Monday, February 25, 2008

Can we go there?

I've been participating in - mostly reading - a discussion about biracial kids and White moms, and someone mentioned the issue of hair, and of having overheard a white mom say that she wished her biracial daughter had hair like her own because it was easier to take care of.

I've been pondering this for a couple of days because my immediate reaction is to wonder if perhaps no one ever showed this mother how to care for her child's hair. I wonder this because I'm a White woman with hair that none of my White family members and hairdressers ever knew how to care for until, as a grown woman, I finally went to a hairdresser who specialized in "ethnic" (this was in South Dakota, where "ethnic" is never used to refer to White Americans) hair and who had two biracial daughters, herself. I've never styled Black hair, but I know what my own hair is like, and I wonder - is there really so much difference in terms of ease of care? I mean, it's not uncommon to walk into a wall of hairspray in public restrooms where White women are primping (not so much lately, I guess, but years ago this was certainly true), and I do occasionally see PTA mom haircuts that are, essentially, helmets - and this means that the hair takes time and work to do. I mean, sure, a lot depends on what exactly you do with the hair, and its texture helps determine that, but I suspect that when White people say things like this, they maybe have no idea what to do.*

And what I'm being too nice to say is that when White people say things like that, it's racist.

I'm actually not going to talk about the politics of Black women's hair right now.** I'm going to instead talk about my own hair, because something I've gradually become aware of is how race has operated for me in terms of my hair. It's an example of how race is constructed, because it was only the fact that I thought of myself as White that stood between me and having well-groomed hair. I did not learn, until I was an adult, that I could not care for my hair the way most White people I knew cared for their hair.

When I was a kid, this is what White people did with their hair:
1) Shampoo
2) Rinse
3) Condition (this was new, back then!)
4) Rinse
5) Blow dry / curl / comb / put in a ponytail.

If you have hair like mine and you try this, you will be rewarded with a mess. And still, I used to brush that hair, determined to make it behave. I tried mousse. I used cans of AquaNet. I remember crying to my mother that I was going to have to shave it off and buy a wig. This was not a bad hair day. This was years of not being able to take care of my hair and of feeling down-deep ugly because of it, despite the fact that there were plenty of women of color around me, plenty of hair products for their hair around me. It just never, not once, occurred to me that I was looking in the wrong places. I just figured that there must be something wrong with me.

This prompts me to post an excerpt from something I wrote several years ago:

My hair. My aunt tells me, laughing, "When you were little, we used to say that you had Angela Davis hair." I'm never sure what to make of this; I don't think my aunt means this as a compliment. My mother remembers, "You would cry and cry when I'd wash your hair. You kept pleading with me, saying 'Mommy, I be good! I be good!'" And I think of how they used to try every morning to get a comb through it, pulling so hard I thought I'd end up bald, forcing my hair into position for a few minutes, until the wind and humidity got into it. My father would lecture in his stern voice: "If you would brush your hair a hundred strokes every morning and every night, you could train it to straighten out."

My baby pictures show reddish blond curls that stuck up all over my head, seemingly weightless. Later pictures show hair that is much darker and heavier.

But my hair did not gleam. It sat, dully, sticking out in every direction no matter what I did. Often it stood straight up from my head, particularly if I'd recently pulled off my knitted cap. The hairstylist who cut our family's hair, didn't know what to do with me. When I was thirteen, he cut my hair into a short Afro so that it curled up all around my head. I liked it, and let it grow longer and longer, picking it out as far as I could. My friends were amused by what my junior high school principal referred to as "a Zulu haircut" (another comment not meant to be a compliment). But I was supposed to be white, and there was no way for my hair to fit into white beauty, except as a joke. No white movie star had an Afro. I knew damn few Black people who had an Afro in 1982. The younger sister of my best friend started calling me "frizzbomb".

In high school, I used to get up early so I'd have time to curl my hair. No matter how carefully I wound the strands around the hot iron, there would always be one long piece that stubbornly hung down in front of my face. I spent my classes trying to tuck this piece in behind the rigid curl that ran the length of my forehead (my attempt at an eighties version of a Farah flip). Within seconds, it would untuck itself and slide squarely between my eyes. Once, as I was twisting and twisting to no avail, I looked up and caught the eyes of a boy who was grinning at my futile efforts.

I always longed for long, straight hair. I used to pretend, when my hair was wet after a shower, that my hair was really that straight. For a long while, I would hope every time that it would stay that way when it dried, but of course, it never did. I used to drape the towel over my head and pretend that that was my hair.

I let my hair grow long, twice. The first time was in ninth grade, when my hair grew past my shoulders, long enough for my mother to braid it down the back. It refused to hang straight though, and it would buckle the braid that tried to contain it, finally pulling its way loose, so that by the end of the day fierce tufts would poke out toward freedom. And no matter how long my hair got, I could never wear it in a ponytail. Instead of falling down gracefully from the elastic band, it would stick straight out in an uneven puff.

