As Tiffany Gill, associate professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware, puts it, discussions about hair risk falling victim to “this kind of normative thinking, where what’s done to white people’s hair is normal.
“Why can’t the braiding and all that become something beautiful and normal?” she asks.
After all, there is the fundamental issue of physical difference. While black hair comes in a wide variety of textures and curl patterns, much of it is very delicate and requires, at the very least, a lot of moisture and gentle detangling in order to be healthy.
It’s why there’s an entire industry and online community surrounding natural black hair. Sure, some have concerns about whether that “movement” is just another vehicle for women to obsess over length and fight God-given texture. But even those who intentionally choose a “minimalist black hair routine” to combat those worries still have, well, a routine. The very existence of that routine might be foreign to you, especially when it comes to kids. But as it says in one list of 12 points (yes, 12 points) for dealing with black girls’ hair, “non-maintenance on some can lead to damage.”
(Of course, too much of anything can lead to its own damage. That’s why there’s a whole separate conversation about how too many and too tight braids, bobbles and rubber bands can risk hair health and thus set up their victims for Black Twitter’s current favorite insult: bad edges. The idea that your stepdaughter’s braids hurt might indeed be a red flag here. I’d encourage you to find a stylist who’s a little gentler.)
But the second, and I’d say more important, thing when it comes to changing your view of this is an understanding that there is a history that predates all of these concerns. Gill explains:
The context of black grooming practices … has not always been about self-hatred but a celebration of one’s culture and identity, going back to the time of enslavement, when African Americans didn’t have access to leisure time to groom in the way forebearers did on the continent. They would take time on Sundays to engage in these self-grooming practices, which were about showing identity and showing love. Today it’s still kind of a communal thing, whether it’s with a mother, a caregiver or a hairdresser. This is something that’s become really important to African-American culture and identity.
Is it possible that you can reframe the way you think about caring for this little girl’s hair so that it becomes not just something different but something special? (I’d argue this might be the view that Jolie and Pitt embraced when they let Zahara get those braids with bright-blue streaks that went beyond just making her hair easier to care for but gave her an opportunity to express her personality, too.)
Gill is adamant that black-hair maintenance “doesn’t have to feel like torture.” She says it can be a moment of celebration — a ritual that you get to do to your hair. “You can fully acknowledge that that distinctiveness of black hair has been used to stigmatize, but you can talk to your daughter about that and talk about how to combat it. This talk might be more powerful than an attempt to force a colorblind regimen.”
And if you’re really committed to mirror image-maintenance regimens for the girls, go ahead and give her sister’s hair some extra attention, too. A little extra moisture and a braid or two never hurt anybody.
In any case, your stepdaughter is lucky to have someone so invested in her healthy racial identity and self-esteem. I think a big part of your role in validating that — and this will apply well beyond hair care — will be to make sure your family celebrates rather than suppresses the things that make her unique.
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette-surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Is My White Boyfriend Fetishizing Me?”