This article was originally published on XO JANE.
While studying abroad, I quickly became friends with one of my neighbors on my floor, Thomas. Thomas is Dutch and spent most of his early adult life in St. Croix, an island in the Caribbean that has a lot of melanin — in other words, he grew up around black folks. Thomas also has a son who is close in age to me. We immediately clicked with one another, and I’m just a weirdo who always seem to gravitate to and get along well with older people.
Looking back, I see that Thomas and I were destined to grow close. During the first conversation I had with Thomas, not even 15 minutes of meeting him, he looked at me and said: “Thank you for being confident enough to wear your natural hair.”
Yes, a white man that I just met opened his mouth and without hesitation commented on my hair. To hear that from someone on your first day in a foreign country either sends you into doubting your decision to study abroad or you do like I did and write it off to Dutch directness.
Conversations with my new Dutch friend would range from faith to our love of chocolate to politics, race, money, and my dating life. After a while, I viewed Thomas more or less as an uncle away from home.
Now, how did it come about that I let Thomas help me with my hair? Hair that I previously never, ever let him touch? Hair that didn’t like to be to be touched by random strangers who thought it was exotic?
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Well, the short answer is, I was terribly sick and didn’t have the energy to detangle and blow-dry it myself. All my naturals know that wash day is a task in itself, and my energy was depleted both mentally and physically. This, combined with the fact that I couldn’t miss any more classes and had presentations coming up meant I was in dire need of assistance in getting myself together A.S.A.P.
Before I got the courage to ask for his help, I pondered what it would mean for me to ask him to help me with this task. Would I be on edge? Would he offend me with some remark about my texture? Would it be awkward, or would it hold some profound meaning for me? To some people, it might not seem like a big deal to ask someone whose skin differs from yours to help you with your hair, but to others, it almost seems taboo to let a man whose ancestors probably hated my ancestors touch my hair.
I approached Thomas innocently, asking for an innocuous favor, starting off with how badly I’ve been feeling and my lack of energy — you know, gain some sympathy before you go in for the kill. Then I laid it on him and asked if he would mind helping me with my hair.
Thomas’s expression first went from startled to an expression that seemed delighted that I would even think to ask for his help. Thomas agreed to help me, and so we began the task of helping me get myself together.
I told him how to dampen my hair with my spray bottle, begin at the end of my hair and work the comb through to detangle it. As we sat there, Thomas recalled from his youth how he would help his girlfriend put her afro into braids and how she taught him to dance to the rhythm of the music being played. As he worked his way through my hair, I felt reassured that even if he didn’t completely get it, he at least had some understanding of a black girl and her hair.
I realized that I asked Thomas rather than anyone else on the floor because we’d built a relationship that had some depth to it; we knew each other comfortably enough to tease each other and to be honest and critical with one another. He wasn’t just a white Dutch man and I wasn’t just a black Caribbean girl. He was Thomas and I was Kelly.
There was no tension or awkwardness as we sat in my room, him sitting in a chair with a wide-tooth comb and me sitting on a pillow with a box of Kleenex. In fact, we sat there and watched Big Bang Theory, laughing along at Sheldon being Sheldon.
When he saw me take out the camera to take a picture, he made a joke that I was going to show my mom that I found a new hairdresser. But it wasn’t for that. It captured a moment in time when I didn’t have to deal with prejudices, discrimination, hate, and all the ugly injustice in the world we live in. It focused on a simple kindness of a neighbor helping a neighbor, or in this case, of an uncle away from home helping out his niece.