Kai Bella believes in racial color-blindness.
Bella has just finished telling me that, yes, she absolutely does believe in racial color-blindness.
“I live it every day,” she says. “I’m married to a white man, and I don’t look at him and say, ‘my really pale white husband.’ I mean, I believe it because I live it.”
While Bella talks, she uses hook-nosed pliers to remove Marcia’s extensions.
“I feel like San Diego is a little more color-blind compared to Boston,” Bella says. “In Boston, it was never anything dangerous, just more voicing their opinions about the fact that we’re together and he’s pale-skinned and I’m dark-skinned. I remember one day we were walking downtown [in Boston] and a guy in a truck drove by — I’m pretty sure he was black — and said, ‘You better wake the fuck up, sister!’ We were holding hands crossing the street, and I can only imagine what he meant. He could have meant that my shoes didn’t match my purse. I don’t know…”
She laughs at the recollection then adds, “In San Diego, either they don’t say anything or they don’t care, which we like.”
Although nearly everyone else in the salon wears jeans and stand-on-your-feet-all-day shoes, Bella is decked out in black leather boots with killer heels. “I always wear heels. When I don’t, my husband who’s 6'4" will say, ‘You’re really short.’”
It’s not just about the shoes, though. Bella has a dress-to-impress policy in general. The bubble hem of her black-and-taupe striped dress falls an inch or two above her knee, and the long chains of three silver necklaces cover the top half of her hairdresser’s apron. The only hint that it’s 10:00 a.m. is the pair of black-rimmed driving glasses she dons. They’re camouflage, she confesses, for when she’s not wearing make-up.
“I never do make-up for my early morning appointments,” she says. “I’ll do it on my lunch break.”
Marcia, her client, laughs. She’s not wearing make-up either.
Bella lives with her husband, a corporate attorney, and their two dogs in Clairemont, a part of San Diego where she sometimes goes “for days without seeing another brown person.” She’s been estranged from her own family for 14 years. She prefers not to explain why except to say, “There comes a certain point when you need to push certain things that are holding you back out of your life.”
Of her husband’s family she says, “His mom is my mom. It’s funny, she jokes to me, ‘If anything ever happened, you’d still be my daughter. We would choose you over him.’”
Don’t ask Bella to talk about issues the black community faces. She’ll tell you she doesn’t run with that crowd. “It would be almost like asking me what are some of the major issues that the Asian community faces. I just don’t travel in that community. I could tell you what my issues are, but I don’t think my issues are unique. Aging, weight, height, you know, those things. I think my issues are more female related as opposed to related to the color of my skin.”
She finds it amusing that when she and her husband flew to Europe for their honeymoon in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, people in Greece inquired about the welfare of her family.
“People in the service industry, whether it was waiters or the hotel concierge, were, like, ‘Oh, my God. Are you from Louisiana? Is your family okay?’ They assumed that because of the way I look, I was from Louisiana and was somehow affected by Katrina, which I thought was funny. We laughed. We got a kick out of it.”
Hillcrest and downtown are Bella’s favorite San Diego neighborhoods for hanging out, with the most “city people” San Diego has to offer.
“I’m a city girl,” she says. “I like to dress up. In the lab, I was the only one who wore heels every day. I was the most fabulous-looking microbiologist ever.”
“Oh. Yeah. Didn’t I tell you that?” she says, when both Marcia and I give her a “what lab? what microbiologist?” look. “I was a scientist for eight years. I kind of fell out of love with it.”
And then, while Eddie Money, Kajagoogoo, and the Cars provide an ’80s soundtrack, Bella fills us in on how she transitioned from a six-figure salary as manager of a microbiology lab to her present position as a hairdresser and Hairlocs extension specialist. She continues to remove Marcia’s extensions one at a time while she speaks, her story punctuated with the clink of copper beads landing in a small metal tin.
“I was disenchanted with working in the lab, working 12-hour days, 14-hour days, and the most important factor in my leaving was that, even after all that, it wasn’t enough. There was still more work to be done. I was losing touch with friends. I was just losing myself.”
In November 2009, she quit her job as a microbiologist and began to take classes at Paul Mitchell Beauty School. In January 2010, she rented the salon station where we now sit. Though she isn’t sure about long-term goals, she’d like to get back to that six-figure salary. Hair extensions may not take her all the way, but it’s a good start.
“A partial [about 150 strands] can go anywhere from $900 up to $1500. And a full can be anywhere from $1300 up to $3000, if you’re getting Russian hair imported from Russia and it’s long. I’ve charged up to $4500 because that hair, just to order it, is really expensive. Then, for maintenance, which is what Marcia’s having today, I charge $100 an hour.”
