Michelle Joni Lapidos never knew that she would fall in love with a big, black afro wig. And she certainly never knew it would change her life. But after she wore it to a dress-up party, that's exactly what happened. Now the white, Jewish "afro-girl" has been thrown in the middle of a racial firestorm.
It sounds like an experiment from a college sociology class, but Lapidos tells NPR's Michel Martin that she began wearing the wig with good, fun intentions. She was quickly called a racist by people who took offense to it.
Here's one comment on her blog, beforeandafro.com:
"From one white girl to another, please just stop. You are hurting people — you're wearing their identity and culture as a costume that you can put on and take off."
Lapidos received some encouragement, however, from Questlove, the drummer from the band The Roots. Questlove recently tweeted a picture of Lapidos sporting her wig and busting a few moves on the dance floor at a fried chicken festival. Lapidos is unapologetic for wearing the afro, but she is sorry for offending people who think she is mocking anyone's culture.
She says the afro is "a symbol of anything that makes you look at something in a different way." She explains how she "looks cooler" since the wig covers her "normal blond hair."
Lapidos says she's learned a lot from this experience, and now she enjoys educating "a ton of other clueless white people."
She says she genuinely enjoys the look of the afro. But her experience has revealed "the open wound that is still there for people who have afros who feel that they have to straighten their hair for job interviews."
If this were Lapidos' dramatic idea for a dress-up party, then you must wonder what she plans to do for Halloween. She says she'll dress as an Equal Opportunity Offender — wearing a "yarmulke, the afro, a sari, and all these different symbols of culture and religion."
"I never meant to offend anyone, but if I'm gonna offend someone, I'll offend everyone," she says. "Let's just all be offended."
After all the criticism, Lapidos says that she now wears a blond wig.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, you know today is Halloween and for many people that provides the perfect opportunity to try on a different look or persona, and for a lot of people that includes a wig. And you might not think that's such a big deal but for one woman in New York one particular wig - worn not just on Halloween but for other occasions - has sparked more than a little discussion and some heat.
Michelle Joni-Lapidos is the author of the blog beforeandafro.com. She's been donning an afro wig that covers her blonde hair and, well, let's let her tell it. Michelle Joni-Lapidos joins us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
MICHELLE JONI-LAPIDOS: Hi, Michel. Thank you so much for having me today.
MARTIN: So how did the afro wig start? Where'd you get it and when did you first decide to sport it?
JONI-LAPIDOS: I had a Studio 54 party to go to and I wanted to switch it up, go dramatic. I wanted to have a big afro and so I got it just at a little wig place on- in the East Village. And you know, as soon as I got it, I put it on and I honestly just loved the thing. I just, you know, I'm so used to like just my normal blonde hair, and it was just such a change for me and it just made me a little cooler. It's just - after the party I just started wearing it all the time.
MARTIN: So you started to do a blog just about the reactions that people had to you wearing the wig.
JONI-LAPIDOS: I was wanting to start a blog for a while and the idea of Before and Afro came very accidentally, and I was like, oh my gosh, that's a great blog name. And the blog was never really about just let me see what people's reactions are. It was just kind of the Afro for me personally became this symbol of changing my perception a little bit. And so I put it on and, you know, it's not like a big huge change in life but it's, you know, it changes your perception when you have a different hairstyle - just the way a lipstick changes your perspective. And so I started the blog Before and Afro and the Afro is meant to be kind of a symbol of anything that makes you look at things in a different way. But that is not how the public had taken it.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of how the public had taken it, you have gotten some very interesting - and I would say complex - reactions.
JONI-LAPIDOS: I read these comments and I can't even believe all the different opinions and thoughts there are on these, on white privilege and appropriating and the open wound that is still there for people who have Afros who feel that they have to straighten their hair for job interviews. And there's just so much, so many different feelings going on, and I feel some level of responsibility and yearning to just sort of like make a difference in some way. But then it's like way beyond my, you know, what I know and what I've set out to do.
MARTIN: Giving a couple of examples here, one of the comments on the site: From one white girl to another, please just stop. You are hurting people. You are wearing their identity and culture as a costume that you can put on and take off. Another one: You are a walking cliche, a white person that believes black culture, heritage and natural being is something to poke fun at, to have fun with, to experiment with and to belittle, because that is exactly what you're doing, whether you mean to or not.
