Karen said my hair’s fuzzy.
I turned around and looked my four-year-old daughter in the eye. “Your hair’s not fuzzy,” I said, “You have princess hair.” And then I sighed.
Afro hair has a long history of being denigrated. Throughout the ages, natural hair has been viewed as unruly, unprofessional, unmanageable, and ultimately undesirable. Unfortunately, these misconceptions are still perpetuated today. Black women are frequently bombarded with messages that communicate that having “good” hair means having straight hair, or at least loose curls.
Throughout the years, advancements in technology and science have made straight hair increasingly more accessible. The invention of the hot comb (which enabled the hair to be heated into submission) provided women with a means to temporarily achieve straight hair. After this, the introduction of relaxers (whereby chemical concoctions are used to permanently change the structure of the hair) offered women a more enduring solution to the “problem” of natural hair.
The idea that straight hair is superior to afro hair is rooted in antiquity. For generations, women have been told, both directly and implicitly, that getting ahead in life requires them to have straight hair. Around the time that the hot comb was popularised, having straight hair was often the difference between whether a woman was hired or not.The texture of a woman’s hair and subsequently the way it was styled greatly influenced the way she was perceived and the opportunities she was afforded. In Apartheid South Africa, the texture of a person’s hair and whether it could withstand the infamous pencil test had lifechanging ramifications. The common sentiment that hair is just hair was not true then and it is not true now. In fact just this year a study found black women who wore their natural hair were less likely to get hired
History is littered with examples of women losing their jobs and experiencing microaggressions due to the way society receives their natural hair. This discrimination is not limited to adults. In recent times, there have been numerous cases of children being punished by schools because they dared to wear their hair naturally.
So, when Karen tells my daughter that her hair is fuzzy the words ring deep. I can forgive six-year-old Karen because she’s a little girl living in China surrounded by lots of people with “non-fuzzy” hair. I’m not angry at Karen but I sighed because her words are painted against a backdrop of hair bias that sees afro hair as inferior to straight hair. That denigrates black features.
In many ways, hair speaks to our past, our present and our future. The way we perceive our hair is closely related to the way we view ourselves. Or we can say, our level of self-esteem and the extent to which we are able to embrace who we truly are, impacts how we think about our hair.
Despite the negative way natural hair has been viewed through the ages, in the 1960s wearing an afro became increasingly popular. Back then, wearing an afro was more than a low maintenance hairstyle; it was a symbol of self-acceptance. To rock an afro was to reject social norms and other people’s expectations about what constitutes “good” hair. It was a way of saying, “I am proud of who I am and I don’t need to hide or alter my hair in a bid to subscribe to anyone else’s perception of beauty. I love my hair because I love myself.”
When I see images from that era of men and women wearing their natural hair with pride, a part of me marvels. In many ways the Black is Beautiful Movement that empowered black people to celebrate their natural hair in the 1960s, is reminiscent of the modern-day Natural Hair Movement. The two movements share a lot of the same sentiments but it seems to me that so much more was at stake back then. At that time, there were no afro wearing celebrities featured in the mainstream media that black people could glean inspiration from. This lack of representation reinforced the message that rocking an afro was not proper and it was not beautiful. The afro was deemed to be unacceptable. And yet, black people were still able to love themselves enough to make these bold declarations of self-acceptance and celebrate their natural hair anyway.
This reminds me that even in the midst of oppression, self-acceptance and self-love are still possible. It is possible to stand tall in the face of hostility. So, I’m hopeful that although my daughter lives in a world where her hair is viewed as inferior to that of her white counterparts, she can still learn to cherish it and regard it as a splendid crown.
So, the issue becomes less about what young Karen thinks about the texture of my daughter’s hair and more about helping my daughter see herself as beautiful so that the microaggressions of every Karen out there fade into oblivion. When my daughter views herself through the correct lenses, she will love her hair and every other part of her body. She needs to know her worth and value. We all do.
In a world that has not yet fully awoken to the fact that beauty comes in a variety of hues and hair textures, how exactly can us parents teach our children to love and celebrate themselves? I don’t purport to be a parenting expert but I’ll share a few messages I’m seeking to engrave on my children’s hearts:
1. “You are special”: I constantly remind my children that they are valuable. I want them all to be convinced that they are precious. I tell my daughters that they are Princesses so they know that they are important and worthy of respect.
2. “You are beautiful”: I tell my girls this often. Their hair, their noses, their eyes, their hands, every part of their body is beautiful just because. They don’t need to search for validation or conform to someone else’s standard of beauty.
3. “You are loved”: I want my children to know that they are loved regardless of what they look like, regardless of their hair texture, and regardless of any made up standard of beauty. They are loved with no strings attached. They don’t have to earn it. They already have it. Home is a place where love and acceptance is not dependent on the way they look.
4. “People that look like you can achieve greatness”: I always try to draw my kids’ attention to “successful” people with hair and skin like theirs. I want them to know that people that look like them can be found in a spectrum of
professions and can progress to the higher tiers of the workplace. I help them to see that people that look like them can be leaders and innovators.
I’ve found diverse toys and books to be extremely helpful towards this aim. The significance of representation has been extensively documented. It’s important for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read and the toys they play with. It improves self-esteem, it increases confidence, and it reminds them of what’s possible. A great place to find a collection of diverse toys and books in one place is OUR KIDS TROVE. Our Kid’s Trove is a one-stop shop for culturally diverse toys. They partner with black-owned businesses to create a carefully curated collection of valuable toys and learning resources.
I’m convinced that words have power. I grew up hearing my dad tell me that I can do anything. “It’s not beyond you,” he would say. He repeated these words until they became somewhat of a mantra. To this day, I still hear my father’s words ringing in my ears. Many a time they have helped me refocus and reminded me of the potency that’s buried within me.
So, it is my hope that as I speak these words of truth to my children, they too will be reminded of who they are and reject the biases that tell them that what they have to offer is not good enough. Then, they will stand tall in the face of hostility, fully embracing the people they were created to be.