Daughter #1 is at it again.. the hair. All the smart anti-racist parents called it a few months ago when I posted about the issues my 4- year old daughter is having with her hair. Her big, curly, beautiful hair. Joli has the kind of hair that people want to touch (which, yes, I have issues about, but let’s put that aside for a minute). It’s the kind of hair that people say, “I wish I had your hair!” But, being the 4-going-on-14-year-old that she is, Joli hates her hair.
Why is this complicated?
Mom (Filipina) has black, straight hair. Sister (also biracial Filipina/Puerto Rican) has loose wavy hair. Joli - thick, black, curly hair. Dad (Puerto Rican), well, used to be thick curly hair, but has decided to go with the shaved head look once he turned 30-something.
None of us have hair like Joli. Only Joli does the extra 2 minute deep conditioning. Only Joli uses the spray in detangler, or, if it’s Friday night, the leave in V05 hair oil. Only Joli cries when she sees the white, wide tooth comb coming out of the hair supplies box, knowing full well that we’ll hear the sound of crying over the LL Cool J that Daddy is bumpin’ in the living room.
We all love Joli’s hair. If you’ve followed some of my posts, you’ll know that Joli lost her hair when she turned 2 years old. She endured 6-months of chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells in her body, lost her beautiful baby afro, and was often called a “boy” even though she work pink hats with butterflies on them. When Joli’s hair started to grow back, it signaled increasing health and a return to her childhood. Her hair has great meaning to me. I love her hair.
Once Joli’s hair got long enough to pull into first 2-puffs on either side of her head, and then 1-big puff at the back, she started to hate it. She cried just before getting into the bath, begging me to wet her hair quickly so that it would stop getting big after she took it out of her hair elastic. If someone saw her hair between the time she removed the elastic to the time it was soaking wet under the shower, she would scream “Don’t look at my hair!!”
We’ve asked people with hair like Joli’s to talk to her. I even went and asked one of my students to spend some time with Joli. “They have the same hair,” I thought, “this’ll be great!” Joli had fun. But, she didn’t feel any differently about her hair.
Even when her two blind friends who she met at Camp Sunshine made her feel special by saying, “We know it’s Joli because we can feel her curly hair”, Joli still hated her hair.
Jorge and I love to sing along with India.Aire’s “I Am Not My Hair.” And, Joli loves to sing along, too. She knows every word.
But, what’s my 4-year old’s favorite line? It’s when Akon sings, “But success didn’t come ’till I cut it off.”
Who says kids aren’t listening??
We point out that people have different hair when we are in diverse groups. Joli’s friends are incredibly diverse, too, and many of them go through the same hair care rituals. Joli has watched as her friend Hayley’s braids were removed, carefully untwisted strand by strand and set out on the kitchen table. While visiting her abuelos, she has watched women in the salon in Queens, NY get their hair deep conditioned and blown out. She has watched white women with layers upon layers of aluminum foil squares, waiting patiently under round heaters that encompass their heads.
I think about our journey with Joli’s hair because it keeps reminding me about Anti-Racist parenting. Even as an Anti-Racist parent and as a 9am-5pm diversity facilitator, my child still struggles with issues of race and difference.
I recently heard a well known white, anti-racist, male speak about the moment when his daughter came home claiming that “Jesus was white.” The man was horrified. Here he was, a well known anti-racist and diversity activist, and his own child was repeating the very words he had fought so hard against imparting.
I write this to point out that even those who are well-versed in anti-racist movements also struggle. That, we don’t always get it right. That, we don’t always have the answers all the time. That we can set up the ideal situations, and yet our children are still their own free spirits who must experiment with their world. Though, for me, that’s the beauty of children and the challenge of parenting.
My husband and I never argue with Joli about her hair. We never say, “No, you’re wrong, Joli. Your hair is beautiful” or “You’re being so silly! Everyone loves your hair.” Because, to her, her hair is her truth. We also don’t want her to feel validated simply because others believe something about her. Rather, we ask her questions like, “Can you tell me more about why you don’t like your hair?” or “Is there something you’ve seen or heard that makes you feel that way?” Yes, she’s 4- years old. No, it’s not too early.
We frequently talk about how she and her sister are different and beautiful in many ways. We explore the beauty of their skin color, the interracial make up of our immediate and our extended families, the racial and ability diversity of her friends, the diverse family combinations (gay married, single, divorced, mom/dad, etc) of her pre-school mates, and range of body types (from sizes 2-20) of the people who are close to us. We read stories with racially diverse characters, watch tv shows with good messages about diversity, and listen to all types of genres of music. Joli even comes to some of my college lectures on race and racism.
Yet, my child. She hates her hair.
I’m hoping that this hatred of her hair, too, shall pass. And, maybe it won’t. But, I know that my husband and I are doing our best to be supportive, honest, and encouraging of the process that my daughter is going through as she learns to navigate her emotions and her experiences as a young, biracial child.
Anti-racism is a process. And, I’m not ready to give up just yet.
What are the areas in which you try to set up the ideal environment/situation for your child, yet your child still seems to be pushing back?