Saige_MyBrownBaby.comBy Stacey Conner

“Who does her hair?” she asks me gruffly.  I look up from the table where I am trying to manage my four young children and squint into the glare of the insanely fluorescent lighting of a local burger restaurant.  I rarely take the kids out to eat alone, but day after day trapped in the house have driven us to this corner burger place.  The freezing rain taps against the dark window. I try to block it out along with the difficult drive home.

“I’m sorry?” I reply as she registers over the chaos and the demands for fries. She is barely taller than my oldest children with a pretty face around a prominent nose. I notice first the red apron that she wears around her waist and blush at the french-fry explosion under our table. The red glow in my cheeks burns deeper when I finally understand her question.

“O-oh,” I stammer.  “I do. They’re only box braids.” I am immediately apologetic and defensive, explaining my short-comings to this stranger who has asked me a simple question. “I can’t corn row.”

She touches one of my daughter’s thirty braids and feels it from root to tip with expert hands.  “They look good,” she answers me, “but they need more oil. They’re too dry.  Our hair needs oil every day.”

I wince. I know. I have wonderful oils at home. Mango. Olive-infused. I have never been into hair. My own long, auburn locks can be gorgeous, if done by a hairdresser, but I have never learned to style them and I wear a perpetual ponytail with straggly broken fly-away fringe. The foreign texture and baffling care of my daughter’s hair has sapped whatever energy and interest I ever had for primping.  We consider our bi-weekly box braiding a mutually endured chore. The oil applications slip my mind sometimes, I am ashamed to admit.

I nod now, feeling like a failure in a fast food restaurant with my pale ketch-up-smeared boys and my unoiled brown daughter. I know, I don’t stay up on it enough.

“I used to do all of the kids’ hair in my neighborhood,” she tells me.

“Really, you must be so fast.  I am jealous.” I would give much to have been raised with this skill. To be deft and quick and not five-thumbed and fumbling with the tiny braids and miniature beads.

She nods and I am dying to ask her if she would like to teach me, if she would be interested in giving me lessons in corn rows, but I don’t. I just revel in the fact that she thinks my box braids are good and vow to oil every single day. A vow that it takes me an entire week to break.

It doesn’t strike me until later that she never said that Saige was beautiful. She touched her with matter-of-fact skill, not wonder or curiosity.  It is one of the most honest and easy interactions that I’ve ever had in this town regarding Saige or her hair.  The realization makes me sad and scared and unsure of our decision to parent our multi-racial family in this small Northern city.

Usually, it goes quite differently.  Your daughter is gorgeous.  She is so pretty.  Oh, what a beautiful girl.  May I touch her hair?  Look at those beads!

My daughter is a beautiful girl, inside and out.  She has a captivating smile.  She can infect a room with her effusive giggles.  She is gentle and inclusive with her younger brothers.  She is also miserably obstinate and she throws fake tantrums that send my blood pressure rocketing through the roof and into the heavens.

In other words, she’s a five-year-old girl.

I think she is stunning, but I love her with all my heart.  I rocked her as she screamed her fear and grief, new to our home.  We weathered a difficult attachment period together.  I’ve seen her be delightful and horrid and mean and joyful.  She is my child.

In the great scheme of children of the world, I don’t find her looks particularly remarkable or unremarkable. All children are beautiful. My little girl, the recipient of so much exuberant praise on her physical appearance, and in particularly her hair, draws attention in this part of this small city, I fear, for being something more akin to different.

I don’t think her well-meaning admirers intend that subtext when they lavish her with praise.  I don’t think the kind strangers with whose compliments we contend almost daily understand why their comments engender my tense smile and deflective remarks.

“They’re mine, so I think they are all beautiful,”  I say.

“OH, but she’s gorgeous!  Look at that hair.”

“All children are gorgeous.”

