Despite my well intentioned white ignorance, Grace’s hair is growing in beautifully. For a year we’ve been dutifully massaging Jamaican Black Castor Oil and Oyin Hair Dew into Grace’s hair every morning. Also, Grace has been taking castor oil vitamins without complaint, which is mighty brave of her.
I am more proud of Grace’s five inches of curly resilient hair than my marriage. Even better, her teacher, Miss Mylani, braids and twists Grace’s hair into intricate and stunning creative patterns. Grace excitedly shows off her braids so much I let myself believe we were well on the road to hair/skin/race self acceptance.
Not so fast, Old White Mom, the universe retorts. Getting her to sleep recently, Graces turned away, demanded her usual back massage, and eyes closed, she murmured:
GRACE: I want to be pink and white.
Leaning my head against her little back, she won’t see my eyes fill. I’m a deep puddle since losing Mom. Grace gets worried when I cry so I hide my face when the waterworks surge.
ME: Oh, Gracie. You are so beautiful. I want to look like you.
Back to me, finger in her mouth, she replies calmly.
GRACE: I want to look like you.
And there it is. Our nutshell dilemma. I blabber on, desperate to erase the color lines between us, while desperate for her to love and be proud of who she is.
ME: Our skins will always be different but they are just our outsides. Under this candy wrapper of skin, you and I are the same colors. Our hearts are the same color and so are our brains. We match where it’s important to match. And as much as I want us to match, I can’t change your skin or my own. And I don’t want to change you, you are more than perfect.
Thankfully she’s asleep so my blathering isn’t ruining her little growing mind.
Weeks later we are on a Seattle family visit. Grace complains her braids bump her brain while she sleeps. I start picking out her braids, marveling over how long and dark and strong her tiny glorious curls are. After I finish one side, Grace jumps off the bed refusing to allow me to touch her head or any other part of her.
GRACE: I want to go to the playground. NOW!
ME: You can’t go out anywhere looking like that! People will judge me for letting you look like…
And I can’t quite say what she looks like because I’m don’t want her to ever define herself by something I say by accident. But… half her head is still braided flat and the other half sticks straight up, reaching for the sky as if held up at gunpoint.
After wincing and ignoring the looks of other mothers in the playground, the hair gods smile on me as I run into a Seattle native who sends us to Good Hair salon on Yesler.
As soon as we walk inside Grace tenses. The music is loud and everyone except me is black. Met with professional smiles, more than one person side-eyes us as I explain why my kid looks kinda nuts.
Grace stonily stares at her reflection, surrounded by posters of gorgeous black hair models.
As the seriously gorgeous stylist Deedee deftly unravels Grace’s braids and picks her hair out, I realize Grace is stewing in fury. Vibrating like a tuning fork, terrified for the race riot about to pour out of my child, I attempt ‘pretend happy Mom’.
ME: Grace! Look at how long your beautiful hair is!!
My fake happy place gets shot down like a North Korean missile.
GRACE: I DON’T LOOK LIKE THIS PLACE. I DON’T WANT HERE TO BE HERE. I HATE THIS PLACE. I HATE MY HAIR. I HATE EVERYONE IN HERE!
Grace is so loud, she drowns out the hair dryers. Deedee eyes me, as do all the other people in the salon. I start sweating in places I didn’t know it was possible to perspire.
Furiously sobbing, Grace yanks at her hair with both fists, then bolts out of the salon, losing a Batman sneaker in the process.
Giving pursuit, I grab Grace as she runs blindly down the block and stuff her into my sister-in-law’s car, before running back into the salon to pay.
Deedee waits for me. Beet red, less from embarrassment than pain for Grace’s pain, never have I felt more like the undeserving recipient of a baby transplant: The older white lady with the one-shoed screaming black four year old that I clearly did not
DEEDEE: What’s upsetting her so much?
ME: I’m so sorry. She’s having issues with… her… race. She doesn’t want to be… you know…her color. I tell her she is beautiful and I wish I looked like her and yet, she wishes she was… not Black. I’m truly sorry.
Deedee looks me in the eye, as calm as a nap.
DEEDEE: Oh, that. All Black kids go through that. She’ll get over it.
Then I realize two young Black girls with impeccable braids stare at me from a quiet little perch behind the counter, no longer watching TV. They’ve clearly been dragged to work by their mom. Deedee nods at her girls.
DEEDEE: Am I right? You all got upset when you realized you were Black? But you got over it, right?
The girls shrug-nod in a ‘it happens and it’s no big deal’ fashion.
All I can do is not sob and leave Deedee a big tip.
As I walk out, more heartbroken and helpless than maybe ever before, a woman silently, gently hands me Grace’s shoe.
And because I clearly have no idea what I am doing, here’s a very thought-provoking article entitled Why White Women Should Not Be Allowed To Discuss Black Hair.