I guess you can say I grew up “afro-centric.” From an early age, my father taught me to be proud of my heritage. He gave me books that contained African-American characters, written by Black authors. We frequently visited the African-American arts community in Chicago, indulging in plays, Kwanzaa celebrations, and African Fest. While my Black peers fantasized about having lighter skin, I yearned to be shades darker. I was Black and proud.
It wasn’t until I went off to college that I began to struggle with being an African-American woman. Although the “Angela Davis” in me wanted to attend a HBCU, I somehow ended up at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution). For the first time I was slightly ashamed of my full lips and behind, despite compliments from my White counterparts. There was one time in particular a White girl on campus randomly walked up to me and said “Oh my gosh you’re so beautiful.” I thanked her and walked away in shock. I couldn’t believe a White person could acknowledge and appreciate Black beauty. It was foreign to me. Despite moments like that, I couldn’t help but to feel like my beauty was offensive. Instead of graciously accepting I was a young woman with African features, when surrounded by my White peers, there were times I felt like the elephant in the room.
During my senior year in college I lived in an “intentional” house. It was four white women along with four Black women, and our goal was to be racially reconciled. That experience generated many conversations, including the obvious: hair. I explained to them how I’d wanted to go natural for a long time, but I was scared it would prohibit me finding a job in corporate America. They sympathized with me and would occasionally encourage me to chop off my perm. I simply couldn’t find the courage to do it, until I moved to Jackson, Mississippi.
After graduation I found a yearlong internship in West Jackson. Once again, I found myself in a house full of women from all walks of life, with diverse backgrounds. Quite naturally, the topic of hair would occasionally come up, and once again, my White roommates would encourage me to “go natural.” It dawned on me that I was in danger of going my entire life without fulfilling a desire, because of what society had deemed “acceptable.” I was in a new city and didn’t have to worry about being influenced by family and friends. Besides, if I didn’t like my natural hair, I could always go back to a perm. My mind was fully made up. In order for me to really begin my natural hair journey I knew I had to cut off majority of my perm. At the time I had a long wrap. It was necessary for me to cut it in order to refrain from procrastinating a few more years. And here is where it gets good: as I was cutting off my ponytail my White roommate grabbed the scissors and began cutting too. She couldn’t explain it, but she said for some reason it was liberating for her as well. For the next six months I wore braids and twists. The same roommate who helped cut off my hair drove me to the salon to receive my official big chop. We both were extremely overwhelmed with joy and shock. Later on that evening we went out to celebrate me finally accepting the natural me.
In retrospect, it breaks my heart to see how deflated my self-esteem would become around White people. I lacked the confidence to truly accept who I was. However, I was blessed to find amazing White friends who saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. They wanted me to experience my natural beauty and were there to hold my hand as I stepped out on the unknown. I have been natural for almost three years now. I love the person I became after I fully accepted the natural me, and if I had the chance, I’d do it all over again.
Tanikia "Nikki" Thompson is an urban media expert from Chicago who loves to travel and report on issues that impact different cultures and communities on her blog Nikki and the City. Follow her @NikkiandtheCity.