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 “” 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.

The following two tabs change content below.

Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

7 Responses

  1. Shawna says:

    Been there many times. I definitely feel for the black child, particularly girls, that have parents who don’t apparently understand their hair. Though, I’ve never felt bad about not “butting in”, I can say I’ve never been able to forget those images – even though the first time I witnessed it was on the sideline of one of my younger sister’s soccer games when I was a teenager, many moons ago.

    Thank God there are plenty of great resources online – a key stroke away – for anyone who want to learn about our hair in the comfort and privacy of their own home. We all have to experiment with products that work for us, and give us that healthy hair. Curly nikki looks fabulous, and thanks to the old Tyra Banks’ show, I learned about her, but her personal regimen didn’t give me the beautiful results she enjoys. Thank goodness she and many others educate about many products for many types of black and ethinc hair. I’m still searching….

    So, if you’re gonna feel bad about not speaking up, speak up! You’ll live longer. It can’t hurt really. And, yes, the person with the hair issue may feel judged for not finding what works best for them YET, but they can be encouraged to keep searching…there’s a gazillion products and methods out there. One is bound to work.

  2. So interesting to read this from your perspective and I have so many
    thoughts. Hair can be such a touchy thing for adoptive parents . . . not that
    it should be, but it really is. There can be a lot of defensiveness. I read this
    last night and I immediately thought about something that happened a few hours
    prior. We had a new guitar teacher start with my kids, and at the end of the
    lesson he pulled me aside and told me that the kids seemed squirmy, and that he
    thought it was probably because they needed to get more excited about music. He
    told me that I needed to “expose them to music.” He suggested I let them listen
    to music in the car or on YouTube. And he wrote out a list of bands that we
    could try . . The Beatles, Bob Marley, Earth Wind and Fire. And I stood there
    kind of stunned, because his assumption that they aren’t exposed to music (and
    specifically the bands he mentioned) was so off. It rankled me all afternoon to
    the point of wanting to fire him. As I tried to figure out what was irking me so
    much, I realized: I was defensive because he assumed that I didn’t value
    something that is actually a HUGE value to me. He didn’t ask questions, he just
    presumed and then told me what to do. He didn’t check in to see what we already
    did or knew. And while I have (mostly) let it go, I was just so pissed that he
    suggested that I don’t expose my kids to music because our whole life and house
    is steeping in it.

    I think this is what happens sometimes to adoptive parents. People give
    advice or feedback and we receive it as if they are saying that we don’t know or
    care when maybe we really DO care, very much. And while the assumption that they
    don’t know how to care for her hair may be true, you also want to give the
    benefit of the doubt. Especially with adoption, you never know what’s going on
    under the surface. Maybe it was a recent adoption and the brittleness and
    discoloration is from malnutrition. (This was true of one of my kids for several
    years.) Maybe there are sensory issues that mean the haircare has taken a back
    seat. Or . . . maybe they are coming from swim lessons and forgot the leave-in,
    or are just having an off hair day. I think that’s another challenge to
    transracial parenting. I see other parents of black kids have bad hair days
    every once in a while, but as a white parent, there is this pressure to stay on
    our game all day every day. Because the hair becomes a sort of marker of
    cultural competency. And when my kids were little, it got to the point where I
    was following them around with a spray bottle and a comb because God forbid we
    go to Target with a hair out of place and I get a side-eye. I’m learning to
    relax more now but I still cringe when I realize that I just posted a picture of
    a kid with helmet-head and wonder how many people are judging my consideration
    and care for black hair. When it’s something that I care about a whole lot. (As
    my wallet and youtube tutorial history can attest.)

    All THAT do say, I do think for most of us, advice is welcome when it’s not
    served with a side of presumption. I’ve experienced both and the latter is hard,
    especially when no questions are asked. One of the kindest things a friend did
    for me in that regard was to do her hair in twists in my bathroom and let me
    watch. It was a lightbulb moment! But I think if you reach out in friendship,
    and offer practical help without judgment, a mom would be really grateful for
    your wisdom and experience.

