“We are at war!” Every time I drop our daughter off at school, I hear Sister Souljah’s voice reminding me that we are, indeed, engaged in a near-constant battle. This battle began the moment my daughter was born, when the attending nurse called in several other nurses to marvel at my daughter’s “beautiful hair.” Granted, she was born with hair almost to her shoulders, but f’real? My wife just went through how many hours of labor and you want to bring folks into our sacred space because my daughter’s hair confounds your expectations? And that was, literally, the beginning of what I will call “hair ish.”
As with most children, our daughter’s hair has changed textures and shades several times. It has finally settled (we think) into what it will be for the rest of her life. It is beautiful, but it has been a lot of work getting her to love it. With each new change, people—almost exclusively White in the positive and almost exclusively Black in the negative—felt it was their duty to comment on it. “Ohmigod! I just love how wild her hair is,” or “Y’all need to do something about that. She can’t be running around looking all wild.”
“Wild” has been assigned to my daughter’s hair more times than I can count. The associations with this word are staggering—barbarous, untamed, animalistic, haphazard, desolate. How is something so beautiful, so full of life and personality, consistently associated with something completely devoid of humanity?
As I’ve mentioned previously in this space, a significant part of our parenting is devoted to ensuring that our daughter is never diminished because of her gender or appearance. A good portion of this is giving her the tools to engage in social and psychic self-defense.
Our daughter’s default setting is compassion. While she isn’t overly sensitive, she’s sensitive enough that when her compassion and empathy aren’t reflected back to her, or she is actively attacked (especially by classmates), it can take her a long time to recover. This breaks my heart to the point where I want to go in on these kids—not to mention the parents that co-sign this behavior by not correcting and education their children.
My daughter is under attack. And yes, commenting on her hair is a kind of attack. So is touching her hair. What is it about Black girls’ hair that invites people to touch it?
We’ve taught our daughter the “one, two rule” when it comes to her body. You touch (touching and reaching for, but not overtly violent) and she gives you a verbal admonishment: “You do not have my permission to touch me. Don’t do it again,” or “I was not put here for your amusement,” or “Don’t ever touch me.” We wanted to give her some options, depending on how she was feeling in the moment.
If they reach in for a second touch, she smacks their hands, pushes them away, or sets any other kind of physical boundary she feels is appropriate. It isn’t that we are teaching her that violence is the answer. But hell, how else is she supposed to maintain her emotional and physical integrity? We are fed up with the oppressed having to educate the oppressor on how to behave… which was a suggestion made by the school. “Maybe she could just explain to everyone how her hair is different than most of the other students.”
Really? My daughter should be singled out to appease the culturally and socially inept, so that they can feel better? That will not be happening on any level.
The more appropriate direction is to investigate why her classmates feel they have permission to touch her hair or comment on it? What’s emboldened them to the point where they feel that her body is theirs? I’m curious how the school would react if my daughter started touching the lips of her white classmates, asking “Your lips are so thin. They are so small. How do they protect your teeth and mouth? Can you even kiss with lips like tiny, straight lines?”
Needless to say, hair ish is exhausting for the entire family. I’ve been seriously considering creating a set of business cards for her to hand out to the overly inquisitive. On one side of the card would be several images of the amazing versatility of Black girl’s hair. On the other, there would be these simple sentences: To paraphrase Prince, “my hair is something you will never comprehend.” Just let it go.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.