Why fight it? After all, who doesn’t want to be beautiful? It’s a compliment, don’t be so sensitive. I hear these arguments, but I disagree intuitively, deep in my core.   I don’t want the word “beautiful” to have a subtext for my daughter.  I don’t want it to mean,” exotic” or “different” or “unique” or “black.” Most of all, I don’t want it to mean “noticed.”  I would rather someone at the grocery store say, straight up, “I noticed your daughter because she is black and you are white and it made me curious about her and your family.”  Sure.  That makes sense and that is something that we can talk about on the way home in our own time. Our family is different and people notice, that fact is an easy one to address.

But beautiful laced with different? Maybe Saige will grow feeling gorgeous and unique and maybe she will grow feeling like she sticks out in our family and in our community.  Maybe it doesn’t matter and maybe it does. Most likely, like all things, it depends on the child.  I am sure I am one of few Jews in this neighborhood.  Strangers often remark on my sons’ bright red hair.  Different certainly isn’t bad.

Beauty, though, I would prefer to let her define on her own with as few preconceived prejudices of others as possible. I consider it my job as her mother to be a safe haven for her. To speak words that she can hide behind if she wishes, even if it makes a friendly stranger feel a little uncomfortable. Our differences are ours to share or not as we please. She need not feel vulnerable to every passerby who hides curiosity in compliments.

And so, for now, I’ll stay on course. I will downplay over-the-top compliments even when it offends the speaker. I’ll continue to seek out every interaction that I can to make it clear to my daughter that the dynamics of this street do not equal the dynamics of this city or this state or this country.  I’ll drive her to our African-American pediatrician and I’ll request the dental hygienist with ropes of tight blond and black braids tied on the top of her head in an intricate knot.  I’ll follow the art classes of our beloved preschool teacher from Barbados around this whole city.  And I’ll take her back to that restaurant often, for the casual, unamazed discussion of braiding and hair.  Okay, and maybe a little bit because she liked my box braids.

It’s a strange no-man’s land I find myself in; I fear the judgment of black moms that I meet and dread the questions of white moms. I imagine with anxiety how Saige might feel about it in just a few years.

“The kids laughed at my hair today,” Saige pipes up at the dinner table.  “They said it sticks up funny.”

My heart thumps painfully sideways in my chest.  Her hair is done with two ponies on either side of the top of her head. We call the style Mickies, because the deep, thick black balls above her forehead look like Mickey Mouse ears.  The back I left natural to give both Saige and me a break and to let her hair rest.  It looks beautiful when she leaves in the morning, but no matter how much oil I put in it, no matter how carefully I brush it down behind the ponies, by the end of a long day of school it is matted, dry and covered in every fuzz that her head encountered that day.

It does stick up in the back.

“Which kid laughed?” I ask her.

“All of them.  Carrie said it sticks up and they all laughed.” She states it matter-of-factly; she isn’t upset.

“That’s not nice, all hair is different, what did your teacher say?”

“She said she thinks my hair is beautiful.”

“I think your hair is beautiful too,” I tell her. I am caught in a mama bear rage, though I know it is an overreaction.

Matt catches my eye at the other end of the table.  “It’s okay,” he soothes, “kids say whatever they’re thinking. It’s not mean-spirited.”

It’s not intended to be racist, he means. I know that, but it doesn’t make it not about her differentness.

“Would it be easier if she were in a predominantly black class?” he asks me.

No. It would most likely be harder.  From a hair perspective, anyway. Gone would be the innocent comments; those kids and their parents would know that someone at poor Saige’s house was stumbling around hair-blind.

“Tomorrow,” our little girl declares, “we should put the ponies all over my head.  That way, it won’t be Mickies, it will be TOFU HAIR.”

She laughs uproariously, her head thrown back, her mouth open, not phased by the comments of others, unwilling to be cowed, unafraid and confident.  Her brothers join in and the screeching laughter approaches rainforest canopy levels.  She giggles until even Matt and I laugh with her, though why that would be Tofu Hair escapes her confused parents.  The way, I suspect, her peers will laugh with her as she grows.

Because she demands it, because her poise leaves no room for ridicule. Because she is beautiful, inside and out.

StaceyConnor, a.k.a. anymommy, loves chai tea lattes, bed time and being at home with her children. She hates the cold, finger paints and play dough. She blogs about life with a toddler herd, adoption, trans-racial parenting and other issues, big and small, at AnyMommyOutThere and her first historical romance novel is published serially at Summer Connolly Romance. This post ran originally in February 2011.

