On Shaming Little Black Girls for Their Naturally Coily Hair
I am raising a free black girl. While she is only two, we are teaching her about self-love, rebuking artificial hierarchies which stem from colorism and structural racism, and empowering her to understand her value above what society says about her race and gender. But, sometimes, we get pushback from other black women about the eternal issue of duress: her hair. This latest event offended me so deeply that I became emotional.
We were at a choir concert at my mother-in-law’s church on Sunday evening. We were all dressed up and my daughter had on one of her favorite “peent” dresses, ruffled sucks, white “ice skates” (as she refers to her sparkly white dress shoes), and her hair was in a one week old braided up-do with a bow on top. I typically restyle her hair every two weeks so as not to put stress on her hair or make her feel like I am always harassing her head.
We used to attend the church. We left in 2008 so many of the old-timers know us well, but some of the newer members don’t. And, it was one older black lady behind us in the pews who made it clear she was totally unfamiliar with my family. She spent the service smiling at my boys. My youngest, the infant, she cooed at and called “handsome.” My oldest, the six-year-old, she was in awe of. But, my daughter? She seemed perplexed. At one point in the service, she leaned forward to my husband and proclaimed, “you have such a beautiful family.” Seems she only had the compliment for him.
A few minutes later, she leaned forward to me and shared what had been perplexing her the entire service.
“You don’t know me but you know what you need to do with her hair? You need to heat up olive oil once per month and apply it to her hair before you wash it. Now, you can use….” I drifted out of the conversation realizing that she had been sitting behind us, diagnosing my daughter’s hair health the entire service. Instead of gazing at my child’s beautiful acorn shaped eyes, or admiring her beautiful brown skin tone, or loving on her deep, deep dimples, she was sitting there for over an hour analyzing the purported dryness of her coif. I was pissed.
I didn’t hear everything she said but I cut her off and said, “We use olive oil on her hair.” Her response was, “But do you heat it up?”
I’m not sure what I said then because I wanted to cuss her out. She got the message and sat back.
Looking at her hair, it was natural but it was greasy and didn’t move. My high bun with my newly freshened Senegalese Twists (which I applied myself), made her hair look like a bad wig. My hair, now half way down my back, is evidence of my ability to care for afro-textured hair, well. But, she assumed, from a row away that a) I didn’t know what I was doing, and b) it was within her place – and right – to offer me her unsolicited hair advice for my still potty-training child.
A little while ago, I wrote an article about a time when I didn’t say anything about a young black girl’s hair and I regretted it. Being a hairstylist, I could see chemical treatments, severe breakage, and a general unhealth for a child who had to be at least ten-years-old. I had seen her before – never up close – but I had seen her time and again and her hair never looked cared for. I still said nothing because I didn’t want to shame her or her white parents. I certainly didn’t want to insert myself into her family. So, I didn’t.
But, I have repeatedly had black women imply that my daughter’s hair needs help even as those very women stand before me with their hair looking a complete mess.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. When my oldest son was barely crawling, I let his hair grow into a full, thick afro. He was called a “Boondock” and a “rag a muffin” by many black women. And, in April, at my father’s funeral, my youngest – who was only seven months old at the time – was criticized because his hair wasn’t styled. An older black woman said to me (at my father’s funeral of all places), “So, you just going to let the baby have his hair all over the place like that?”
I was appalled. And, just as I was then, I am now.
What’s the real problem here? Shame. There is so much shame wrapped up in black women’s hair that we almost seem blind to its many facets now. The thought that a few baby hairs sticking out of a protective style means it is time to offer hair advice to the mother proves judgement was cast on me. We have seen this before with baby Blue Ivy who is similar in age to my daughter. A child who seems well taken care of and generally spoiled was the target of ire because her hair looked dry. Never mind the fact that she is a baby and probably hates getting her hair done. Or, like my child, rolls around on the floor so much that a new hairstyle looks old within seconds.
Folks even lashed out at Gabby Douglas as she represented the USA in the 2012 London Olympics. They wanted her to have perfectly sculpted hair while she tumbled and pole vaulted. This is so problematic. It leads many young women to chemically treat their baby’s hair causing irrevocable damage to their scalps and tresses. Sometimes, in the name of having hair “look neat,” folks will secure hair tightly, ripping hair from temples, crowns, and napes of their baby girls (and boys). But, what does this accomplish? It teaches them that their hair is painful, requires an immense amount of attention and elbow grease, and is generally unmanageable. These are all falsehoods.
What probably bothered me most was how she gendered her responses between me and my husband. Her words for him were doting and sweet while her words for me were biting and brittle. She assumed I knew nothing of my child’s hair from sight only. Mind you, my daughter is only two and her tightly coiled tresses hang far below her shoulders when fully stretched. She wears protective styles to keep her hair healthy and olive oil (among others) is a daily staple in our household. I deep condition her extremely dry hair (which she gets from me) to fend off the eczema and cradle cap she has had since birth. I probably spend more time taking care of her hair health than I do on my own.I do it because I want her to love her hair like I didn’t when I was a child. I don’t want her to see it as burdensome or unappealing.
Personally, I am not raising kids who feel the pain of tight rubber bands, broken edges, and chemical burns. I am not raking a brush or comb through their heads so people outside can deem them respectable. I am not consumed with the optics of “proper blackness.”
I refuse to burden my children with the weight of self-hate and colorism. I refuse to teach my gorgeous, beautiful daughter her hair has to fit a particular mold. My children will love their hair as it grows from their scalps as much as I can help it. And the next person who sits in judgement of my parenting skills because of that choice will be sorely disappointed when I decide to educate them on their own hatefulness towards beautiful, natural, black, coily hair.
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