Monday, August 3, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: Enough with the exoticizing of black hair care

[Tami's note: Last week, over on Anti-Racist Parent, folks were discussing Renee's compelling post on Zahara Jolie-Pitt's hair. Behind the scenes, several of us 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 that will appear on Anti-Racist Parent this week.]

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

From: Tami, 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 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.


PPR_Scribe said...

The truth is that all hair is easily manageable unless you care for it with the aim of making it something it is not.

Yes. And another truth is that in all cultures, complicated hair rituals have arisen because they serve so many purposes: bonding (especially cross-generational and intra-gender), marking life transitions (weddings, coming of age, death), individual or group expression, celebrations.

The freedom to "make hair what it is not" is something that many cultures do. In the right context these rituals can be sites for cultural expression and excitement and pride.

It sounds like your take on this particular article (and ones like it) is that the ritual is, instead, being problemetized, made into a chore.

In a previous blog I wrote a post about coming to see hair care of my own Black daughters' hair as a joyous ritual instead of a chore. Though I, too, am Black, I did not grow up at the feet of my female elders learning hair embellishment and hair care arts--preferring to be off somewhere reading a book or playing outside.

Probably the newspaper piece could have been framed a lot more sensitively. But as someone who has researched adoption for a while now, I can tell you that hair care is a huge concern for Black kids and their White parents. I would rather that these parents read--and heed--this article than not do anything to learn about their children's hair.

M and M said...

Hi Tami. I blogged about getting Blueberry's hair cut just last week. I'm a white mama with a beautiful black boy and the experience of our local black barber was just what I needed to take some of the "exotic" out of our boy's hair. I suspect that I played into this - and there was a teachable moment for me in getting his "low cut with a good line". Interestingly, his little afro got a lot of attention - and not the sort that he enjoyed (touching, rubbing, commenting). You are absolutely right - hair is part of any groups cultural practice and carries cultural meaning across groups.
I ALWAYS appreciate these perspectives as part of my personal journey as an adoptive parent to embrace the myriad perspectives of the black community. So, thank you for this post!

Liberty said...

Thanks for this post. I'm a TRA raised by a white mother. I actually came into my black identity when I went away to college and found ethnic salons. I agree that parents adopting across race lines (all of them) need extra support in dealing with their kids hair (esp. little girls, I think, as I wrote about the other day).

It's important no matter what for parents to embrace their kids' hair. Research shows that when a parent touches/combs a child's hair, it not only massages the scalp but also releases endorphins which increase bonding. This is very important for adopted kids who must reenact attachment and bonding moreso than others.

Thanks again.

Liberty Hultberg

Kjen said...

LOL at your post about how the author plays up the exotic and different. Very few people wear their hair in a true "natural", wash and go type of hairstyle.
When I was in grade school, I was surprized to learn the amount of work that my white classmates put into their hair. I had always thought that white people woke up looking like that.
If you want a certain type of hairstyle, you have to put in the time and effort. and I say this as an adult who has had a perm, gone natural for 10 years and has a perm again.


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