A sensitive topic: race and hair

Gabrielle Douglas
Photo by Los Angeles Times

My husband and I were struck particularly this week by some of the talk that swirled around the Web after the amazing Gabby Douglas won all-around gold in gymnastics. We were both dismayed to read how many of her fellow blacks commented not on her performance or her history-making status as the first black woman to win gold in the individual all-around at the Olympics, but on … her HAIR.

Yes. Her hair. Now, I have read a couple of fairly reasoned comments by blacks explaining why the intense focus on her hair and disparaging comments about it, saying that since she is “representing black people” as a whole, who have experienced a clearly bad history of injustice and who now feel they have to essentially overcompensate to be seen just as equal, that even appearance is an important facet of that sense of proving themselves. There is no question that that is sad.

It’s bad enough that women today are being pressured more than ever to look perfect according to current societal norms. These norms are admittedly different (within each community, at least, though not in our society overall) for whites and blacks. And blacks make no secret about how their hair is always a challenge. Comedian Chris Rock put together a very interesting and entertaining documentary about the topic, in fact, called “Good Hair.” It was just a glimpse for those of us who do not have that texture of hair into what it’s like to try to come to terms with it.

I’m only weighing in on this topic because it’s a personal one to me. We have three biological daughters, but we also adopted our youngest daughter, who is black. And from the second we got her (the day after she was born) and took her out in public, we started getting advice from blacks on how to take proper care of her hair. Five years later, we are no less inundated with opinions.

They haven’t been unwelcome. It’s clearly true that I have no experience styling black hair. I have dark blond, smooth, straight hair. Easy-peasy. I wash it and comb it and that’s pretty much it. I’ve got it good even for a white person. So it’s helpful to have people who have experience give me ideas. What’s been interesting, however, is just how varied and sometimes clearly opposite those tidbits of advice have been. My husband had co-workers telling him from the start to use Vaseline in our daughter’s hair. Others said absolutely categorically that Vaseline was NOT what we should use. When it came to products, then, I ended up fairly early buying and using the products made by Carol’s Daughter. I like them, they smell wonderful, and they seem to keep our daughter’s hair mostly smooth and manageable if we use them every single day. So, end of story. The product side is done.

What’s the other even bigger issue is that of STYLING. I’ve been mostly interested in just letting her have a natural style, keeping it oiled nicely and combed, but nice and curly and as-is. I’ve even been bolstered in this opinion by seeing all of the emails and information that Carol’s Daughter is sending out to customers about “transitioning” to more natural hair. I absolutely refuse to straighten her hair with strong chemicals. If she chooses to do that when she’s “of age,” she can, but I am not going to put lye on her tender scalp.

So straightening chemically is out. But what about styles? When I’ve gotten ambitious, and had some time on my hands, I’ve put her fairly short hair in little “poof-balls,” as I call them. They look super-cute. But I have never learned how to do cornrows or other similar styles. This week, however, I decided to try just braiding her hair. We sat down and spent half an hour getting this done. I put about 15 little braids in her hair, and I think it looks cute and, I think, SHOULD be approved by blacks.

Then again, I worry. With five years experience getting blacks’ advice (sought and un-sought, from friends and strangers), I know it can be contradictory, and that it is taken VERY seriously. This is why I am not surprised at how Gabby Douglas’s hair was discussed in what most whites would consider rather mean terms. Blacks are serious about their hair, and it’s a complex issue for them. Many women, thanks again to the not-helpful culture in which we all live, feel self-conscious about their textured, very curly hair. They want to have smooth, straight hair that isn’t so “ethnic.” As with all the other topics I’ve written about so far in the broader issue of beauty and contemporary culture, I find this sad and disappointing. Why in the world can’t we have a whole variety of “ideals”? And why does there have to even be an “ideal” shape or look anyway? Can’t everyone just be who they are, whatever shape, size, color or hair they have?

I suppose now I’m just being idealistic. It’s probably crazy to hope for something so drastic. But it doesn’t hurt to discuss it and remind ourselves that just being our own best selves is desirable. It’s a tough fight because we’re battling against SO MUCH societal pressure and messages, but we can still try to fight it.

I suppose also that I could have spent more time over the past five years going to special salons to get blacks to style my daughter’s hair. But, as with many issues I’m aware will crop up over the course of her life with me being white and her being black, I hope we can strike the right balance between pretending (ridiculously) there are no differences between us and making a big deal out of them (I just want to always acknowledge that, yes, she is adopted, but I am her mommy always and forever, and that, yes, she is black and I am white, and, yes, her hair is different than mine, and then just go about the business of being just who we are). I am just taking this interracial-adoption situation a day at a time, and just being her mom. (And, really, adoption and interracial adoption are just whole other big blog-able topics, aren’t they?) I’m doing the best I can to be a mother, period, and to be a mother to both biological children and an adopted child.

For now, I hope to be true to each of my children, for who they uniquely are. My youngest is black and adopted. My second-oldest has Down syndrome. The older three are half-Caucasian, half-Filipina. And each has her own amazing talents and gifts and personality traits. And each will have her own hair and appearance issues. But I hope that no matter what, each can feel good about herself and not succumb to society’s negative values, especially about image.

Yes, I might be treading on a minefield here. I’m well aware of that. I hope to be respectful but also share my own experience. My daughter’s only five. So I’m sure we have many years ahead in which we will just continue to take one day at a time in dealing with hair or anything else that becomes pertinent.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is RatedReads.com. I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

3 thoughts on “A sensitive topic: race and hair”

  1. Charlotte does not need to worry about her hair; she has that dynamite smile! She always looks sensational!

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