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24 Comments

  1. So the author is mad because a person with more experience doing hair gave her advice?

    • Actualy, HooDoo Honey, it’s just the opposite. She appreciated the woman’s commentary, which is the complete opposite of the awkward comments and inappropriate touching she and her daughter get from people who are not familiar with natural black girl hair…

  2. I really enjoyed this post. As the grandmother of a biracial child I am acquainted with the awkward questions of strangers trying to sort out our relationship. Most people mean well and are just curious. The judgmental ones tend to draw their own conclusions and give disapproving looks. I figure that’s their problem, not mine. Acceptance can’t come quickly enough for me.

  3. I also battle with the protective versus pride emotions when my kids are smothered (and I mean smothered) with praise over their looks, and hair specifically. However, being “different” is a fact I’ve accepted a long time ago. As a Latina raising mixed black babies, I am all to familiar with being brown in a white world and being different. Some people are flat out rude (like the guy who called my daughter’s hair “poodle hair”), and some are so awkward that it’s hard to not feel bad. I tell my daughter she’s beautiful because, in reality, our mainstream world doesn’t. I also try to raise her with humility, manners, respect and tolerance. It feels like an impossible balancing act sometimes, though. Thank you for this great POV!

  4. Thank you for sharing this article. As a white adoptive mom parenting an African American son, I too get compliments all the time which some times feel more like I am curious about why we adopted an African American child. It is always comforting to know I am not alone in our experiences! So glad I read this and to have found My Brown Baby!!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m a black mom of a biracial child and the comments are endless even living in a more ethnically diverse area. I love how you talk so honestly about your experiences and your feelings. It sounds like you are doing a fabulous job raising ALL your children :)

  6. Your family sounds very nice. I like your essay, filled with respect and love. I hope everyone on Earth is like you, and I hope your daughter’s hair is pleasing her today! I’m not very good with hair; I could shampoo, clean, dry, comb, and braid my white baby daughter’s hair, but I asked for help with anything more, french braid was beyond me, for example. I wish only the best for you and your family. You all have love; you have everything!

  7. When you say,  “I don’t want the word “beautiful” to have a subtext for my daughter.  I don’t want it to mean,” exotic” or “different” or “unique” or “black.” Most of all, I don’t want it to mean “noticed.” I feel like you are speaking for yourself instead of your daughter, that YOU are uncomfortable with being ‘noticed.’ My father is a very light-skinned Arab and my mom is white American. My skin is paper-white and I was lucky to have inherited the large dark eyes with long black lashes from my father. I’m obviously mixed with something, but it’s impossible to tell what, and people ask me, “where are you from?” constantly. I have been told I am exotic, different, and unique my entire life, and I absolutely love it. I love that people use those words when commenting on my beauty. I thrive on being ‘noticed,’ which seems like a really awful thing to be for you, although I’m not sure why. You sound like a great mom trying to do the best for your kids, but you need to let her decide for herself how she feels about being “noticed.” Maybe she’ll love it, or grow to love it, but that won’t happen if she picks these attitudes up from you – which can happen unconsciously, too.

    Don’t feel bad about the braids! Many black women suffer from hair loss when they get older because pulling it tight for so many years can completely kill the hair follicle. It can happen to anyone, white or black, from constantly wearing it in a ponytail but it tends to be black women because of the braids. (My white friend with a young black daughter let her hair grow into natural dreads, which look great on her.)

