It’s hard to believe it was only 3 years ago that my then 7th grader was walking out the door for school with her hair looking disheveled, dry and unkempt. At that moment, I couldn’t stop the hurtful words from flowing out of my mouth, “Why do you think it’s ok to go to school looking like that?” I’m sure my facial expression added other words I didn’t say.
The entire ride to school, I reminded her that she must put oil in her hair every other day. She must use a comb to comb to the roots of her hair. She must use gel to lay down the edges of her hair, then use a brush to smooth it down. Lastly, I added that the curling iron must be used to “bump” the ends of her hair so it wasn’t hanging straight without any definition. When I paused to take a breath, I glanced at her and tears where streaming down her face. I heard a little voice inside of me say, “ask her why.” Her answer left me speechless.
My African American daughter has always been the minority in her classroom. But instead of being proud of her ethnicity, comments like, “your hair looks greasy; it must be so dirty” caused her to shy away and retreat. Rather than trying to understand how the ethnic differences in her hair made her special, she allowed the comments to make her feel different.
That day was a turning point in helping her understand that those comments weren’t made to insult her or to draw a conclusion about her hygiene. I explained that our hair is naturally dry and brittle so we must put oils IN our hair while other ethnic groups wash their hair frequently to get the oils OUT of their hair. I further explained that we get perms to STRAIGHTEN our hair, while their perms make their hair CURLY.
We tried different products to minimize the “greasy” look, while maintaining a healthy moisture level. She now had information to share with her friends that helped them understand that everyone is not the same. As minority parents, the temptation can be to coach our children to be defensive about their ethnicity and respond with sassy comments, all in the name of “empowerment.” I would argue that the better option is to help our children see that they can embrace the lack of knowledge of their peers and use it as a tool to help them understand that we are all uniquely created and equally fascinating.
This knowledge helped her gain a new level of confidence and many of her classmates were intrigued as she taught them about the care of her hair. They were amazed that perms did different things. When she let them touch her hair they felt the difference and commented how soft it was and how they liked that she could do so many different hairstyles.