‘Little Racist’ Pebbles: When Your 5 Year Old Daughter Is Ashamed of Her Afro
Eva Luna showing her dress for Kindergarten class.
Before leaving for Kindergarten today, I lovingly lathered my 5 year old’s light fluffy afro with some Shea nut oil and olive oil like I always do– and with a hint of Geranium oil (because of its anti-lice qualities). After our regular routine, I then fluffed up her afro. She immediately told me that she does not like when I make it fluffier because the kids in her class make fun of her hair for looking funny. I know it was bound to happen, but still, it really broke my heart to hear her say that– that very same thing I heard has a child. Me and her little sister also have afros and we don’t straighten our hair. I’ve always taught her to love her hair and that it’s beautiful. However, she attends a school in which most of the kids have straight hair (either naturally or treated). I’d say It’s about 68% white and 20% Asian/Asian American. At 5 years old, some of these kids in her class have already been taught anti-Blackness. I’m not looking too deep or making this up. I can’t imagine any one of these children making fun of a child for having straight hair. Now, how do I talk about this to a school community that collectively think they are NOT racist or consciously anti-Black? Anti-Blackness is the core of the USA white supremacist racial caste system. Intentional or unconscious, most folk who have spent a fair amount of time here will be taught to ‘love’ what is closest to ‘whiteness’ and despise what is closest to ‘Blackness’ . They will teach their children this as well. The funny thing is, if I bring this subject up of ‘Negrophobia’ , ‘anti-blackness’ or even systemic racism in Albany CA (which I have already using NextDoor), there is immediate defensiveness from non-Black folk who seem to know better about race and discrimination than the few Black people living in Albany (sigh). I know I should not be surprised, but still, was hoping not to have to deal with this with my daughter; was hoping this would be done and buried during my generation as a child [in an all white school district]. (I remember countless morning burning my neck by mistake to thermally straighten my hair as a tween/teen because of the internalized hate I had about my natural afro, fueled by white peers who were relentlessly cruel about my hair if it ever ended up transitioning back into an afro– usually due to rain or humidity in the air that day, despite me straightening it that morning).
What other things will Eva Luna ‘learn’ in this new school community that teaches anti-Blackness? Have children already said negative things about her mommy ? I become very enraged when my observations are dismissed and that I’m told I’m worrying too much about ‘nothing’.
My daughter feeling ‘bad’ about her Black hair is the result of what many would think is ‘just little racist’ action by very young children…but the problem is that this is not ‘little’ at all. This indoctrination starts even before these children enter Elementary school– as I’ve witnessed many times, nursery school aged children talking about, though not conscious of it, white supremacist hetero-normative notions of beauty as if it’s simply ‘normal’) . Most adults aren’t engaged in squashing that behavior immediately– either because they don’t think it’s ‘serious’ or because they don’t have the critical race literacy skills to understand that it’s the ‘little racist’ behavioral patterns (intentional or not) that create ‘big’ racist/racial consequences 1 year, 10 years, 100 years down the road. If there is no intervention now, it becomes a catastrophic avalanche by the time these kids are adults themselves. It starts off as a supposedly ‘little harmless’ pebble rolling down that snow covered mountain…and before you know it, entire communities at the bottom are devastated by an avalanche accumulated from those ‘harmless’ little pebbles. But that little pebble that started it all is buried with that community, undetectable; those at the top ‘confused’ what may have caused the devastation. I also want to note that it’s not just non-Black people who feel that afros are ‘ugly’. I’ve met plenty of Black identified people who have internalized white supremacist notions of beauty and have colorist and anti-Afro perceptions of ‘beauty’. (We also can’t forget the recent battle that Black students went through at South African prestigious Pretoria school to have the right to wear their hair in its natural state vs. being forced to straighten it. However, Albany CA is very different from S. Africa and I don’t want to say it’s the same either).
