(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.
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?"