Hair Woes for Black Girls in a Colorblind World
I looked out of my driver side window at a shiny, red convertible. Next to it was an average looking white man and a black girl no more than twelve years old. The first thing that stood out to me was her short, brittle, and poorly maintained hair. I immediately surveyed the car for a black mother. When I saw that the woman seated in the passenger seat of the vehicle was white, I pitied the girl. I wanted to pull my car over and say “Curlynikki.com.” But, I didn’t. I have felt sour about it ever since.
There is an unspoken rule that black women look out for black girls. And, particularly so where black hair is concerned. Because prominent magazines, department stores, and commercials typically exclude the beauty secrets for kinkier hair textures, most of what is learned by young black women in terms of hair care is completely wrong. Sudsy shampoo is the black girl’s enemy. But, you wouldn’t know that by watching a L’Oreal or Herbal Essences Commercial. Though afros are cute, wearing kinky hair at full mast can be extremely damaging. These are things I didn’t learn until I was in my twenties. So, it suffices to say that proper techniques to care for non-chemically treated black hair are esoteric bits of knowledge which often run counter to what was learned in the first place.
Now, I believe I failed in this instance because it was one of the first – maybe the only – times when I didn’t readily spout off my knowledge of black hair. I didn’t do what my gut wanted to do and help this young lady navigate an aspect of her beauty which no one in her home (presumably) would be able to help her with. I looked at the young white male in the backseat – who I assumed was her brother – and felt overcome with sympathy for her yet I said not a word.
Why? Well, usually in these instances when black women transfer knowledge on personal beauty, it is a welcome gesture. It is seen less as a commentary on someone else’s appearance and more of a sisterly way of helping someone out. But, this case was different. I didn’t know the young girl personally – not that it has ever stopped me before. More importantly though, her family was white. That fact alone sent me into a spiral of inquiries.
Is she adopted? If so, have they been teaching her to wash her hair everyday because they do? Is her hair chemically treated? It looks dyed a lighter hue and straightened somehow. Whose idea was that? Is she self-conscious about her hair’s appearance and length? Would me saying something make her feel worse or better? Does her family even acknowledge that she is black?
That final question was the one that convinced me to say nothing at all. I feared that me saying anything to her – looking to connect with her via the fictive kinship of our mutual race – might cause more trouble than the intentions warranted. If her parents and brother were “colorblind,” they might be offended at my presumptuousness, assuming they couldn’t care for their child who was no doubt just like everyone else. They might be annoyed at me sticking my nose in their family’s business. Not only that, they might find me discourteous by suggesting that their daughter was somehow not beautiful.
My intentions would have been pure but my presence could have been destructive so I just drove past them. I felt terrible about it. I still do. But I drove past them. I count it as a personal failure. I even found myself upset with her parents for (as I assumed) not taking her to a stylist familiar with her hair type. I became frustrated at her family for their complicity in her absence of knowledge of her own identity.
I remember having issues with my hair growing up. I remember wishing it were longer, more even, and would blow in the wind like my classmates’ tresses. I remember feeling ugly when I looked in the mirror after several failed chemical treatments. I still remember all those things, and I have worked diligently to make sure my daughter never has to carry those burdens. I just couldn’t figure out the right way to do the same for this transracially adopted stranger.
There have been several stories in the past year about little black girls being persecuted because their hair is too ‘distracting‘, or ‘unacceptable‘ on school property. There have even been exhibits where a passersby could touch black women’s hair and ask questions. I can’t help but think this young lady had heard these accounts in passing. But, with no one there who had experience with black hair firsthand to help her navigate that dialogue, I can only imagine she hasn’t had a chance to understand herself fully.
I decided that – if I see her again – I will find a way to mention some resources out there for hair types like ours. I will make an effort to re-route her journey before she travels toward self-hate or issues of inadequacy. But, there is no guarantee I will see her again. And there’s no guarantee someone else with more courage than me ever will either.
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