On the other hand, there are a number of comments from people saying generally, you know, lighten up. And there are other - some comments from people showing African-American women wearing blonde hair. So there are other people saying, what's the difference?
JONI-LAPIDOS: Yeah. It's everything. And I'm just, I sit here and I read these comments and I really, I don't know what to do. I don't want to be offending people. And if I'm walking out and someone is like feeling bad because I'm wearing this Afro, I don't want that. But on the other hand, like I genuinely loved the look of this hairstyle and it was never like a mockery. And I sort see this whole, like it's how you perceive it. Like why - why is it a mockery because I'm - like it's - it was intended to be a flattery. Like I wouldn't be wearing it if I didn't love the way it looked. And so there's that whole idea of like, you know, is there hope for this to be better?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with blogger Michelle Joni Lapidos. We're talking about why she decided to start sporting an Afro wig from time to time and the very interesting reactions that she's gotten to that.
Didn't Questlove from the band The Roots tweet a picture of you wearing it at one party? I think he liked it.
JONI-LAPIDOS: I don't know if he liked it, if he was making fun of me, but I thought it was pretty cool. I mean I - I would never have thought he would be making fun of me because like I think it's a great hairstyle.
MARTIN: Which he wears, for people who aren't familiar.
JONI-LAPIDOS: Yeah, which he has. Which is why...
MARTIN: He wears a rather luxurious 'fro, which I think is - I assume is his.
MARTIN: Sometimes adorned with a comb, sometimes not. And - but other writers, like there have been some, you know, fairly well-known writers who have posted about this and talking about their experiences with hair. Well, what do you make of it? I mean where do you end up with this? I mean it sounds like you're still kind of chewing it over and, you know...
JONI-LAPIDOS: Oh, I am still like every, like trying to - like there's so many different ways to kind of look at this. One of them is just, you know, the perception of stereotypes, and people have seen me wearing the wig and have kind of, you know, taken it as though I was trying to make a caricature or call it stereotypes of black culture. That was never, you know, something I intended. But then that whole issue of stereotypes is like, you know, everyone kind of like beats around the bush with all these things and there's a lot of sensitivity there. And you know, part of it is like if we're just more open about our sensitivities in these things, because like I had no idea how sensitive this subject was.
And I will tell you now, like I have educated a ton of other clueless white people too who are like, whoa, Michelle, I had no idea that people felt that way. And, you know, people just didn't understand why it was such a big deal. And I actually will tell them like here is why it's a big deal. So I'm like educating people along this journey. And so I don't want to stop educating because this is like a huge - this is a journey for me because I've learned more than I ever thought I would ever learn putting on and Afro. I've learned a world of human emotions and racism as it stands today, and there's so many festering wounds still. And I also, you know, feel this obligation to kind of help the situation in any way possible. But I just don't know what, like maybe I should just stop. Maybe I should just let this kind of slide away. It's very confusing.
MARTIN: I hate to ask, but you know I have to ask.
MARTIN: What are you going to wear for Halloween?
JONI-LAPIDOS: This year for Halloween I am going to be an equal opportunity offender.
MARTIN: OK. And what does that mean?
JONI-LAPIDOS: You know, the equal opportunity offender is actually just poking fun at kind of the idea that - like I'm Jewish and I'm wearing a yarmulke and I'm wearing the Afro and I'm wearing a sari, and I'm wearing all these different, I guess, symbols of culture and religion. I have a big cross. The idea is, like why is any of this offensive when this is just life? Everyone has their own unique things about their culture, and how come it is that when someone calls it out that it's automatically mocking? I think it's just tied to so many things in history. But in reality, if people just kind of talk about these things and aren't meant to be mocking - and so I am saying like I never meant to offend anyone but if I'm going to offend someone, like I'll offend everyone. Let's just all be offended.
MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, let us know how that turns out.
MARTIN: Michelle Joni Lapidos is a social media consultant and she's the author of the blog BeforeandAfro.com. And she was kind enough to join us today from New York City.
Michelle Joni, thank you.
JONI-LAPIDOS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.