“She’s darker than you.” the girl said to me. She was twisting her blond hair and chewing on it while her blue eyes darted between me and my daughter. Fray was attempting cartwheels with great enthusiasm and seemed not to hear. “And what’s with her hair?” the girl blurted out loudly. “Do you wash it? Why is it so crazy?” I regarded Fray’s afro as a few other parents gave me sympathetic looks and rolled their eyes at the kid’s perceived impudence. Only hours before, the afro had been a collection of neat little braids. The current hairdo was the result of my tediously unbraiding, washing, conditioning and combing my daughter’s hair amid dramatic protests and screams of agony (despite the plug of a sizable lollipop and Doc McStuffins on TV).
Braids are unquestionably easier as a style, but they also turn on you. After about 3 weeks, your kid ends up looking like what one might imagine medusa looks like after a night of bingeing tequila. So, the time had come to undo. But I know saying a temporary goodbye to the braids is a risk – the risk of the unkempt afro. It is a well-known affliction that is commonly faced by the white mother of a brown child. If you don’t get it right, someone’s going to tell you about yourself and plus the afro involves constant maintenance. Half a second of leaning back in a chair basically dents it. And my daughter hates when I fuss over her hair. “Poofing” we call it. And “re-poofing.” And “re-poofing the re-poof.” It’s all equally unwelcomed.
So when my daughter’s afro – pulled back neatly with a neon orange headband – was called into question, I wasn’t surprised. However, I was confident that today, today it looked pretty damn good. “Her hair’s not crazy. It’s an afro.” I said. The girl regarded my daughter’s hair again, squinting critically. Then she walked up and stuffed her hands deep into the fluff of Fray’s hair. “Feels weird…”
Shocked, I looked at Fray. She seemed a little big-eyed and slightly confused by the impromptu scalp massage, but she didn’t move away or appear uncomfortable. But I felt uncomfortable. “Fray? Is that OK? Do you mind her touching your hair? If you do, you can say, ‘please don’t do that…’” The girl pulled her hands away quickly. Fray resumed cartwheeling (they were round-offs honestly) and shortly after, my boys tumbled out of their gymnastics lesson demanding snack money for the vending machines.
At dinner I shared what had happened earlier in the day. “That’s racist!” my husband declared. The boys agreed. “Racist? How is a girl touching Fray’s hair racist?” I asked. “She said Fray was darker than you!” my middle son yelled. I thought for a minute. “But she is…”
“There are just some things you don’t say.” My husband huffed.
“But why not? Are we pretending she’s not darker than us? How is it different than people pointing out how fair and blond Phoenix is in comparison to all of us? That’s a difference. Are people not allowed to say that?”
“Well, what about pointing out that someone is fat? Is that OK? It’s a fact right, but we don’t say it.”
I thought for a minute. “Are we saying being darker-skinned is akin to being fat? Is it a pejorative? A bad thing?”
Forks scraped the dinner plates. No one said anything. Finally they all admitted that no, no it wasn’t. No of course not! “Annice,” my husband began, “You were the one who brought it up to us. Why was it remarkable if on some level it didn’t upset you?” It had become clear by the end of dinner that the actions and words of this little girl had unnerved us. Touché husband, touché.
When I was in my mid-20s, I was hanging out with a group of teenagers around a BBQ. I honestly don’t remember how the conversation looped the way it did, but somehow it came out that I was Jewish. Two of the boys, who happened to be brothers, looked at me. “Jewish? You’re Jewish? Where are your horns?” I laughed while poking tentatively at meaty stuff on the grill. But when I looked up, two very inquisitive faces were awaiting my answer. “Uh… Jews don’t have horns...”
They went on to tell me that I was the first Jewish person they had ever met. They were from a small, homogenous town where everyone was just like them. Was it a dumb question? Was it anti-Semitic? At the time I didn’t think about that. I was just so surprised that I simply answered. Over the years I have come to appreciate that long-ago conversation for a variety of reasons. Had I never “revealed” myself, had the kids internalized their unchallenged thoughts and beliefs, had I reacted defensively to them by storming off telling them to, “Cook your own G-d damn burgers because I’m a vegetarian anyway!” then they would have continued to believe in Jew-horns and likely been looking for my swishing tail as I stormed off with indignant rage and offense.
Now back to my daughter and the sassy hair-grabbing girl at gymnastics. In retrospect, I think I did the best I could in the moment. I educated the kid – introduced the term “afro” into her vocabulary at least – and made sure my daughter felt empowered to tell said child to back off if she wanted her to. I also think/hope Fray felt confident about how her hair looked – how she looked – despite being under the radar of the critical eyes of others. Because the reality is, being brown-skinned is novel where we live. And when people are different, people are curious about it.
How can we address curiosity without feeling exploited on behalf of ourselves, our children and our cultures? I think it’s true that we build bridges to understanding and appreciating differences by learning from others and from sharing our perspectives. Can we do that if questions about afros and accents and horns are off limits? I don’t think so. So, to that impish little girl, I say a thank you. You got me thinking.