Different-Looking

My daughter has always been interested in fashion and appearance. It wasn't learned; she just has a natural inclination. Right now she happens to be very focused on her hair, lamenting how she wants it to be long and straight like "everyone else's."

By "everyone" she means most -- nearly all -- of the other girls she comes in contact with, especially at our homeschool sports group. It just so happens that homeschoolers in our area are overwhelmingly white. Our other circles -- outside of family -- also happen to be primarily made up of the same race. It's not all that surprising then that normal seems to mean white.

It's been hard to muddle through, especially right now as preteen self-consciousness has gradually begun to descend upon us. I try to remember that I can relate, and as I relate I remember how temporary and trivial the concern-of-the-day truly is. My daughter doesn't suddenly hate herself and her people because she laments over her thick, beautiful hair. It feels serious to me in the moment, but then I am reminded that I hate the way my pants fit.

It's not all that surprising then that normal seems to mean white.

Because of our history, specifically the lasting effects of white supremacy and slavery, it is a fight to be aware of our own beauty and to treasure it. I take great care in teaching my sons and daughter that they are well-made and lovely. I, also, know that I am sensitive to anything that looks or sounds like "white is best." Charlotte wanting a ponytail is not one of those things. That's just a girl wanting a ponytail.

Even now, I can see the obsession fading away. In a couple of weeks Char has gone from wanting only straight, blonde hair to only wanting a pulled-back puff before settling into our usual braids.


The tendency is to overreact, but I also don't want to dismiss the real feeling of being other. Here are some things that have helped.

I have been much more careful about caring for Charlotte's hair. I regularly spend nights reading up on protective styles and hair types and how to prevent damage. It is no stretch for someone to dislike her dull, brittle, unmanageable hair and wish it to be like everyone else's long, shiny hair that easily glides through any comb. This seems like it has to do with texture, but it doesn't. I've seen straight hair that's dull, over-processed, or uncombed; it's just as difficult to work with as coarse uncared-for tresses.

We look at black images all the time. If all you see are cute ponytails, that may be all you think of as pretty. You may need new ideas of what good is. Similar to looking at hair magazines at the salon to help you figure out what you want, we frequent the natural hair corners of Pinterest. We both remark on what we like and what we don't, cute puffs, weird undercuts, crazy freeforms. We don't do this excessively, but when we do, it's a fun girl-time.

If all you see are cute ponytails, that may be all you think of as pretty. You may need new ideas of what good is.

I am more careful about taking care of my own hair and about how I speak about myself. Charlotte is a mirror. When I had freeform locos, she eventually wanted them too. When I had clip-in puffs, she picked some out too. When I am comfortable wearing my TWA (teeny-weeny afro), so is she. This applies to more than just hair, obviously; actually, all of this applies to more than hair.

I've also been more careful with dialect, for instance. I am very literal, by nature taking words to mean what they literally mean, so this shift is a work-in-progress. Language is a significant part of any culture; I have to actively reject the notion that our vernacular is wrong. It is nonstandard, but it is not wrong, neither is it inherently silly or funny or uneducated-sounding.

One big thing is the males. A kind acknowledgement from Daddy completely changes Char's demeanor. It can be just a couple of words, but she is so sensitive to his approval and care. Not only that, but Chris is increasingly becoming aware of his influence in his little sister's life. I don't know how it happened; I don't recall mentioning it. Somehow though, he knows saying "you look weird" or "you look nice" matters -- much more than his opinion matters to anyone else. It is a sweet moment when he, without prompting, lets his sister know her fro-puff looks good -- and without any pomp or tada. I treasure those quick, tender glimpses.

I have to actively reject the notion that our vernacular is wrong. It is nonstandard, but it is not wrong, neither is it inherently silly or funny or uneducated-sounding.

Now, we do not go out of our way to see or befriend people that look like us though it is a temptation and seems good. Thankfully, we don't need to. The sense of otherness is an illusion. Sure, we are minorities, but we are not strange. We are not the only black people around, no matter how it feels. There are black and hispanic girls at soccer. There are black girls with cornrows and braids at ballet. There are black checkers at the market and UPS deliverers and actors on TV. And thankfully, they blend in these activities and professions near-seamlessly with non-blacks, and so do we.

I don't want to suggest it isn't tough or to diminish the awkwardness or frustration of being in the minority -- especially in the extreme minority as is often the case in homeschool groups. I'll write more about that later. At this stage in my children's lives, however, I particularly want to be careful not to build a mountain out of what can be a mere bump under the carpet. Later, we'll certainly be faced with the implications of code shifting and the perception of natural hair and the constant, subtle mockery of black culture, and many other things. People will think she's just like them, that is, normal like them, when she could not be more different. And they'll draw conclusions about her without knowing her at all.

But for today, she'll dance with the most welcoming group of girls I've ever seen. She'll befriend boys and girls that have yet to think about her skin color at all. She'll play with her siblings day after day. At home.


featured photo by @THEOPTIMISTDREAMER via nappy.co