Published on August 27th, 2013 | by Rhea St. Julien23
RHEA ST. JULIEN on ‘That Hair!’
“Is she yours?” “She’s so beautiful. She must look like her father.” “Oh! I just assumed you were the nanny! Where did she get that hair?” “Is it hard to comb out that hair?” “Are you going to put her in modeling? They go crazy for that ethnic look.”
The questions that I field on a daily basis about my child can be probing, assumptive, and, especially when they tell me that she’s gorgeous and then that we look nothing alike – insulting. ‘What’s the problem?’ you may be asking. ‘People are just trying to compliment her.’ Perhaps I should be glad that we are getting positive feedback instead of out-and-out bigotry, but this new form of ignorance where everyone is congratulating themselves for saying something good about a cute biracial child makes me uneasy.
I know these strangers mean well, but it is humorous to see that once they get their questions answered about her heritage and our relationship, they move on, curiosity satiated. I get it – my kid is cute, her curls are extraordinarily awesome, and as a pair we stand out in a crowd. But I long for conversations that go further than skin tones and hair follicles.
Sometimes I feel like a defender in the WNBA, swatting off hands as they reach to sink them into my daughter’s hair – that I do work hard to keep clean – knocking away the back-handed compliments (“I just thought you were the nanny because you’re so young and hip looking!”) and the many ways the world tells my daughter and I ‘You do not look like a family to us.’
But really I got used to people not thinking my family was a family long ago. My husband and I have been a couple for 13 years, and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been in line together and had the person waiting on us assume we were two separate parties. We’ve had checkout people try to separate our groceries with plastic dividers (God forbid my precious white person yogurt should touch his scary-black-man kale), and theater workers become befuddled when my husband hands them movie tickets for the two of us (“Where’s your other person?”). It has become so common that my husband has taken to introducing me every chance he gets, “This is my wife, Rhea.”
The problem I have with questions about my daughter’s appearance and our relationship is that they don’t go far enough. Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me, “Do you worry that as a white woman, a group that has historically oppressed black women, that you are going to fuck up the raising of this young black girl?” Yes, yes I do. I worry that I’m not investigating my own internalized racism enough, that the time I spent researching the best binky clip would have been better used re-reading bell hooks, that my laziness to engage with anti-racist action any further than in my writing is setting the wrong tone for my daughter.
Where is the person bold enough to ask not “What product do you use in your daughter’s hair?” but “Do you think your daughter will hate you when she goes through her racial identity awakening?” Because I would like to talk about that much more than the merits of shea butter versus No Poo. I would be worried if my daughter didn’t go through a period of being very angry at all white people. It would mean she was doing a bypass on how messed up things are with race relations in this nation. It would mean she had a less-full picture of her own heritage, and how far we have come. If her adolescence is anything like mine, she’s going to go through a period of hating me no matter what, but I don’t doubt that the wrinkle of racial identity could add a fold to the issue that I’ll want to iron out, rather than allow to smooth over time.
Plenty of people in our neighborhood in San Francisco are willing to bemoan the rampant gentrification that has been going on for over a decade but which recently went into overdrive with the New Wave Tech Boom exploding in high-end boutiques and $12 sandwiches all over the Mission District. But none of my neighbors have been brave enough to ask me, “Are you sad that all the black families you know moved to the South or East Bay? What does it mean for you? What will it mean for your daughter to go to a school that is predominantly white, with all her authority figures a different race than her? What can we do, as white families in your community, to help you stay connected to people who can guide your daughter in navigating this racial landscape, while keeping you in our neighborhood?”
No white person has ever asked me any of these questions. All I get, time and time again, are compliments on how amazing her cocoa skin accents the big, blonde curling afro that tops her head. That hair, that hair, that hair.
That hair that she lately has been saying she doesn’t want. “I want hair like you, Mama. When I grow up, can I have hair like you, and other people?” Other people. She means white people. No one ever says, “Are you worried that with you as her picture of what it means to be a woman, to be beautiful, that she will grow up unconsciously hating her Haitian features?”
Do I really want to have in-depth conversations with total strangers about race? Possibly not. But the sheer number of superficial questions I am asked on the daily about my daughter’s ethnicity calls into relief all these deeper things I’m wondering about, things that go unspoken. I do have plenty of people in my life to talk with about race – the people I called when the tragic Trayvon Martin verdict came in, and I began to fear for my daughter’s teenage years in a new way. A lot of people point out, “She’s gonna be a knockout! Look out for when the boys come calling! Her father better start arming himself!” And I can’t help but think, “Yeah, from vigilante citizens, right?”
The reality is that it is up to me to start these conversations and so here I am, writing about it on the Internet, the place where strangers are a bit bolder with what they say. It’s okay to ask about my child’s ethnic background if you really do want to know more about our family. (She’s Haitian, Irish, and Italian. There’s a lot to talk about.) But it should not stop once the need for classification is met. If you want to talk about race, let’s really talk about it. Let’s talk about it in a way that doesn’t objectify my daughter as an object of ethnic fascination. Let’s include insight on our own ethnicity and how it informs how we raise our kids, whatever their race may be. I’m not trying to shut down the questioning – I’m calling us all to more. But no matter how inviting her hair looks, please, keep your hands to yourself.