I’m glad when my husband heard about what she said this morning, he told her to tell him what child or children made fun of her fluffy afro and that he’ll talk to the teacher this morning (since he is the one who brings them to school). I also think it’s interesting to point out that when visiting my parents house this past August in Lebanon CT (4% Black), my husband (who is White and German) asked my mom(Black) about how she tackled systemic racism in the white school system that we grew up in and how he can make sure his children aren’t being subjected to racist treatment. I sat there listening to my mom talk for about 30 minutes about how you have to constantly fight for your kids because of the white supremacy bound up in the educational school system. I couldn’t believe we had to have this conversation 30+ years later and it was really painful re-hearing all the examples she shared with him (from the speech therapist asking if my brother has a speech impediment “because he is Black” to certain teachers being very angry that I took home nearly all the academic awards one year because they thought these awards should have been given to white students). My mother understood the avalanches that these actions would create if she didn’t intervene and just let teachers and students think these were simply ‘little’ things (Looking at my mom, folk wonder where I got my, I just can’t keep my mouth shut about injustices, attitude! Well, now you know! LOL)
A few months ago, while we were riding in our mini-van, my Eva Luna attempted to use a fine tooth comb that her grandmother from Germany gave her that was part of a ‘beauty box’ play-set [clearly made for children with straight fine hair]. After 10 seconds of trying to get it through her tightly coiled hair, she threw the comb on the ground in frustration and exclaimed, “What is the point of this comb!?” I tried to explain that the comb was made by people who aren’t mindful enough to know that not everyone has straight hair. It then dawned on me that it would be so awesome to do a project that is a vegan beauty box for children with very curly/afro hair like her: (1) an afro pick (2) a wide tooth comb (3) Shea butter (4) manual of different ways to style their hair (5) other types of soothing oils and (6) beautiful photos of children with afros who have styled their hair in creative ways. Of course being distracted with 3 little kids, pregnant with #4, and attempting to find housing for months, I forgot about this idea I had. But after this morning, I want to put it into full effect. I want it to be a beauty box for any child with tight curls/afro, as I don’t like beauty boxes that assume those using it should only be cisgender girls (Who else is sick of seeing beauty sets labeled ‘For Girls’ on it?)
What are your thoughts?
Update March 24, 2017
My daughter’s teacher handled the situation very well. She checked in with me constantly about the matter after speaking to those bothering my daughter. She also didn’t dismiss my concerns about conscious or unconscious anti-Blackness, so I appreciate that very much. Since then, Eva Luna has not been bullied about her hair.
(Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen 2016)
About Dr. A. Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a senior diversity and inclusion strategist for Critical Diversity Solutions, a seasoned speaker, and author of books and articles related to critical race feminism, intersectional anti-racism, and ethical consumption. As a writer, she is best know for as the creator and editor of the groundbreaking anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books 2010). Dr. Harper has been invited to deliver many keynote addresses and lectures at universities and conferences throughout North America. In 2015, her lecture circuit focused on the analysis of food and whiteness in her book Scars and on “Gs Up Hoes Down:” Black Masculinity, Veganism, and Ethical Consumption (The Remix)which explored how key Black vegan men use hip-hop methods to create “race-conscious” and decolonizing approaches to vegan philosophies. In 2016, she collaborated with Oakland’s FoodFirst’s Executive Director Dr. Eric Holt-Gimenez to write the backgrounder Dismantling Racism in the Food System, which kicked off FoodFirst’s series on systemic racism within the food system.
Dr. Harper is the founder of the Sistah Vegan Project which has put on several ground-breaking conferences with emphasis on intersection of racialized consciousness, anti-racism, and ethical consumption (i.e., veganism, animal rights, Fair Trade). Last year she organized the highly successful conference The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter which can be downloaded.
Dr. Harper’s most recently published book, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England (Sense Publishers 2014) interrogates how systems of oppression and power impact the life of the only Black teenager living in an all white and working class rural New England town. Her current 2016 lecture circuit focuses on excerpts from her latest book in progress, Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches: A Critical Race Feminist’s Journey Through ‘Post-Racial’ Ethical Foodscape which will be released in 2017, along with the second Sistah Vegan project anthology The Praxis of Justice in an Era of Black Lives Matter. In tandem with these book projects, she is well-known for her talks and workshops about “Uprooting White Fragility in the Ethical Foodscape” and “Intersectional Anti-Racism Activism.”
In the spring of 2016, Dr. Harper was nominated as the Vice Presidential nominee for the Humane Party— the only vegan political party in the USA with focus on human and non-human animals.
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