Not My Hair

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan

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 a 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 hired a babysitter who actually had hair like Joli’s, hoping the would play fun girlie games like dress up or “hair dresser” or something. Even when her two blind friends that she met at Camp Sunshine said that “They know it’s Joli because they can feel her hair”, Joli still hated her hair.

Jorge and I play India.Aire’s “I Am Not My Hair.” We point out that different 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. While visiting her abuelo and abuela, she has watched women in the salon down in Queens, NY get their hair deep conditioned and blown dried.

I think about our journey with Joli’s hair because it keeps reminding me about Anti-Racist parenting. Recent posts have touched on the effect that we have and the impact we try to make with our children and our communities. I write a lot about how hard it is, even as an Anti-Racist parent and as a 9am-5pm diversity facilitator, to create an environment that always encourages our children. 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.

When Joli brings up her hair (or, rather, when she is screaming about her hair), my husband and I reflect back her feelings. We never argue with her about it. We never say, “No, you’re wrong, Joli. Your hair is beautiful.” Because, to her, she has created her truth. We do ask her more questions, “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?”

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little disappointed that she hates her hair so much. We frequently talk about how she and her sister are beautiful – both inside and outside. We talk about 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 friends, and range of body types (from sizes 2-20) in our extended family. 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.

Liza Talusan is the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts. She is an active member of Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence (www.girlsaspire.org) and believes that mentoring is one of the best way to make changes in this world. She serves as an advisor and mentor to students of color as well as to organizations designed to educate and promote cultural diversity. And, she’s often found causing trouble….

Image courtesy of  benster1970 on Flickr.

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