Is Hair Care Oppressing My Black Daughter?

No. It's a mistake to think everything African-American women and girls do is grounded in self-hate.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) —

“I’m (white) Latina and my husband is African American. We have little girls the same age from previous relationships. His daughter is with us for the summer, and we are not seeing eye-to-eye on her hair. He and his mother think she should sit to have her hair braided, which hurts her scalp and takes hours, or that I should spend time every day styling it (or find someone to do this, since I might not have the tools and skills).

“I think this sends the wrong message that something is wrong with this beautiful little girl’s hair. I’m very aware of the fact that these two sisters are different races, and I’m well-educated about racism, colorism and the negative messages black women receive from an early age about hair and skin. I hate the idea of one kid getting the message that while her sister’s hair is OK to go when she wakes up in the morning or to ‘wash and go,’ she needs to do all of these things to ‘fix’ hers to make it acceptable. I think it’s too much focus on appearance for an 8-year-old child. Plus, it’s summer and she should be free to worry about enjoying herself, not how she looks. How do I explain this?” –Not Happy About Hair

The very fact that you’ve given this issue such serious thought makes me happy for your stepdaughter. When it comes to her self-esteem, and what are sure to be numerous assaults on it throughout her lifetime, she’s lucky to have someone looking out for her the way you are.

I don’t agree with your take, but I do think your concerns are reasonable, given your perspective.

Remember pre-Blue Ivy, and pre-Gabby Douglas, when some observers were fretting over the state of Angelina Jolie’s toddler daughter Zahara’s natural hair? I remember wondering whether there was some reluctance on Mom’s part to single out the hair of a child adopted from Ethiopia for braiding and twisting and deep conditioning, while the rest of the multiracial tribe got to run around the family’s French compound all carefree with Brad. That’s something I could understand. And some of the debates that circled the little girl’s looks, with “Why won’t Angelina just comb it?” on one side and “Let’s leave Zahara be” on the other, reflect the very tension behind your question.

But your stepdaughter’s situation isn’t Zahara’s. She has people in her life (especially, I’m guessing, during the school year) for whom the type of hair maintenance you reference in your question is completely normal. I think what her father and grandmother are trying to tell to you is that black people (I use this term instead of “African American” intentionally because I think this is a global reality) have different cultural expectations surrounding hair care. You may lump it into a category with manicures or makeup and other things that are the jurisdiction of adults and arguably reflective of the “I’m not attractive enough as I am” feeling that comes with a loss of innocence. But to her biological relatives, this maintenance is a regular part of life, like bathing and brushing teeth.  

I’d ask you to consider that those different expectations exist for a reason, and it’s not one that should cause distress.

First, set aside all you’ve heard (and it sounds like it’s a lot) about Eurocentric beauty standards and what would or wouldn’t make a black woman alter the texture of her hair. That’s another conversation entirely. Consider instead that, when it comes to basic grooming, the way black girls’ hair is traditionally cared for doesn’t have to be seen as an unreasonable burden or a part of a self-hatred narrative simply because it’s different from what you’re used to.