Racism caused early graying, now I’m turning it into hair art

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: by The Cut; Celeste Noche / Courtesy of subject

I was 16 when I discovered my first white hair. Judging by his multiple siblings, he had probably been there for quite some time. I was playing xylophone in my high school band when a friend standing behind me pointed it out to me. The strangest thing was that the hair was not gray, but pure white from root to tip. It was evil, foreign, like an invader on my body. It’s supposed to only happen to old peopleI thought as I pulled it out.

Racism first hit me when I was 9 years old. The animated show The simpsons was released that year, and most parents allowed their children to watch it, without knowing the content. Apu was an Indian character who worked at a convenience store similar to 7-Eleven, selling frozen drinks and day-old hot dogs. Voiced by a white male with an exaggerated accent, Apu has always been the butt of jokes, including for his melodic catchphrase, “Thank you, come back!” Being Indian, every time I saw a scene with Apu, a small ball of shame the size of a peach pit slowly throbbed in my chest.

The first time someone asked me if my dad worked at 7-Eleven, it caught me off guard. Not understanding, I explained that my father was actually a medical examiner. “Are you sure?” asked the boy. “I bet he said, ‘Do you want to buy a Slurpee?'” Everyone around me laughed, as I stood there confused and embarrassed.

Leena in third grade when the racism started.

In middle school, racist taunts happened multiple times a day. I gave a speech about India, bringing crispy fried papad to hand out, and was bombarded with spit dumplings as the kids talked about me, saying ‘Thanks, come back’ and mocking my food “stinky”. The cool girls in the class used their Lip Smackers lip gloss to put fake bindis on their heads, while the teacher smiled, ignoring everything. A fight with a girlfriend led to her friends following me to lunch, repeating Apu’s phrases and spitting chewed food in my hair. I brushed nourishment from my thick, wavy dark brown hair, the results of my dad’s black Indian hair and my white mom’s light brown hair. I pretended to be sick so I could quit school or not attend at all, hang out at home watching old TV shows, where I felt safe. After school, the phone pranks started, overwhelming my safe space. I started having panic attacks every time the phone rang.

I had hoped high school would be different. Instead, strangers and acquaintances regularly hurled racial epithets at me. I will disclose to a few close friends. “Oh, Leena, stop being so paranoid! Nobody talks about you!” they would always reply. I would have given anything for a single teacher at school to defend me or explain to me what was going on. i was the butt of everyone’s jokes and i was unpopular because of my looks so something is wrong with me i didn’t tell my dad or mom because the embarrassment was overwhelming. The ball of shame in my chest was now the size of a grapefruit, pulsating every hour of every day. I spent a lot of time alone. What I didn’t know was that my father was facing to racist taunts similar to mine: “What camel did you ride to work today?”; promotions were denied on the grounds of race.

Leena in 11th grade, when she found the first white hairs.

I had no idea racist interactions like that would drain my hair color in patches, a visual diary of its impact that I wore daily. And I could never have imagined how my adult self would begin the healing process by choosing the brightness.

Throughout my 20s, I kept pulling my white hair out, not knowing why it kept coming back. I tried dyeing my hair a bit, bleaching it and adding some bright red or Superman blue highlights. But dyeing my own gray hair dark brown never looked right. Even in my own family, I felt like a stranger. My mom had dyed her naturally light brown and gray hair for as long as I can remember. My Indian aunts have all dyed their hair an inky, unnatural shade of black to hide their grays. In India, my cousin kept trying to get me to go to a salon with her. “Why?” I asked him. She pointed to my gray hair as she explained in her broken English. “Gray is no good.” For the next decade of my life, I let my hair color change from dark brown to salt and pepper.

At 37, a few months after the birth of my third child, I dyed my hair pink. “What do you think?” asked my hairdresser. Serotonin bubbled in my brain like a slammed soda on the table as I tried to find the words to describe how it made me feel. “It feels good,” I said.

The bright colors felt like a homecoming. Each subsequent visit to the salon resulted in more color, moving on to completely bleaching and dyeing the bottom half of my hair with highlights and gray coverage at the top, shades of candy apple red, and the brightest purple.

Two years later, I came across a study published in January 2020 by a Harvard stem cell scientist who investigated Marie Antoinette syndrome, or premature graying, named after the French queen whose hair became completely white the day before his death at the guillotine. By subjecting the mice to a series of acute stressors, the study confirmed that premature graying was caused by the sympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s natural alarm, controlling its rapid involuntary response to stress or danger. This is what causes the fight or flight. The study found that even rapid bouts of fight or flight can permanently damage stem cells. In other words, stress occurs and the sympathetic nervous system overreacts, depleting the stem cells responsible for hair color, which can lead to premature graying. Sure, mice aren’t human, but photos of presidents before and after their term prove that it affects us too.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, trauma triggers were already invading my life, driving me to fight for justice in person and online with zero mental space available. Around this time, I found a huge new gray spot on the left side of my head. I grabbed the brightest bleach and teal hair color I could find and asked a friend to apply it. My hair was a gorgeous mix of teal, blue and green based on how the hair dye affected my different hair types, almost a mermaid effect that lifted me up every time I looked at myself in the mirror.

Photo: Celeste Noche

In September 2020, at age 40, my 9-year-old daughter and I were doing Black Lives Matter chalk drawings on the neighborhood stairs when an older white neighbor shouted, “All lives matter!” She argued with me, took our photo to show the police, threw a bag of dog shit which hit my child in the head, and hit and kicked me when I gave up his dog shit. This attack brought decades of unprocessed trauma to the surface in the form of severe anxiety and depression that left me barely functional. More gray hair appeared and I treated it with more teal hair dye.

It took going to a mental health treatment center to be diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, mostly due to racism. That’s why I fought with the attacker on the stairs. No adult had ever defended me against racism, and my daughter deserved better.

“Having PTSD is like having your body’s danger alarm constantly going off, forcing you to become hypervigilant, almost stuck in fight or flight,” my trauma therapist explained to me. I thought back to 16 and gray hair started to make sense.

I realize now that the colorful ways I covered my gray hair were part of my healing process. The ball of shame still lives in my chest, but with tons of therapy, regulation skills, and of course some brilliant hair coloring, I can keep it from getting too big.

Some people wear gray hair as a badge of honor, and some are proud of having reached a certain age or part of their life, while some young adults today dye it silver as a fashion statement. There are still women like my aunts who dye their hair to match their natural hair color. When I dye my hair a bright, bold color, I’m not trying to hide my age or my past traumas. I speak my truth, turning my hair into a vibrant banner: this is what life has done to me and my hair, and look at all the beauty I breathe in it.

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