It’s the aisle I’ve never been in before. Actually it’s not even a whole aisle. Somewhere after the Do-Rags, one is suddenly intently staring at replacement wiper blades. Odd how abruptly Ethnic morphs into Automotive.
I’m kneeling in the Ethnic Aisle because my mother cursed me, long ago.
As a kid, I begged my mom to let my limp, fine hair grow long like the Long Hair Girls I envied in school. The Long Hair Girls had princess names like Victoria and they would flip their long ropy hair over their shoulders with an artful Cher-like neck twist.
If boys stared at the Long Hair Girls dreamily, then I was just another boy. Or I just really looked like one. Everyone called me Son, Little Sir, or Mister. Until I was like 16.
So, then I’d whine, and my mom would let me grow it out. And it would grow so limply that my family called my pigtails ‘rat tails’. Barrettes would just slide out of my hair and clatter to the floor. Inevitably, my shoulder length hair would knot up and I’d scream and run away when my mother tried to comb it. Oh how Mom would holler.
MOM: I hope you have a kid just like you!
Then she’d drag me to get yet another Pixie or Peter Pan haircut. And everyone called me ‘son’, ‘young man’ or ‘little sir’, which made me nag and needle and whine at my mom until she let me grow my hair. And then it would knot and I wouldn’t let her comb it. And she’d curse me again.
“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blew in the man in the moon….” (except I was a girl.) (but no one knew it).
When we adopted, I figured since my kid is Black, I had dodged Mom’s curse.
Since I barely have hair and I’m a mom, I don’t have time to waste in the hair care aisles anymore. Experience has taught me that all the thickeners out there are just like men hitting on you from cars at stoplights- full of momentary promise and thrill– but in reality, they just end up being huge wastes of your time, money, hope and they smell odd.
At first Grace’s hair was easy, because there wasn’t any. Much like my baby pictures will attest, my kid and I were born with adorable promises of hair yet to come. We had more male pattern baldness than actual hair.
Just like Harry Chapin warned in his terrifying song of my boyish-girlish childhood, ‘The Cat’s In the Cradle’, my kid was just like me, even if we were genetically unconnected.
Then as Grace’s hair grew, then stopped growing and then fell out– I learned there’s so much more that I don’t know that I don’t even know how much I don’t know. Especially about Black hair.
Since nothing about me except maybe my pierced ears can be considered even remotely ethnic, I kneel in Ethnic, eyeballing hair care products I don’t understand, for hair I do not have.
As a Sweet & Precious Detangle Spray teases me with it’s grinning baby model with lustrous curls, I realize this is the first Black baby girl I’ve ever seen on a beauty product label.
And then it hits me how slightly unpleasant it feels to have my child’s needs and the needs of the many minorities in our Echo Park neighborhood limited to just half an aisle in an otherwise massive Health and Beauty store.
The Ethnic Aisle begins to feel a little bit like Black History Month. Why are the needs and celebrations of people defined and confined to less actual space and time as the needs and celebrations of everyone else? This division subsequently makes the needs and celebrations of some people separate and unequal. It’s like Jim Crow of the body and calendar.
Then I glance at the many aisles brimming with hair and skin products for people whom the signage does not helpfully designate as Non-Ethnic. I’m old enough to remember when everyone was ethnic. At my school, one was either Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, Polish or German Catholic. No one was just white back then. We were all children or grandchildren of immigrants and all our hair and skin needs were and remain different shades of different.
Why don’t all Walgreens, Rite-Aids and CVS’s just separate hair care by type? CURLY HAIR, STRAIGHT HAIR, THICK HAIR, THIN HAIR, etc…?
But I digress, as I do, when I’ve done a terrible thing and would rather blame someone else.
I’m kneeing in Ethnic because I have been systematically balding my beautiful Black daughter.
When the eighth person in a row called my daughter ‘Son’, ‘Buddy’ and ‘Sport’, I knew it was just a matter of time before it started bothering my kid. Add to that a hatred of dresses and suddenly my kid was having gender issues, which I’ve examined here and here. Not only that, but hearing her called ‘son’ unleashed all my crap about being mistaken for a boy.
Me being me, I decided I was NOT going to do what my mother did.
First, I watched the Chris Rock documentary “Good Hair”, which terrified me. Learning how fraught the relationship Black women have with their hair basically drop-kicked me firmly into the denial-end-zone.
Along with every other milestone in my life and my kid’s life, I just kept telling myself I had more time to learn what I needed to learn. And I was WRONG. Late bloomers aren’t just people who bloom later than normal, we actively see what needs to be done and do everything else first. Denial has it’s place, but not on my kid’s head.
Oh the Cat is in the Cradle, indeed. My mother cursed me to have a kid like me. But i didn’t realize I had turned out just like Mom…
A Primer on How To Bald (and un-Bald) Your Kid.
1. If your black daughter’s feather-soft, curly hair is ‘slow coming in’, give her a baby-sized Penn State baseball cap to make her less self-conscious about being bald.
2. When your daughter asks, “When am I gonna get your hair?” just start crying. Then say things like, “Why would you want my stupid lousy hair? I want your hair!” Yet another mistake. How do you help her love and be proud of her own hair, if you denigrate your own hair? On top of that, you’re Gaslighting a three year old– because your ‘bad hair’ actually covers your whole head which is a lot more than what her hair is doing on her little head.
3. When the Black woman with the incredible dreadlocks you see every day tells you, “I know you love that kid, but the hat is breaking her hair as fast as she can grow it”.
4. You must now HIDE her favorite baseball hat, which not only hid your kid’s full Kojak, but also CAUSED the Kojak.
5. You listen to white and Hispanic hairdressers who tell you that ‘hair is hair’, which it isn’t.
6. You gingerly make a Black girlfriend, who gently mentions that Grace might have brittle, fragile hair. But you don’t listen because that’s just too easy– listening. You’d much rather busy yourself with hating yourself for balding your kid.
7. Four nights later you wake up at 4am, realizing what your new Black friend was gently trying to tell you. You Google ‘fragile Black hair’ and find Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care, which is a brilliant website but… until your daughter actually has hair, you can’t twist or braid or lock it.
8. Finally, your kid tells you a Long Haired Girl doesn’t want to be her friend because your kid’s hair is too short. You remember your Long Hair Girls and how they looked right through you and your limp little shag. Rage is born. Rage works. Rage becomes your catalyst for action.
9. Finally you find Tina at Rehab Salon. Rehab is a perfectly named salon because it’s where you finally admit you are powerless in the face of your unbelievable ignorance about your child’s hair.
10. Tina teaches you first to forgive yourself, then she teaches you to not be afraid of your kid’s hair. She urges you to ‘get on in there’- to use a boar bristle brush to stimulate growth and how to massage the RIGHT oils into her scalp. You try not to hug Tina as your gratitude-tears stream.
11. You let your kid watch cartoons as your moisturize, massage and brush her hair and sure enough your kid’s curly tendrils bloom on her tiny sweet head.
So now I’m kneeling in Ethnic, arming myself with Jane Carter, Shea Butter, Oyin Hair Dew, and a boar bristle brush. I complain to the Drug Store (also ethnic) Manager about the Ethnic Aisle sign, and we both shudder at the lack of race integration in our increasingly brown world as I strive to help my daughter fall in proud, mighty love with her future healthy, thick, textured, curly lion’s mane of hair.
Our NEW morning ritual consists of me doing her hair and then she gets to brush and “style” my hair. She especially likes styling me to resemble the Addams family relation who is a large ball of hair, with glasses on.