one.  But in addition to the actual work experience, I've also had an interesting time interacting with my coworkers.  Don't get me wrong, my coworkers are very friendly, kind and funny-- I spend most of my shift trying not to disturb the clients with my laughter-- but I've come to realize that I am nothing like these women. We seem to come from different worlds.

Through my time spent in the social sciences, I've learned to be more observant of social interactions and behaviors, particularly how our interactions express our ideologies and beliefs about race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. And the more I learn and observe, the more distanced I feel from my peers out in the world.  At Mills, of course, the way I think is nothing new-- I'm far from radical. But at work people really just don't get me!  I see it in their looks, in the questions they ask me or they way they interact with other coworkers on a daily basis.  For instance, the other day one of the young women I work with asked me if she could see my hair (I veil at work). I obliged because it was only for a moment, and she responded with "Oh my god, your hair is so pretty! You shouldn't hide it, it's so nice!"  At that point everyone in the room agreed, teasing me about how I always cover my hair and how I'm not "showing my beauty."

I was really surprised!  Some seemed genuinely irritated that I would choose to cover my hair instead of styling it. And when someone finally bothered to ask if I (God forbid!) wear scarf on my head for reasons beyond the material, they looked at me like I was a monster when I told them I was pagan, and I was covering as a reminder to be thankful and as a reverence to the Divine.  Because who in their right might would do that (unless you're "one of those Muslim folks")? I experienced the same attitude today while eating breakfast at Panera; one of my coworkers sat down at my table, and while making small talk he referenced my headcovering as "looking like a pirate" and his tone was that of slight disgust, as if I was doing something distasteful.

Ndeya, the modern pirate! Arrrrgh!!!

How does one respond to that? Am I supposed to just shrug it off? Am I supposed to "educate" them on how to treat people with respect?  It just seems so ridiculous to me that they feel they're entitled to tell me how to dress.  But then again, I shouldn't be so surprised.  Clothes, makeup, 'looking good', etc are all things that are to be discussed at work (of which I know little to nothing, making my input unnecessary). It dominates the conversation!  How you look is paramount to these people, and not just how you think you look, but how good other people think you look!

How's my hair?

Do I look fat in this picture?

What are you wearing tomorrow?

I love that top on you!

Oh my god, those shoes on that lady are hideous.

This is my life, six hours a day, five days a week.  In addition to the constant attention to looks, there's this weird tension between men and women that makes me both annoyed and uncomfortable.  You know, that kinda flirty, "us talking could turn into sexy-sexy time off the clock" kind of tension that I have very little experience in.  I've spent the last 3 years in an almost all-women environment, with me being the only gay woman, so flirting and sexual tension (to my knowledge) wasn't an issue.  It's been a long time since I've worked with a significant of men and women together, and now that I'm back in that kind of environment I am remembering how awkward it was all those years ago at Target when I was the only girl on the CAF team. Unwelcome advances, uncouth sex jokes, gauking and oogling... it's so annoying!  It's like, I'm all for goofing off at a menial job where you're not really being paid well and no one really cares about what you do as long as the work gets done.  But do we need to be flirting all the live-long day? Can you stop thinking with your genitalia for a moment and have a real conversation with me? Or better yet, can you save it for after work, when I'm not around?

So. Looks and flirting.  That is a big chunk of the social interaction that goes on at work.

And just observing those interactions gives me an understanding about what my coworkers think about all sorts of things without them having to say them explicitly. For instance, there is not fluidity of sexuality and gender here.  It simply doesn't exist.  Either you are straight, or your are a lesbian. When I was in conversation with a coworker and I mentioned Kourtney, she said "Oh, so you're a lesbian?"

My response was "Well, I'm gay, but I wouldn't necessarily label myself as a lesbian. I don't feel the need to label myself in such terms."

"Well, do you have sex with men?"


"Then you're a lesbian."  Because she's the expert on how people in the LGBTQ community identify.  Because sexuality is ONLY about who you have sex with, and nothing else. Because she knows me better than I know me.

Another example is ideas about race.  I asked someone at work if they watched Family Guy, they said no, followed by "Only white people watch that show."  Last time I checked, I was a Black woman, ergo, at least one Black person watches the show.  Or another example:

"All your music on your iPod is super white.  You're totally white, Ndeya!" <insert laughter>

I don't even know what to say to that one.

Obviously there are very specific ways in which one performs "whiteness" and "blackness" (which I understand, but never really had to abide by until now), and I miss the mark 95% of the time.  This results in the teasing, the laughing, being called "silly" and "weird" a lot, and a myriad of other explicit and implicit social indicators of where I stand in comparison to the rest of my coworkers. And that's not to say that my coworkers are inherently mean.  They're not.  They are, on the whole, nice people.  And I don't dread going to work everyday.  But damn, they sure know how to make a girl feel like an outsider!  I couldn't be more different from them.  I'm the dirt-worshiping, lady-loving liberal hippie girl from the Challenge-everything-I-can-istan, and they are more norm-loving, straight-sex-having conservative protestants from Normative Land.

Well, that's a generalization.  A few of them are Catholic.

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