By Cindy Reed
Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.
My seven-year-old bounces out of the bathroom, eager to show me her hair. She has declared today to be a natural hair day, a break between braidings.
“Look Mommy! I’m African!” she squeals. Her hair points in every direction, weaving in and out upon itself and springing up behind one ear. Mine, unwashed, hangs limp at my shoulders, gray encroaching on the commonplace brown.
She’s told me that she loves wearing her hair free like this, without braids or twists. There are no plastic bands tugging at her scalp, no sharp parts to attend to. Worn down, the tendrils are long enough to tickle her neck. This is the way nature intended it to grow out of her head. It’s perfect.
I slip on a glittery headband to keep it out of her eyes.
“I can’t wait to show my friends at school!” she says, hopping out of the minivan at the elementary school drop-off line.
My daughter’s hair is the color of the dark coffee I drank at the traditional ceremony held when her birthmother first entrusted her to me over seven years ago on a cloudy day in Hosanna, Ethiopia, when the sky couldn’t make up its mind whether to storm. In a brief meeting that crossed chasms of age and race and class, two translators helped me ask questions of this shy teenage mother, words handed off from English to Amharic to her tribal language like batons. To say things were lost in translation is an understatement, but the fierce hug she gave me left no room for misunderstanding. I would now be carrying her heart around with me. I promised that we would love her daughter always, would teach her of her birth family, would make her proud to be Ethiopian.
The bus ride back to Addis Ababa was somber. Our travel group of adoptive parents had witnessed families broken apart. Tucking our joy at being new parents into a side pocket of our hearts, we found room to pour in the oceans of tragedy and loss we’d just left behind.
My promises to my daughter’s birthmother come flooding back as I make my way to the school pick line, on this day when my daughter chose to showcase her natural hair. I am hoping to hear stories about how the other kids loved the style. But instead I retrieve from school a little girl transformed, her free, naturally-styled hair from that morning now stuffed unceremoniously into an unfamiliar scrunchie. Everything is tamped down, a far cry from the near-Afro she sported just hours ago. “Where’s your African hair?” I ask. She looks down. “I don’t want to wear it like that anymore.”
She is quiet on the drive home, refusing to answer my gentle questions about the day. Inside, I prepare myself for a first conversation about racism, about difference, about pride and standing strong.
At bedtime, she relents. “A second grader grabbed my hand and pulled me around before school to show people my crazy hair. Kids laughed at it.” She gathers her pink blankie close, a first gift from her aunt that has rarely left her side since she arrived in America. She sucks on the corner. “I don’t like my African hair,” she says.
She begs me not to say anything to anyone at school, which is, of course, the first thing I want to do. But she has now been the subject of unwanted attention and the last thing she would want is a brighter spotlight to shine down on her differences. It’s hard to argue with her. Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.
I smooth her hair back into a tight ballerina bun for bedtime, catching up the strays, rubbing almond oil into her scalp.
Our town is not diverse, but we take progressive stands on social issues. We provide a southern haven for an eclectic mix of the eccentric, the misfits, and the hippies, both neo- and original. Still, this is primarily a white town. Black and white neighborhoods stand largely side by side, the result of the south’s dark history of segregation.
We knew the charter school we chose was especially lily white, nestled up a mountain and away from downtown, offering no public transportation and no school lunch. The race-blind admissions process is governed by the unbending rules of the state lottery system, numbers on post-its standing in for children and futures. The result? My two adopted daughters can tick off on their hands all the students of color in the entire K-8 school, many, like them, the transracial adoptees of white parents.
But despite its lack of diversity, the school prides itself on inclusiveness and tolerance. The school, like the town, is a bastion of white liberalism, with all the good intentions and challenges of privilege such a world outlook raises.
Surely my daughter’s differences—her kinky hair, her chocolate skin, her African birth—would be embraced here, we had thought.
My heart aches. My mind rages. I struggle to formulate a response to the schoolyard taunts. I want to find those kids and—
And what? Scream at them? Punch them? Berate their parents?
Maybe I’m overreacting. I mean, kids point at people who look different. My own kids stare and ask uncomfortable questions: “Why is that lady fat?” or “What’s wrong with that boy’s legs?” Kids latch onto any difference and pull. Hard.
So I don’t write a ranting email and copy it up and down the chain of command. Instead, I start small, mentioning it to the classroom teacher. “Maybe just be on the lookout,” I ask.
Saturday is braiding day. My daughter tends to hold forth in the salon, a big personality with a flair for the dramatic. The ladies under the dryers laugh and coo at her sass and sunshine.
As she entertains, I make myself small in my chair, trying not to intrude in this sacred space of African-American women. I never mastered the art of styling black hair. No matter how many YouTube videos I watched or Carol’s Daughter products I bought, my twists uncoiled before I could snap a hair band on the bottom and my parts ended up hopelessly crooked. My failure feels like a breach of the promises I made to my daughter’s birthmother over coffee and tears all those years ago.
“Make styling a special time with your daughter,” an African-American friend urged. But hair time for my daughter and me continued to be the opposite of special.
So here we are, at the salon.
It’s embarrassing, this failure. Styling the hair of African-American girls is a point of cultural pride and black women have on occasion let me know when I have missed the mark. A woman once followed me into the grocery store bathroom, staring while I shepherded my daughters through the chaotic process of peeing, wiping, washing, drying, and otherwise not rolling on the floor.
“You’re not combing her hair, then?” the woman asked, running her fingers through my daughter’s tangles. I pressed the girls to dry their hands faster, but they were mesmerized by the automatic paper towel dispenser, waving their hands like maniacs and sending reams of brown recycled towels onto the soapy floor. I was unsure how to respond and so I didn’t. The woman pretended to wash her hands. “I’d do it for you, but I’m headed back to Atlanta,” she said, turning to leave. As if we were friends. As if next time she came to visit she’d have time to style my daughter’s hair. Maybe we’d sit together and I’d learn, watching her fingers fly through two-strand twists and expertly patterned cornrows. My face burned.
At the salon, I flip through old copies of Essence. My daughter sits on her booster in the big styling chair, insistent. “I want straight hair today,” she demands of her regular stylist, a big-hearted woman of unnatural patience. I am usually hesitant about the blowou—which tends to knot the instant we reach the car and collects our Saint Bernard’s shed hair like a lint brush. But on this day I have no energy left for a pep talk about embracing her curly locks. I concede.
As the flat iron crackles, my daughter’s African hair disappears in a haze of steam. She easily slides her fingers through what is typically a dense thicket, delighted at the finished product. It is long and sleek and smooth and looks just like her “ethnic” Barbie’s hair now, ready to brush or sweep back in a breezy ponytail.
Back at home, I hear the neighborhood girls gushing. “I love your hair like this!” and “You should wear your hair like this all the time!” My daughter, at last, feels included. As I watch from the porch, I brush aside a nagging thought that this inclusion comes at the expense of her true self—that she has been taken in and validated because her hair now conforms to their expectations.
But there will be time later for conversations about African pride and self-esteem. For the moment my daughter is laughing and happy, and my heart is full.
Cindy Reed is an award-winning freelance writer and speaker who teaches writing at cindyreed.me and blogs at www.reedsterspeaks.com. She lives with her family, created by international adoption, in Asheville, North Carolina.