Monday, July 19, 2010

Good Hair

After the haircut.

Molly got a haircut today. Molly's hair is a subject unto itself. It's a source of admiration, but also, strangely, controversy. Because her hair isn't typical for Ethiopian kids. It's not what most people would think of as "African" or "African American" hair. Ironically, her hair most resembles Emma's at the same age: big fat ringlets, fine and soft and wispy as cotton candy. I can't oil it because it turns into a grease slick. She can't really wear the braids she wants like her friends, or like Keyana in I Love My Hair, which is one of her favorite books. But on the other hand, most days I can throw barrettes in it (which she loves) or put it in a ponytail (which she hates), which makes it easy for me, and for her. I'm in awe of my friends who create beautiful, intricate braids and hairstyles for their little girls. Molly's hair doesn't lend itself to that, and I think that's probably ok because I don't think I have the styling chops to pull that off. Certainly can't do anything with my own hair.

But no matter what, this hair thing is fraught with peril, isn't it? Because hair is bound up in our culture--certainly in African and African American culture, and in European American culture too--"good hair," "difficult hair," "bad hair days." In my family, we've got Jew hair, thick and crazy and wavy, grows like crazy, doesn't respond to blowdryers or product, takes heavy-duty artillery to straighten, gets increasingly wiry and difficult as we grow older. Molly's hair is none of that. It's magical. It's soft as spun silk. Her ringlets are like a fairy princess's. But somehow, I don't think that's going to let her off the hook.

At the salon today, the stylist and I discussed Molly's hair. I was talking about how hard it is when it gets tangled up (that spun sugar turns into mats--fast) because we have to be so careful with the product we put in. Anything heavy or oily turns her head into an oil slick. Many of the products for African American hair don't work at all on her. Well, the stylist said, she doesn't really have African American hair. Her hair is "more like ours." It's "nicer," she said. And so it goes. I flinched, inwardly, and said nothing. Should I have stopped her there? Of course. Should I have told the stylist--with her flimsy stick-straight blonde hair--that of course it wasn't "nicer" than more typical AA hair, just different. And of course her hair is just as African as "typical" AA hair. It's not "white" hair, either--whatever the hell that means anyway. My hair is nothing like the salonista's, either. What did she even mean, "more like ours"? But I said none of that. In fact, I didn't say much at all. Just agreed that yeah, it wasn't typical. And then we left.

So is this what Molly will be saddled with? People telling her how "lucky" she is because her hair is atypical for an African American child? The backhanded compliment that will make her feel crappy--at the same time an outsider and denigrating the other kids she knows? What kind of message is that sending? And what about the message that she doesn't really have "black" hair, either? Will Molly have to defend her hair for not being "black" enough? Will she feel like she can't be proud of her hair, as gorgeous as it is, because it's different? Cuz as far as I know, if Molly's African American, her hair is, too. How bad am I for not calling the stylist out on her thoughtlessness, her casual racism? How crappy a mom does that make me?

Every day, I tell Molly how beautiful she is. I know it's retrograde of me. I know I'm not supposed to do this, as the mother of a girl especially. So I also tell her how smart and kind she is. But the thing is, she is beautiful. Really, really beautiful. And so is her hair. And, as retrograde as it is, I feel like it's important that she never forget that. No matter what messages she's getting.


E said...

Molly is a beautiful girl! And Molly's hair is Molly's hair - there is a huge amount of "hair diversity" in every ethnic group...

The hair stylist you saw was being, well, dumb - amazing what stupid things people will say. Don't beat yourself up too much about your response. I think it happens to a lot of us. It's really hard, sometimes, to confront people on their insensitivity - I always find I can't think of an appropriate response right away, it usually comes to me later (when the moment has passed, dammit!). We just keep on trying.

I tell my Ami' that she is beautiful all of the time, too. Can't help it. She is another ringleted girl with big expressive eyes. :)


Ben and Kate said...

Hey, just stumbled on your blog. My daughter is Ethiopian as well and I'm always curious about hair. It was my understanding and observation while in Ethiopia that many Ethiopians had looser curls and straighter hair. I figured it was an Ethiopian/East African trait. Have you visited Happy Girl Hair ( One of her girls has hair similar to your little one. She has easy styles for this type of hair that hold and use beads and braids.

Oh, interestingly, I've learned that many in the AA community also use the term "good hair." My daughter was referred to as having "bad hair" by an AA lady. Crazy.

You're a great mommy for paying so much attention to this and now you'll know what to say if this comes up again!

Thanks for posting about this topic!