According to Marcia, it’s worth the expense.
We’re now at the back of the salon, where Bella shampoos Marcia’s hair. She hums along with Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” while she lathers and massages. I ask Marcia if it feels wonderful to have her head free from the beads and extensions.
“Actually, I feel kind of naked,” she says.
Marcia first came in to see Bella after a “really bad haircut.” She calls Bella her “guardian angel” and says, “I will forgo buying clothes to at least be able to look in the mirror.”
At 12:10, Bella leaves Marcia at the sink with a steaming towel over her head, to help the conditioner absorb, and heads to the “color room” to gather supplies and nibble on a donut. At 12:15, Bella rinses Marcia’s hair and sends her to the chair out front. Returning to the color room, Bella opens two tubes and squeezes some from each into a plastic bowl and mixes them with a wire whisk. The smell of ammonia stings my nostrils. Marcia wants lowlights (darker than her all-over color), so rather than asking her to purchase more hair, Bella attempts to dye some of the blonde hair Marcia already owns.
While many of Bella’s clients want a color and/or a cut, the majority come for hair extensions. “They’re addictive,” she confesses. “I have a full head in, probably 300 strands.”
I’d wondered. Her spirally hair falls nearly to her bum. I inquire about the hair issues that plague so many black women for most of their lives. She claims she’s never had “black hair issues” but “curly hair issues.” I ask point blank if she’s ever wished she were white.
“No! Never!” she says, as if the idea is close to being either ridiculous or horrifying.
I’m paying too much attention to Bella’s response to notice whether Marcia flinches at Bella’s tone. By now we’re all back at Bella’s station. She’s finished blowing Marcia’s hair dry and is applying color. She lays a thin section of hair on top of a piece of foil, dips a paintbrush-looking tool in a plastic bowl filled with a creamy mixture, which she brushes onto the hair. She folds the foil in half, and then in half again. A pair of black vinyl gloves keep the color off her hands. Before long, Marcia has a head full of tin foil.
“I’ve always been told, ‘You’re smart,’ ‘You’re pretty,’ ‘You’re amazing,’ ‘fun,’ whatever, so I’ve never really felt like an outsider,” Bella says. “I was always popular. I think when people think like that, [they have] other things going on. I also grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so it wasn’t like I grew up in a time when it was maybe a little less popular to have brown skin.”
“Segregated” is the first word she uses to describe the Boston in which she grew up, but she says it as though the segregation was incidental and of no real consequence.
“Even though Boston is kind of a segregated city — Southie is Irish, and Roxbury is predominantly African-American — I went to Southie with my Irish friends,” she says. And at her high school, “Yeah, the black kids ate at the table where all the black kids sat, but there was always one or two white kids or Spanish kids or Asian kids there, too. I don’t feel like it was as exclusionary as much as perhaps that they lived in the same neighborhood.”
After a minute, she reconsiders her perspective on the significance of Boston’s segregation.
“It’s hard to say what other people think. I joined every club — drama club, cheerleading, student council — so I had friends in all walks of life. I’m really extroverted, and that could be a factor. It’s hard for me think in those terms because I would always befriend somebody because I wanted to befriend them, not because they looked like me or didn’t look like me.”
Recently, Bella says, a friend asked if she’d ever dated a black man.
“That question is always funny to me simply because I started dating my husband when we were 17. I mean, I wasn’t dating when I was 14. When I say, ‘No,’ most people think, ‘Oh, it’s because you don’t like black men.’ And I’m, like, ‘No, actually I love all men.’ But I happened to have found my husband at a very early age.”
The majority of those who have questioned her relationship with her white husband have been, “mostly black men,” she says. “And that hasn’t been my experience out here.”
These days, in her “color-blind” San Diego, where she and her husband have lived for eight years, Bella says, “I have friends from all races who love us, and I feel like it’s not an issue. If it was, it would have come up by now. I mean, they house-sit for us.”
After Bella removes the foil and washes the color mixture from Marcia’s hair, she dries it again and begins to refasten the extensions, again using the hook-nosed pliers. It’s already 2:00 p.m., and Bella has another appointment at 3:00. Marcia is also short on time. They’re not going to get through the whole process today. Bella is only able to finish a few rows of extensions above the nape of Marcia’s neck before their time runs out.
“I’ll come to your house tomorrow,” Bella says. “I’m off the whole day. You tell me what time. Please don’t say 6:00 a.m.”
Marcia laughs. They settle on 11:00, after Marcia gets home from church.