Racism is one of those things that you have to keep a sense of humor about. Not necessarily in the literal sense, so much as if you don’t learn to shrug some of this shit off every once in a while, it might kill you. It’s what the old folks meant when they said they “laugh to keep from cryin’.”
So let’s have a laugh, but not at my expense. Let’s laugh at people who are racist for saying the darndest things and for coloring (pun) the lives of people of color with ignorance, fascination, pretend-compliments, and naïveté, even while we go about our lives like everybody else.
A close friend and I were meeting up around the Christmas holidays to catch up. Though we are both from Philadelphia and now both live and work in the Washington, D.C., area, it had been hard to find a moment to be in the same place at the same time.
A few weeks ago, she texted me and suggested we stop passing like two ships in the night and actually be friends in person. As we coordinated schedules, she mentioned that she had an appointment for a bikini wax at 2 p.m., but was available to hang out any time after. I, due for a little landscaping myself, decided I would also try to make an appointment at the wax studio around the same time that day, so that we could both leave together and gallivant from there.
It was a simple plan, and my friend highly recommended the location, and made note that I could book my appointment online. Now, there is a place that I usually go that's not far from this one, but I figured hey, a close friend highly recommended it, it would save us some time, and besides the Yelp reviews were good.
Let me pause here and say that I am not someone who writes reviews. My Yelp account is used for the express purpose of accessing discounts and reading what others have to say about a location, goods, or service. So I went on Yelp, I looked up the place that I was about to go to, and I saw strong recommendations by name for two estheticians, one of whom my friend had an appointment with at 2 p.m. When I signed onto the wax studio’s website to make an appointment, as my friend recommended, I selected my day and time slot preference. Neither of the two estheticians were available. But there was a third (who did not have a picture on the site like the others did, so I assumed she was new), so I shrugged my shoulders and scheduled my appointment.
While at the salon, I noted that it was cute and conveniently located. My homegirl had seen a friend of hers that she went to law school with, and there were other people coming in and out, so I felt comfortable that people really did like this place. (Comfort is something that’s good to have in tow when you’re preparing to have hot wax slathered on your nethers and ripped from the root.)
When it was my turn, I went into the back, and did the usual routine: Undress from the waist down, lie on your back, look at the ceiling, and think about anything other than the fact that a complete stranger is about to literally snatch you bald. The esthetician I worked with was quick and efficient and amidst the standard-procedure awkwardness I'd remarked to myself how relatively painless. And only $53.
“Hmmm," I thought, "this might be my go-to waxing place, or at least a backup for my regular spot.”
Lost in my thoughts about where my friend and I might go drinking once the torture was over, I heard the esthetician tell me to turn over. Then the following conversation happened:
The esthetician starts going on and on with standard waxing chitchat about hair density, asking me when the last time I went was because my hair "behaved" as she's waxing, referring to how easy it was to pull and what not.
"And you're clean,” she says.
I interpreted this to mean my snatch wasn't bushy and wayward, so I ignore it.
"You're black, right?"
My brow furrows. "Um, yes."
"Yeah...you're clean," she says with some surprise in her voice.
Now I’m assuming there’s a language barrier (the woman was Asian with a heavy accent). Still, I'm still thinking she's talking about how I don't have a lot of ingrown hairs, which black women are especially prone to when waxing/shaving. So I chalk it.
"Yeah, I exfoliate," I say, somewhat sheepishly, ready to get the preceding proceeding so I can go.
"Yes, but you're clean. And you're black. Blacks are usually dirty. You don't even have a smell. Most blacks have a smell. You don't smell at all. What do you use to clean??"
Uncharacteristically, I don’t know what to say in the moment. Did she just say blacks are usually dirty? I also can't give her a piece of my mind because I'm in a compromising situation. I’m so stunned, I answer her.
The questions and answers are volleying back and forth between us, my answers becoming more clipped and curt as she continues. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Being that I’m still on the table, I kind of feel at her mercy in the moment, although my chest is getting tight.
"Wow. Just Dove? I mean, I have a little bit of a smell, you know? Most women do. Blacks smell especially bad. But not you. You don't have one."
Good job, Exceptional Black Girl.
She wipes me clean (a little too intently, quite frankly, and I’m not sure if that’s because her curiosity got the best of her, or maybe I’m just imagining it). But I am bewildered, and over it, and offended, and just want to get the hell out of the store. She tells me the service is $53. I hand her my card, to which she says, "Do you want to add tip to the card or do you have cash?"
So let’s review. Racism, then I’m pressed for a tip. Then let’s also remember that other stereotype about how black people don’t tip. So here I am, at another Catch 22. I just want to leave.
And I do. I tell her I have cash, and she eagerly hands me back my card, and I open my wallet nice and wide to put it back in, revealing the $20 in the billfold. Then I close it and walk back to the lobby, feeling a great many things at one time. Once I get outside with my friend, I tell her laughing, making a joke of it. But I thought about it for a few days, wishing I’d gone off in the moment.
So I took to Yelp, and I wrote my first review ever, recounting my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad experience.
And I got an email from the business a few days later. It reads:
“Dear Ms. Francis,
On behalf of [our] staff, We are truly sorry for the incidence [sp] you experienced on your last visit with us. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We absolutely agree with you that what you experienced should not happened. At [our business], we have zero tolerance for racial remarks; thus, the individual whom serviced you had received serious counseling from management. Again, at [our business], we are committing to treat all our clients with respect and dignity. We ensure such incidence will never happen again. Maya, please accept our sincere apology! We really hope to see you and make up to you again! Only thing we would ask is for your forgiveness and accept our 50% discount on your next service - We would appreciate if you could remove your previous review.
Thanks again for your sharing and Happy New Year[.]”
So in case you missed that, the esthetician I saw still works there, and I was offered a 50 percent discount on my next service (meaning, I’d have to come in and spend more money) and I was asked to remove my initial review. You know, so that they don’t lose business over casual racism in Washington, D.C., also known as Chocolate City.
I told my friends this story, and it’s the same reaction, time and again. Their mouths drop open, and a smile creeps in at the corners of their mouths. And a sound comes out. It’s not a laugh at how absurd it is, necessarily, but it’s not tears because it’s not sadness either. It’s an indescribable feeling, really, if you haven’t felt it first-hand. It’s something in between, for which there are no words.