Something I wrote years ago....and today I felt compelled to share.
by Teresa Torrella
All my life I have been a white girl, in a white neighborhood, smart and privileged (although I didn’t always think so), fully accepted except for the occasional teasing or bullying we each experience in our childhood. As far back as I can remember, I was always complimented on the color, waviness and thickness of my beautiful locks.
One day I was called to put dreads in my hair. I couldn’t tell you why. It didn’t make sense really. I didn’t smoke pot, I wasn’t exploring the Rastafarian way of life, I wasn’t anything the stereotype would say a person with dreads is. I spent 3 days with one of my best friends at the time, 28 hours total, having her put 89 dreads in my hair. My head hurt and I didn't know if I could continue but I persevered. Those first weeks after, I would laugh feeling like Side Show Bob from the Simpsons when I saw my hair. Even friends would say they are beautiful but why would you do that. I didn’t have an answer, just I had to.
My boss who I rarely saw because I worked remotely, saw me one day at a meeting and after the several hour long meeting and many stares from people who had known me for years, I was told “that is not controller/accountant hair". What? with a gasp was the extent of my reaction in that moment.
We drove back to Central Florida from Colorado in our friends rv for my sisters wedding several months after my dreads went in. A spiritual journey ensued.
While avoiding a tornado in Kansas, I went with my boys into a Walmart. I walked down the aisles and was taken aback to reactions I was getting. I had a woman staring so intently she walked into a center aisle display of cans that began tumbling like dominos all over. The dirty looks from others that it was my fault. Later in the toy section with my kids, a mom walked around the corner after her little boy, saw me, gasped grabbed her little boy and ran the other way. At checkout, a price for something came up wrong and I told the cashier and she responded that is what you pay, we do not give hand outs. As I was leaving a man said to me “filthy pig”. I walked back to my rv as the storm was whirling both outside and inside me. What the Hell was that? I have never in my life had this happen. What would create this....Was it really about my hair?
Later on our trip, we were pulled over in Arkansas. The cop said we were swerving over the lines but we were not. Our Colorado plates on an older RV was just the profiled vehicle he was hoping to find for a drug bust. My husband went out, talked to him and everything was fine. We were about to leave when he said let me run your license real quick. Matt opened the door as I held the german shepherds back, the cop saw me and my dreads and stepped back and said, I smell cannabis. Which was impossible. He then called in, said he had to search our vehicle and proceeded to be on high alert. Matt took our dogs, stood outside and I watched as the blonde haired, blue eyed, military cut young man searched our rv. He kept saying, where is it, where is it. My two innocent beautiful boys who were buckled in at the dining room table playing legos asked “mommy why is that man going through my underwear drawer”. He paused looked up at me and I said “Mommy will explain profiling when the officer leaves”. He stood up, stared at me, he then tried to make small talk about what an amazing packing job we did and all the food. I told him we were going to be gone for a month, that we didn’t like to eat out but rather enjoyed cooking together as a family which is why we were traveling by rv rather than fly. I asked him if he could hurry up because we needed to get to Campers World before they closed to get a key for one our gas cap so we could get gas. He had an embarrassed laugh and said "well I wish my wife could pack like this." Fumbled his way to the door and then left. Went back to his car. And returned with my husbands license and told us to have a great day.
When we got to Central Florida, we were still shell shocked by experiences on our journey. Only to find many making comments held under breath and the audacity of their contempt and stares. This was a town where my family lived, a town where we had lived for several years ourselves. With no apologies for the way they were reacting to another human being. I was surprised and hurt.
We went out to eat with several of my sisters friends one night. One of them leaned over and said “I just have to ask, how can you stand never washing your hair? That is so gross and dirty”. In that moment, I saw things differently. I had never been judged, treated differently and disrespected before in my life for my appearance. Could my hair that had been a subject of so many compliments all my life being dreaded shifted so dramatically who I was to these people, even ones that have known me for years.
To be attacked, feared and profiled was something most of us will never ever get to experience. I realized in that moment, this was why I had dreads. I was to experience life as a person that wasn’t fully accepted in our society. I was to be able to empathize with a people that receive less due to their appearance. If you have never walked a mile in someone’s shoes can you even imagine? I will say what I experienced is mild in comparison to the words I hear, the actions I see of others against and about a person for their appearance, race, who they love or religion. I believe it is fear that runs this and Fear does crazy things to people.
These were powerful times for not only me, but my family. Powerful wisdom conversations with my kiddos. And a profound realization of just how far we as humans have to go in loving one another for who we are and where we are. That no matter a belief, who we support or an appearance, we don’t have to fear them, attack them or treat them with disrespect.
I no longer have dreads. After several years, I combed them out. Which was a journey in of itself. I have my beautiful locks back, and get complimented on them again. I still sometimes wonder if I would have ever realized just how we each reject another if I hadn’t had my dread head experience.
None of us are perfect, but yet we all are. Some of us think we have good reason for our disgust, fear or anger towards someone different. I know we all can’t walk a mile in another’s shoes….but we can learn empathy. If we pause and ask ourselves "what am I afraid of when I see this person", we just might be able to see beyond their appearance and see that the person is not unlike ourselves. They love, they fear, they have aspirations and dreams and they cry with sadness.