  8. Very well written article. I would like to offer this point though. The context of my family was different, but when i was growing up, my mother was a great mother but didn’t like it when people said that I was beautiful and would brush off the compliments. ( I think she thought it would make kids “spoiled”. There was a lot of talk about that then) Not only did it hurt my feelings, but I internalized it to mean that I wasn’t. It took a long long time for me to appreciate what I have. Well into a my 20s or maybe even 30s . I always thought I was a funny looking kid, and when i look at pictures I see that was far from the truth. Your kids hear what you say, including your tone, and because you are their mom will believe it. I know that comments from strangers can be strange, unwelcome, all sorts of things, but i don’t see a lot of value in sending a message to a little girl that she has a “face only a mother could love”

  9. Don’t assume that every Black woman knows how to do hair: I say I was blessed with boys because God knew I couldn’t handle having to “do” a little Black girl’s hair! I am not alone, though: What the author didn’t get is that the young woman who approached her would likely have been willing to do her daughter’s hair, just like she did the hair of other little girls in the neighborhood. A lot of this angst could be avoided by just paying someone to do what you can’t do!

    • Oh, that really does make me feel better. And yes, we do pay someone to do her hair now that she desires more intricate styles … and Deb (her stylist) still chides me when I slack off on the oil!!

      • So glad you took that step! Black hair is incredibly versatile, and making sure your daughter learns how to care for and style her hair is the best way to ensure she appreciates what God gave her. It is well worth the investment in terms of her future self-esteem.

        Good luck!

  10. Love this story about a mom’s love for her child. It warmed my heart to read how she “works” to help her daughter be comfortable with who she is. Way to go mom.

  11. Such a touching reflection. I admire the way you raise your daughter and filter the world for her. You could easily just turn your head and avoid cultural issues, but instead you immerse yourself. You should be less self conscious even around African American moms (I can say that because I am African American) and relax. You’re doing a good job.

  12. Great article! But you know, not all woman can do hair. It’s easy with boys because you take them to a barber trained to cut all types of hair to keep them groomed weekly; just do the same with girls! Locate a natural hair shop in your local neighborhood, or the next, and have your little girls hair groomed weekly with beautiful beads and hairdressings. You could also invest in learning how to take care of hair…all of which is natural on each of our heads, just because you want to groom your kids hair well whenever we don’t possess that natural talent ourselves. I grew up with my five sisters with long, long black wavy but kinky hair; mom got help with doing our heads weekly by her neighbors Nd her sister-in-law that luckily was a master hair dresser! Today, locating assistance for grooming “natural” hair is a no-brainer. Good luck, moms.

  13. check out nappturality.com for black hair care. black hair does not need oils daily.

  14. Nice story. But as a black mother of a black child, I can tell you that your story is not unique to you or white mothers of black children. My black daughter wore her hair in 2 puffballs most of her youth….even now at 10 she mostly wears it in a single puffball pulled in the back. I can not do hair much more than that…at least not her natural hair. I can do my straightened hair in all kinds of styles, but her curly natural hair is foreign to me as well. Even to this day I still get LOTS of comments on how beautiful her hair is from both black and white people. It is not long, isn’t healthy, has lots of split ends, and looks a mess most of the time…but it does have a distinguishable s-curl, and looks pretty immediately after loading it up with oils or wetting it, which I can’t be bothered with all the time. All this to say, most of us black women aren’t thinking anything about you and your hair styling skills on your daughter. We’re doing good just to make it out the house with our own child’s hair looking halfway decent. And the ones of us that will usually say something almost always end up being hair stylists themselves. They’re only saying something in hopes to get new business. Trust…they come up and ask me who does my child’s hair too! LOL!

  15. I really enjoyed your post.

    Coincidentally, I was just listening this morning to an interview with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote Americanah. She described a character in her book who was so nervous about race that she couldn’t bring herself to use the word “black”, instead talking about “the beautiful woman at the grocery store” or “my beautiful friend, Mary” and so on. The novel’s black protagonist eventually realizes this is what’s going on – whenever she eventually meets someone who her friend has described as “beautiful”, they turn out to be black. The protagonist has a conversation with the woman where she says it’s ok to say the word black. The protagonist feels that they are able to become friends, rather than just acquaintances, only after they’ve had this exchange.

    The author is very thoughtful and interesting when she talks about this. Her sense is that substituting “beautiful” in a kind of euphemistic and loaded way is overcareful in unhelpful ways. Her comments really chimed with yours, I felt. You might enjoy the interview too.

    http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/286903648/americanah-author-explains-learning-to-be-black-in-the-u-s

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