Understanding why hair matters to mixed race children
I have to admit I never fully understood the hair issue many black or mixed race women talk about with so much passion.
I guess, as a light skinned middle eastern woman with European features, I never paused to fully appreciate all of the implications attached to touching a woman’s, specifically a woman of colour’s, hair.
That is, until it hit a little closer to home.
Specifically: my 8 year old mixed race daughter who has spent much of her young life rejecting her curls and the upwards afro hair growth that goes with it.
Since the day she could speak, she has looked in the mirror, and pulled it down, pleading with me to have straight hair.
When I tried for the umpteenth time to convince her to let her hair down, to go natural, she begged me to leave it tied up, out of the way, unnoticed.
When I asked her why, her voice became quiet and she told me that when it’s down, all the girls want to ‘touch it’, telling her it’s so ‘fluffy’, squeezing it and squishing it between their fingers.
I can imagine the feeling.
No, let me rephrase. I can’t imagine the feeling.
How does it affect young black or mixed race children?
I have never had to deal with being touched and prodded, stroked like a fluffy dog. And if I did, you would surely hear about it!
My daughter has struggled her whole life to ‘fit in’, wanting to be the same as everyone else, like the princesses in the books she reads about with long flowing blond hair.
She’s even compared her hair to her sisters’, both of whom have long curls that grow downwards and tend to be admired by strangers, both black and white alike, as ‘good hair’.
So this was just one more struggle with her identity- another manifestation that she was different, something exotic to be stroked.
We can’t escape that simple fact that hair is attached to identity.
In the words of Solange, appropriately entitled, ‘Don’t touch my hair’, my hair is my ‘crown’, my ‘soul’, my ‘pride’.
For girls struggling at a young age, hair can get pretty personal.
For a lot of people, hair is one of the most important factors of their identity.
Desperate for European hair, many girls of colour will go through a lot to get their curls to straighten, their puff to be less puffy, or their kink to tame. Hair texture can be the racialisation for many women, beyond just skin colour.
Historically, the texture of black hair was used as a ‘justification’ for the enslavement of Africans between the 16th to the 19th centuries.
One article I read said that, “One of the examples of this [justification] was ‘look they don’t even have hair’ – European people have hair. They have wool. Animals have wool. They’re more like livestock.”
“So many of the stereotypes and ideas that we believe about black people were engineered during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.”
“Black and brown people were portrayed as being wild and untamed. And that trickled down to talking about hair.”
But it’s innocent, isn’t it?
Doesn’t it matter that children might just be fascinated, curious and not trying to be insulting?
It’s like a fascination and a weird obsession with blackness. Hair is one of the things that is most different. It’s also got to do with entitlement, this idea that you have access to somebody else’s body.
Asking to touch a Black person’s hair when you do not and have not ever asked to touch your White friend’s hair further perpetuates inequitable treatment and makes the presumption that Black hair is strange or something to be gawked at.
By asking to touch a Black person’s hair, you are feeding into the narrative that White hair is the norm and anything outside of it is abnormal.
Often the conversation goes like this. “Can I touch your hair? I’ve never seen an afro up close. It’s so poofy, I just want to see how it feels.” Does it matter that the motivation is ‘positive’ when the action is still the same?
It doesn’t for my 8 year old daughter. She’s smart enough to have picked up on the fact that the girls in her class are not begging to run their grubby hands through the other white girls’ hair.
On the weekends, I get my way and she lets me let it down. Her face is crowned by the beauty of her afro and yet, when Monday rolls around, she’s back to pleading for me to braid it, put it up, do whatever but don’t let it out natural.
I want to scream on behalf of my daughter. Power, privilege, ignorance. All create these micro aggressions. All tinged with the slightest mix of racism too early to be coined as such.
Every time you put your hands in her hair without her permission, you are subjecting her to a personal attack. My daughter deserves the right to go to school and not to be attacked, not to have to think about whether she is offending her friends by asking them not to.
Why it matters as parents of mixed kids
It’s been a journey, raising young mixed race black women. I’ve learned so much. This, however, was a direct reminder that her job is not to teach, but it is on me, and her teachers and other parents to educate themselves.
More awareness is needed- not just in one month. Teach your children about the importance of respecting each other’s space, call it out when you see it happening and try to understand how your actions can affect others.