  3. Jenn M. Jackson says:

    You are totally right Kristen. I was keenly aware of my assumptions which was why I was apprehensive about saying anything.

    In this case, I was at my son’s school and I have seen the young lady once before. Her hair was also pulled up into a tight ponytail and dry then. I noticed but assumed it was a bad hair day. This time, I attributed it to a lack of knowledge because I had context seeing her in the parking lot with her family and her hair hadn’t changed since the months ago when I last saw her.

    I think your situation was a bit different because he had no visual basis for assuming you weren’t exposing your kids to music at home. In my case – having a keen eye for black hair woes – I could see that her hair was suffering from years of poor treatment. it was extremely short, uneven, discolored (perhaps from malnutrition as you mentioned), and chemically processed with straighteners implying that a conscious decision had been made to straighten the hair out of its natural curl pattern.

    I probably should have said something. I shouldn’t have let my presumptions get the best of me. And you’re are dead right, white parents of black children get it the hardest when it comes to side-eye behavior and child-rearing – unfairly I believe. It is such a touchy subject though, so nuanced.

  4. John Henry says:

    I’m a single father with a little daughter. Well you helped me out. I didn’t know that wearing a full out natural could be damaging. But I will check out I just found this article interesting, because I “feel” the full pressure of every black woman around me starring at my daughters hair. I look at their daughters hair, and it is immaculate, and then I look at my daughters hair and think “well, I did the best that I could.” And please don’t let me have to entertain women relatives, or guest, or leave my daughter in the care of another black woman. For those cases, I have to stop everything I’m doing and put in double time on my daughters hair. Because I know that if even one hair is out of place, they will say something. Some will even insist on “helping me” and redo her hair.

    Now, the internet is a great help. I have watched many videos, and even learned how to wash it properly. But I can not get the “corn roll” right, so I stopped trying. I stick with twist, bows, and naturals. But my questions are these: How often should you wash a little black girls hair? How long do you let the shampoo set in her hair? How long do you let the conditioner set it her hair? How long can you leave pony tail holders in before taking them out? Should you put the little black rubber bands on the end of twist? Should I put a rubber band at the base of the twist? …And then finally, what in the world are you supposed to do with the elastic thing that has balls on each end, lol.

  5. CourtneyrrR says:

    First, I would say I absolutely commend you and so do others at how attentive you are towards your daughter and how you make time for her.:-) As far as her hair, their is nothing wrong with her wearing her hair out naturally. You pointed something out. You said, you look around and see other little girls who hair seems to be emaculate,and other women look at your daughter as if their is something wrong? First,their is nothing wrong with her wearing her hair the way that she does. She is a child.As far as corn rolls and braids etc, that will absolutely make it grow,you have to find women, that will teach you or find one person in a hair salon,that seems to be kid friendly,to do it for you. I will say,dont feel pressured at her age to put some kind of chemical in her hair.She does not need it. Their are ways to making her hair look neat without it.I would personally stay away from rubberbands and use scrunchies,the things with the balls lol,just make sure they are not to tight to rip her hair out etc. if you have it braided, make sure its not braided to tight.especially around the edges.if you get someone to braid it, pay attention to that. It does not have to be super tight to the point of it hurting and destroying her edges.washing it once a week seems fine to me.also, shampoos with detergent are ususually not that good for us.probably have to go a more natural route with shampoo from a health food store.conditioner, it depends. 30 minutes.when she gets older,she can sometimes keep it in overnight. but all in all, you are doing a great job snd im sure their are women here,who have little girls,that can give you great pointers, minus the relaxers and chemicals

    All in all, make sure its cleaned, scalp oiled, hair moisturized, combed out,big tooth combs,braided etc fixed the way you want it and let it grow.Find other examples of mothers who are taking care of their daughters hair,the way you want it done.meaning,dont ask the guy driving a camry,how to get a farrari 🙂 good luck:-)

  6. John Henry says:

    Thank you Ms Courtney for your great, and thorough response! I have read this, and will take heed. 🙂

  7. Jenn M. Jackson says:

    Here is a great source that someone sent me after I posted this article.