The second time I let my hair grow was in college, after all but shaving it off completely. Two years after graduation, it was long and free, and I loved it. It was a wild mane, too heavy to curl tightly, but when freshly washed it would kink up beautifully. When it got wet, it would hang in long locks, and if I didn't separate them with my fingers they would stay that way. Every morning I'd have to pull apart the dreadlocks that threatened. It was so thick I couldn't pull it back into just one barrette, and so heavy that, when wet, it took effort to lift my head. My hair was so big and so full that it didn't just hang down my back, but radiated out from my head so that I couldn't see over my shoulder when moving into the passing lane.

For the record, here's what I do these days:
1) Shampoo (I don't actually use shampoo, but I use other cleansers for curly hair)
2) Apply about a handful (yes, really) of a very thick shea butter conditioner
3) DO NOT rinse
4) Apply something else, I don't know exactly what it is, but it helps hold the curl
5) DO NOT rinse
6) Apply a finishing glaze
7) DO NOT rinse
8) Wrap my hair (upside down, so the curls are accordioned) for 20 minutes
9) Go.

It takes far less time than I used to spend in high school, and there's never any crying.

Note, too, the absence of a comb or brush.

*this very issue of White moms not knowing how to style their biracial daughters' hair comes up pretty frequently in multiracial writings.

**though I do want to say in passing, and maybe I'll post about this later, that when we are in the midst of Love Your Body and such day/week/month, I think it's a good idea to think, not just in terms of loving your curves and not purging your dinner, but also in terms of race. We tend to interpret these events as only about eating disorders, but we should also be thinking about how whiteness is central to what is portrayed to us as "beauty" and about things like skin bleaching and the ways that women of color see their bodies and are made to feel about their bodies (a great video on this is here).


Anonymous said...

This post mirrors my own experience almost exactly.

When I was twelve, my formerly straight hair started growing in curly, which isn't unusual in Jewish families - except that my family was only half Jewish, and I was living with the non-Jewish parent, and she had no idea what to do with my hair. My problem was that it was so brittle it wouldn't grow. I spent my entire adolescence wishing for long hair. (Then, in my twenties, I stopped washing it every day and it grew like magic. I finally got what I wanted and I love it. Happy ending!)

Race came into it in pretty much the exact same way, too.

Green said...

This hits home for me. I have the jewish frizzy hair, and my mother never allowed us to use either conditioner (I didn't find out about it until 7th grade, when an 8th grader told me about it) or any hair products, because she believed they'd make your hair fall out.

It was not until three years ago, while watching a friend brush her toddler daughter's hair, that I realized my mother brushed my hair the wrong way - you don't start at the scalp and yank down. You start at the bottom and work your way UP.

This brushing technique, plus conditioner, could have saved me years of tears and hatred of my hair.

Even in high school, as I'd be rushing out the door my mother would stop me to say "Go brush your hair" and I'd complain saying that would make it frizzier. I was called Brillo in high school.

Stuff Daddy said...

As you know, this hits home for me too. My hair was like the playdough barber's chair play set, thick, thick straight hair expanding in all directions like an uncontrollable fluffy whipped topping on my head. Then in adolescence it became extremely curly. When I was in college and my hair was down my back (rocker style), like a large Lion's mane, I would spend hours keeping it from dreading in the back. If the weather is above 60 degrees or if I brush it, it becomes a whipped dessert again. My hair has always had a life of it's own and I also had the fatherly advice to "keep brushing it, to control it!" As a guy, I think I have had less access to a culture of haircare, 1) because guys can get away with having messy hair and not being judged, but also 2) because I don't really talk about the issue with my guy friends. My girlfriend is Jewish and has very thick hair (I think my thick hair comes from my Dad's father's family, who were Russian Jews) and has suggested that I use a leave in conditioner. My sister has also suggested this, but it has always involved getting a specialty product online and I have the habit of picking my haircare product as I walk through the isle in CVS. I bet there's a market for this... I know I'm part of it.

Eira said...

Yes, yes, YES.

I am a white girl (of Irish-Anglo background) with Riotously curly hair. I am fiercely in love with my hair, and am convinced that embracing one's natural hair texture is one of the most mundanely brave things women can do.

I hear so many (usually other white girls) say "Oh god, I just can't DEAL with my hair, it's out of control and I straighten it." Anyone who bangs on about how "difficult" curly hair is gets a fierce reprimand from me if I hear 'em. I really do think attitudes like these are the reason why I've never seen curly hair on a television news anchor.

We've been so conditioned (pun intended) to think that straight hair equals professionalism, and this makes me really sad.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I'm now trying to remember if I've written the posts I'm thinking of about hair and identity or just thought about them hard.

thene said...

Touching post.

My hair's tied up with who and what I am too, and you know, some days, I just want to shave it all off. Maybe I should try to write about that sometime - the thought of doing so hurts.