Speaking of hair…: An ARP roundtable

[Editor's note: Last week, while folks here on Anti-Racist Parent were discussing Renee's compelling post on Zahara Jolie-Pitt's hair, some of us behind the scenes were talking about a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that also raised issues of beauty standards and norms surrounding black hair. Below, is the first installment of a multi-part discussion of the piece]

To: Pia Guerrero, columnist, Anti-Racist Parent,

From: Tami Winfrey Harris, editor, Anti-Racist Parent
I share your concerns about the recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece, “Perfect braids show depth of dads devotion,” a profile of Clifton Green, a white adoptive dad who has learned to braid his brown daughter Miriam’s hair. You wrote:

I have a pit in my stomach after reading this and all the adjectives the author has projected onto this little girl and her hair…like neaten, hygiene and behave. Not to mention how the father wanted the little girl to be accepted ‘regardless of her looks.’ Ay-yay-yay…

Two things rankle about the article. First, the incessant othering and demonizing of black physicality using the negative language typically ascribed to hair of people with African ancestry. Writer Michelle Hiskey presents caring for black hair as some singularly mysterious and incredibly difficult chore.

Such skills typically are handed down from older family members and, as this Emory University associate professor of finance discovered, take hours of practice. In the wrong hands, hair like his daughter’s can break off.

Correct me if I am wrong, but won’t anyone’s hair break off in the wrong hands? Don’t people of all races hand down methods of grooming? If I adopt a white child and if, because I am unfamiliar with hair care methods that most white moms learn from their moms, I proceed to care for my white child’s hair as I care for my black hair, would her hair not be damaged?

It seems this story could have been an exploration of how parents adopting internationally and interracially must embrace another culture to successfully nurture their children. Instead, the article is a treatise on the woes of having a head full of naps.

Hair like Miriam’s takes a lot of time…

Once a week he shampoos and conditions her hair. It takes about five times longer to rinse out the water compared to her brother’s straight, fine hair. He combs and parts it. This takes 30 minutes or more. The next steps he does at least once a day, more if she musses her hair while playing or napping. He works on one section of hair at a time.

He sprays it with a brown froth called Carol’s Daughter Black Vanilla Leave-In Conditioner for Dry Hair. The extracts of lavender and rosemary smell nice, wafting with the cartoon noises from the TV that Miriam watches only during hair time. Her Ethiopian middle name, Tigist, means patience, and she needs it while he works…

Hiskey recounts each step of Miriam’s hair care routine, taking special care to make it seem exotic and complicated, like some shamanistic wisdom culled on a mountain top in sub-Saharan Africa. Oh, the combing, the parting, the strangely-named products!

It occurs to me that I could describe the care of straight hair in the same way and make it, too, seem a tedious exercise. I could emphasize how little white girls’ hair must be combed and tended to every day, whereas those intricate plaits that Hiskey drones on about sometimes can last for weeks with minimal maintenance. I could tell a story that makes the hair of people with European ancestry seem unmanageable and odd.

The truth is that all hair is easily manageable unless you care for it with the aim of making it something it is not. I am weary of young, black girls (and black women, too) being fed the message that our hair needs to be tamed and wrestled with. It cannot be good for little girls like Miriam to hear that their physicality is a problem to be fixed, a chore that only the most rare and devoted parent would dare tangle with.

My other beef with the AJC article is this: Why so many kudos for a father doing what is natural—nurturing and caring for a child? Hiskey seems amazed that Green would take the time to lovingly care for his daughter’s hair. Why? Is it because men aren’t supposed to get involved in those aspects of child rearing? That antiquated notion seems problematic. Is it because the realm of black hair is a twisted, unforgiving place that angels (and white parents) fear to tread? Neither subtext for Hiskey’s fascination seems a good answer in this “post-racial,” “post-feminist” America. (a-hem)

I am just so over this sort of story. I’d love to hear more about what you think. And I’m going to share this with columnists Liz Dwyer and Deesha Philyaw, and Renee at Womanist Musings and Julia at Nobody Asked You. I am curious to hear their thoughts on this issue.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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