by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Meera Bowman Johnson
A week before my five-year-old daughter’s dance recital, her instructor, Miss Debbie, pulled me aside.
“We’re asking that all the girls wear their hair in a bun.”
I looked at Jasmin’s golden-brown mane that was pulled neatly into a single puff on the top of her head. Each perfectly spiraled strand was infused with the genetic code of women who came before my child, myself and every other black woman in our family tree. These weren’t the girl next door’s curls. “A bun?”
The fitter-than-thou fifty-something in a black leotard, tights and pink leg warmers looked me squarely in the face. “Yes.”
“I’m not sure if it will do that.” I knew I sounded kind of strange, sitting there talking about my daughter’s hair as if it had a life of it’s own. But it did.
“Try.” Miss Debbie gave Jasmin a once-over before standing up to sashay down the hallway. I had no idea the woman was even half as narrow-minded as she had just revealed. I could have sworn I saw her do a pirouette before she went back into the classroom.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had this type of discussion about the “proper” way a female of color should be coiffed for something. In high school, the captains of my cheerleading squad insisted that we all wore french braids. Never mind the needs of Tiffany Williams, who wore her hair in intricately designed cornrows, or Mia Kim who wore her jet-black hair in a chin length bob. I hated the idea that this incident was the first in a series that would drill a negative idea into Jasmin’s psyche that something about her “ethnic” hair is problematic. And I didn’t appreciate Miss Debbie for initiating the conversation.
Later that evening, I called to my mother for a second opinion. She calmly reassured me that yes, Jasmin’s hair might be sort of “kinky”, but I could surely get it into a bun if I wanted to badly enough. I just had to get Jasmin to sit still long enough so that I could blow dry it straight and then flat iron it with searing heat so it would be straight enough to twist into a bun (easier said than done). It wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted to hear. You’d think I never made my mom want to fling the comb at the ceiling in frustration (on countless occasions) as I ripped myself from her grasp – mid-braid, mind you – and ran to the bathroom complaining of “chest pains”. I wasn’t about to send her grandbaby on Miss Debbie’s stage looking like the African American understudy of Little Orphan Annie, but the bun wasn’t happening. Less because it couldn’t than because, at that point, I was pissed.
Just like Jasmin’s curls defy convention, the person they grow from does, too. Unlike myself, who once longed to have have hair as long and silky as Dreamgirl Christie’s, Jasmin adores her kinky curls. She sees them as part of her beauty, not the bane of her existence. Even on the day she went to nursery school au naturale, unrestricted by the usual braids, headbands or barrettes, she faced her curious classmate’s criticism with confidence and common sense: “My hair is pretty! I like it just the way it is.” Currently, she’s campaigning to get me to stop blow drying and flat ironing my own hair because she feels I look “much prettier” when I just leave it alone. I’m not about to take beauty advice from a person whose personal style icon is Strawberry Shortcake, but I like the way she thinks.
I wasn’t so sure that my forcing Jasmin to let me straighten and “tame” her hair for a two-minute dance routine to “A Bushel and a Peck” wouldn’t send her a mixed message that something was wrong with her. Whether she grew up to wear regal dreadlocks or highlighted extensions a la Tyra Banks didn’t matter; a grown woman is free to change her hair as often as she pleases. What mattered to me most was that from an early age, my young daughter began loving herself for who she is, not the person society says she should become. From where I stood then, she was headed in the right direction.
The activist mom who sat on my left shoulder nudged me:
“Go on girl, make Miss Debbie eat those words. How dare she hold your child to the outdated, platonic ideal of what a dancer is supposed to look like?”
But her counterpart, cynical mom, shouted from the other:
“What are you going to do, hold a sit-in at the dress rehearsal?”
Then realist mom (the one who makes most of the decisions anyway) chimed in:
“Of course not silly, it’s just hair.”
That night, after the kids were in bed, I put Miss Debbie’s red, white and blue Hee-Haw meets French Maid confection of a recital costume into a plastic bag and shoved it into a corner at the top of my closet. Maybe if Jasmin didn’t notice her costume was missing, she might not remember the performance. That way, if I woke up on the morning of the big day with butterflies in my stomach, and decided to take her to the Bronx Zoo instead, no tears would be shed – by either one of us.
Meera Bowman Johnson is a freelance writer and full time mom who is also the former Associate Art Director of Essence Magazine. Her work has been featured in HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness, Code: The Style Magazine for Men of Color, Black Issues Book Review, Mommy Too! Magazine and Honey. She lives with her husband, Mat Johnson, and their three children in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Her online alter ego, Mrs. J, blogs about race, pop-culture and parenting.