By ROSE-ANNE CLERMONT
Every time I meet an African-American, Caribbean or African woman new to Berlin, I hear the same comment. It begins like a mere observation, a cultural difference, but as she continues talking, a nerve is hit, a personal connection is felt and frustration finally settles in. It is familiar to me because it was a reaction I had when I first moved to Berlin.
“What is with these little mixed girls’ hair? Why do they walk around like their hair hasn’t been combed in months? Can’t their mothers go on the Internet, ask a Black friend or go to one of the ‘Afro Shops’ that are all over the city? What is their excuse for letting their daughters walk around like that? Even Brad Pitt went on You Tube to figure out how to comb Zahara’s hair!”
If I had an Euro for every Black woman I’ve met who has considered teaching a course to white German mothers on how to to take care of their Black daughters’ hair, I could afford an extra trip home every year.
I simply don’t have it in me to say, “Um, have you tried putting a leave-in conditioner in your child’s hair?” Or, “You realize you still have to comb curly hair, right? It wouldn’t be krause, if you actually combed it and put some oil in it. . .” That feels too intrusive but, on the other hand, a part of me feels bad for the child. The child’s hair is seen as “troublesome” and “difficult,” but only because the mother can’t relate to the difference in hair maintenance. (I did actually have a random mother or two ask for my help.)
The other observation I’ve made here is the Ashy Skin Syndrome. For non-black readers, ashiness occurs when brown/black skin is not well moisturized. White people can walk around with dry skin and it’s not as obvious. When black skin gets dry and there is a white film over it, it is widely seen (amongst Black people) as a source of shame. If I had ever gotten caught on the block as a child with white knees, I could expect to be teased for at least five years by other Black kids. As far as I know, the ashy stigma is one prevalent all over North America, South America, the Caribbean and Africa. Yet here I see too many ashy brown children walking around and I admit that it makes me cringe.
My five year-old son reported to me that his Black friend at school (who has white German adoptive parents) is “ashy all over!” Once or twice my husband forgot to oil our sons’ skin after a shower. When my husband saw the next day what the result was, he was shocked and puzzled. Then he remembered that he’d forgotten the necessary ritual.
This may not seem like a big deal to those with fair skin but when one sees how often we of the darker hues come under attack (we’re ugly, we smell, we have too much testosterone), these seemingly small points matter, to us.
Here is where it gets tricky. Are these stigmas only stigmas because Black people perpetuate them? When I see a German mixed-race child with dry, uncombed hair and ashy skin, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it because it doesn’t seem to bother her white German mother. In fact, I have learned time and time again that many Afro-Germans (not my term) identify more as being German than as Black (not a bad thing, per se, but a difference). This is obviously more pronounced if they grew up without a Black family member.
Yet growing up Black, always having a bottle of lotion in my bag was a cultural difference between me and my white friends. None of my white friends knew what “ashy” meant and they didn’t need to; we were different and that was OK. But is not noticing that you’re different from your white friends always good, whether you share a nationality or not?
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Rose-Ann Clermont is a Berlin, Germany-based journalist who writes about migration, identity and ideas that link seemly different people. The author of Buschgirl: Wie ich unter die Deutschen geriet (German Edition), she blogs at Current Between Shores, where this piece was originally published.
Photo credit: By Mike Ross for Flickr Creative Commons.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.