To White Mothers Who Don't Know How To Style Your Black Children's Hair, I Feel You

I will never look at that brown child with the white mom and make assumptions again.
Publish date:
March 10, 2014
parenting, hair, family, race

This is just embarrassing, so I’m just going to say it: I suck at doing my daughter’s hair. This confession may seem mundane to some, but it feels like a major failure to me for two reasons. One, I’m black. And just like having an inherent ability to sing, dance and play basketball, all black people are supposed to be born with the gift of hairstyling. Well, I missed out on that gift and my poor children have to suffer for it. But there’s more.

If I were just an anonymous black women with poor hairstyling skills, that’d be kind of sad, mostly for my kids, but my profile in the world of black hair is slightly elevated because I co-wrote a book called, "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America" and I’m supposed to be a Black hair expert. And I am, if you define “expert” as someone who knows everything about the history, culture, economics and politics of hair, but couldn’t plant a cornrow or wield a flat iron to save her life.

When I first co-wrote Hair Story back in 2001, I was pregnant with my first child. On our book tour, people wanted to know how I planned to style my unborn baby’s hair. Knowing already that it was a boy, I sidestepped that question figuring his hair wouldn’t require styling. Three years later, I had another baby boy and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I’d dodged a bullet with hair issues for my kids. By then I’d committed to wearing dreadlocks because I didn’t even want to deal with my own hair on a daily basis.

But then, ten years later, in a bizarre coincidence, "Hair Story" was re-released and I had another a baby -- a girl this time. And she was born with a full head of hair! And this is the part where I mention that my husband is Spanish. So, added to my hairstyling angst is the fact that none of my children have hair like mine. In fact, none of my children have hair like anybody.

Each child got a unique set of curls. In one household we have the full spectrum of kinky, curly, wavy and straight. And my daughter seems to have all of the above on her two-year-old head. In other words, it’s a complete hybrid of her mother’s kinks and her father’s lankiness, where the curls sit at the front of her head and the lankiness falls down her back.

I’ve tried two simple braids but they slip out before she slips out of my lap. I’ve tried a basic pony tail, but those bouncy curls that frame her face refuse to lay down, giving her the appearance of having a lion’s mane. Many days I just comb her hair and put a hat on her -- thank you polar vortex for giving me an excuse to keep the hats on -- figuring she’s cute enough to pull messy hair off.

But my laissez-faire hairstyling attitude isn’t going over well with the rest of the world. Every black female member in my family over age 50 has commented on my daughter’s hair. My mom has ten sisters so this is a significant number of comments. One aunt recently offered to send me money so I could take babygirl to a professional stylist, assuming there must be financial reasons keeping me from my parental duties. Another aunt sent me a package of barrettes in the mail with the words “hint hint” scrawled in the card.

But the most embarrassing incident occurred when I took my daughter to daycare for the first time. Imagine my surprise when babygirl came home that day and her hair was pulled back into a beautiful, smooth, braided style. This happened every day. I’d take her in with a messy ponytail and she’d come home looking like she’d spent the day at the salon.

When I finally got up the nerve to ask which one of the many caregivers had been braiding my daughter’s hair, and the one White girl who worked there stepped forward, I admit I was stunned and yes, ashamed. How is it that the White girl with the long, straight ponytail could work babygirl’s curly, schizophrenic hair into these beautiful styles and I couldn’t? I was too embarrassed to ask her, although I did thank her at least. But I couldn’t help wondering if all of the women at the daycare were questioning my mothering skills and God knows what else, every day I brought babygirl in with “that hair.”

So, White women raising black children, whose hair may not look all shiny and fluffy all the time. I get it. I feel you. I cannot express how aggravating and annoying and shameful it is to feel like you are neglecting some key part of your daughter’s upbringing by letting them out of the house with disheveled hair. I will never look at that brown child with the white mom and make assumptions again. It’s hard being a monoracial mom of a multiracial child when it comes to hair. There’s a serious learning curve if you’re White or Black. There are new products to try, new techniques to learn and if you’re like me, you have to train yourself to care about styling hair in the first place.

Remember, I’m the chick with dreadlocks. Or at least I was until a few weeks ago. I figured, if I have to learn how to style babygirl’s hair, I might as well learn how to style my own as well. We’re going to figure this out together. But in the meantime, I’ll probably just get us some matching hats.