Calling a Black Girl’s Hair Cotton Candy: Not Cool, Right?

Race Manners: The comment itself isn’t cause for alarm, but the occasion is a great time to teach your daughters that their blackness is OK whether or not their classmates think it’s “so cool.”  

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Dear Race Manners:

Hopefully you can help me. My daughters are African American and attend a predominantly Caucasian-Hispanic school. Their friends touch their hair and comment on their hair and tell them their hair looks like cotton candy. My daughter came home and told me and said, “Everyone loves cotton candy; that’s so cool.” 

But is it really? How do I address issues like this and still have my daughters feel special and unique? What do I teach them to say if people say things like this to them? I’m grown and I haven’t figured it out. People ask me do I have a perm or say, “You have really nice hair.” Compared to what, I always wonder. Other African Americans? —Questionable Comments?

I’ve heard from so many black women whose first “I’m different from my classmates. It’s because I’m black, and this is going to be an issue” revelation came in the form of schoolyard commentary about hair texture or style: “It’s like a Brillo pad!” or “How do you wash it?” or “What color would lice be if someone like you got them?” (Really.)  

Often they recall that these encounters set off self-consciousness or, worse, a temporary yearning to trade their own locks for some that approximated those of their nonblack playmates.

So it’s no wonder that you’d be anxious about the remarks (even if they did involve a sugary confection that, as your daughter pointed out, everyone loves). After all, so much of the commentary about black women’s hair is negative: It’s inappropriate for school, the subject of overregulation by the U.S. Army, not good enough for television if it’s short, a misguided investment if it’s long or just plain “nasty.”

But here are some of the other things that have happened since around the time your daughters and her classmates came into the world: A “natural-hair movement” so dynamic that it’s the source of debate over whether white women should get a piece of it. Strong pushback on institutional expectations that burden black women. Soaring ratings for a television station after its news anchor goes natural. Plus: Lupita! The most beautiful woman in the world (according to People magazine, at least) occasionally wears a crown of her own “cotton candy” atop her universally fawned-over head.

It’s in this context that I see the commentary your daughter received and her reaction to it as not terrible and possibly even, as she put it, “so cool.”

Mostly that’s because she feels good about herself and has a foundation of self-confidence that gives her no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with being one of the few around with her hair texture. In my view, that’s a parenting win.

And really, what you’re fretting about is the way this foreshadows a conversation about racial identity and what it means to grow up as a black woman in America that runs a high risk of being at least somewhat tough or painful. As your daughters grow, no doubt they’ll encounter attitudes that are less than complimentary about blackness. Some will be explicit and some will be implicit (like the ones behind the comments you mention about your “nice” hair). Of course you’d worry about this.

But what they’ll need in order to process all of this and stay happy and healthy is solid self-esteem, good critical-thinking skills, media literacy and an age-appropriate understanding that there’s nothing wrong with them, but there is something wrong with racial bias. In other words, the very sort of tools you’re using when you identify and reject the between-the-lines “most people’s hair isn’t nice” message of the compliments you receive. You have everything you need to deliver this message.

More than a script for responding to potentially offensive comments that your daughters may receive in the future, they will benefit from having the ammunition to protect them against these misguided words. An attitude that being black is “so cool”—whether or not others happen to agree—is a great start.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, 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 racemanners@theroot.com.

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