I knew it would happen sooner or later. A single girl of a certain age working in a top retailer’s bridal registry department, it’s like asking for someone to pour salt in an open wound. But this woman, with a smile as big as the stone on her ring finger, was nothing but pleasant as she asked one question after the other about fine china and silverware.

“Now that you’ve answered all my questions,” she paused, her sunny expression shifting into one of sisterly concern. “I have one for you.”

I braced for it, the questions about the “special guy” in my life, a pitying look at my naked left ring finger. But her eyes drifted up to my hair – I was caught in that weird space any beginning natural girl learning how to love her hair knows all too well.

“Who does your hair?”

My thoughts raced, immediately calling to mind similar interactions with mean girls of high school. I explained I had just moved to town and hadn’t found a new stylist yet, but that I was transitioning to a natural do. I felt the growing disapproval in her gaze.

“Girl, I work in a corporate setting with” – she lowerd her voice, just in case the bone china was bugged to sniff out ethnic espionage – “white people. And sisters have to look 10 times more presentable to get ahead and run things. We’re not just representing ourselves, we’re representing the community.

“Now if you want to be natural, be natural,” though her expression and her sleek, relaxed bob showed she believed that was the least viable option. “Or if you want to relax it, you can do that too. I don’t know how to do my own hair, I’m in my hair stylist’s chair every Saturday morning. But you have to do something with that hair. You’re obviously a cute, intelligent girl. You just have to work on your appearance and catch you a man. I’ll email you some hairstylists’ numbers. We’re sisters. We have to look out for each other.”

There’s a lot to detangle in her W.E.B. DuBois-esque call to the Talented Tenth and hair politicking that was dumped in my lap that afternoon. But at the core of this exchange was what I’ll call, a sistah moment.

That’s right, a sistah moment. Similar to “the ‘n***a’ moment” in Aaron McGruder’s “Boondocks.” A sistah moment involves two or more African-Americans with no previous history thrown together with explosive results. However, unlike McGruder’s “n***a moment,” the sistah moment is way more complex than a shoot out over a bumped shoulder or a scuffed Nike in a crowded club. In fact, there are two types of sistah moments.

In the moment I experienced, Sistah #1, acting as a representative for the entire African-American community, sees a flaw in unsuspecting Sistah #2. This flaw is – consciously or unconsciously – bringing down the entire race. This flaw can be anything from hair to “bad” parenting. But in any case, Sistah #1 informs Sistah #2 of her offense. Before Sistah #2 can respond (“How dare you? You don’t know me!”), Sistah #1 whips out her “Get Out of Jail Free” card and whispers: “We’re sistahs. If I can’t tell you, who can?”

And that’s the question I’ve yet to answer.

This sistah moment is more than a stranger pointing out you have tissue on your shoe, because it’s usually attached to a call to be a “better” black woman. Maybe it comes from a genuine desire to try and inspire positive change in a fellow sister, to make her the best version of herself. Or maybe it’s even to provide the kind of support system that sadly isn’t always present in our community. You don’t have to look any further than online commenters to see the venom others can fling at virtual strangers.  So maybe in her mind, this bride-to-be was telling me something she was afraid my white boss would later use against me. She was protecting me, her sister, and promising to give me the tools I needed to do better.

Yet in this type of sistah moment, Sistah #2 rarely leaves the conversation feeling empowered. In my case, I felt betrayed and exposed. Who is this stranger to tell me I’m making every black person look bad because of a hairstyle? That my desire to “go natural” would get in the way of my success or scooping up a man? Has she never had a bad hair day? Does being black mean you can say whatever you want?

That same skinship also allows for the connection felt during another type of sistah moment, something my coco Dear Abby might have experienced in her corporate world populated by white people. Picture this:

Scene: Office break room during lunch

Mike, a co-worker of yours who looks like he’s always two seconds away from tapping a keg, strolls in and sits at the lunch table.

“You won’t believe the customer I just got off the phone with. He sounded real Ninth Ward-y. Like, ‘Yo dawg, I needs ta get paid!'” Mike  flashes approximations of gang signs and laughs.

You are sitting across from a black coworker you rarely speak to. You both raise an eyebrow and shake your heads.

Here, your skin color (which often creates a shared pool of experiences) creates a connection in the face of ignorance. It happens when Becky says she looks black after acquiring a deep tan in Cabo San Lucas. It’s also there when there’s a heated discussion over President Obama’s “socialist” policies. Both women walk away from these moments recognizing that there is someone else who understands their unique position in society; they have an equal part in the experience. No one is better or worse and neither stakes a claim in the others’ life.

Girl,” that shared glance says. “I know exactly what you’re thinking.

Black women have an understanding and kinship few other races can even begin to approach. No one can knock you down or raise you up quite like a fellow sistah can.

By the way, I never got an email from the bride after following up on her registry questions and asking for the numbers she offered….bitch. But if we both ever found ourselves in the same room, having to answer questions about our hair or defending the actions of Kelly William-Bolar to a white audience, I’m sure we’d have another sistah moment. Only this time, hopefully we’d be on the same side.

Have you had your own “sistah moments”? Share them with us!

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  • Dendoo

    Well lord I’m in japan and I was trying to explain to my friends the exact same thing, they’re all diff nationalities, but I was noting that the black chicks (and men) DON’T want to have a moment. This is the first time in my life that I’ve never had that connection whether it be scene 1 or 2 with another black woman. Sistahs be actin funky out here.

    That stated in a scene one situation I’m usually told off about my hair (natural) or informed I should wear makeup (bad skin) cause I’m not looking polished (aka video girl?) enough. Gotta love the sistahs who care

    • Naiomi

      I’m feeling the same thing here in California.

      Black people here don’t want to be black – they are too concerned that the whites (or Japanese in your case) won’t like it or will feel uncomfortable. So they try to make as little waves as possible and if that means forgoing the Black People Acknowledgement Nod to fit in with the whites – then so be it.

      Often times those black people grew up around more whites than blacks. So that sense of community you looking for – well gyurl – you eh go find it because they never experienced it and they scared to experience it with you and themselves.

  • I feel guilty saying this but, I’ve just taken to ignoring them, as they tend to be more condescending than helpful anymore. I can’t tell you how many black women and men for that matter came up to me, this is strangers on the street, 6 mos after I had my baby to give me “tips” on how to flatten my belly, or how to straighten my hair, or how to discipline my children, or appropriate hair removal. I’m frankly tired of “sistah” moments, they are usually more negative than positive in my experience.

  • Dom

    See, I’m the type of person who might look at another sistah’s head, see that it is in desperate need of a comb (and I see that in my natural sis’s JUST as often as I see it in the ones with the flowing tangled weave), but I’d never say anything.

    Cant say I think she’s wrong for being so forward. I woulda took her on the up and up until I saw she wasn’t planning to send those numbers anyway. That was a dick move.