Kulture Wars

For the following, sweeping generalizations will be made. Perhaps even a stereotype of two. So enter, fair hearts, with care. This is not for the squeamish.

I start with a definition. Let me flip open my American Heritage. Ah, yes, here we are. Culture. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of work and thought.

Culture has been an ongoing conversation between Michael and me since we met. We certainly do not see brown eye to blue eye on everything, however, we respect each other's point of view, which sometimes means shutting the fuck up.

For instance, my husband wouldn't let Sebastian's hair be cut until his second birthday. It's a black thing. It's part of his culture. Thing is our son looked like a sheepdog by the time I finally got him in a barber's chair. Sebastian is white.

So, if I understand the definition, my black husband socially transmitted his African American beliefs on to a green-eyed boy of Lithuanian dissent.

You would think then, tit for tat, I'd have something to say about our black daughter's hair. But you'd be mistaken. You see, black hair is huge. It's Empire State. It's Everest. So, to frame it in my WASP perspective, how one styles black hair is on par with which investment firm handles your disposable income.

Ever since Maxie was small enough to be carried in a Guatemalan sling, black folks would come up to me, say what a beautiful girl, and then without missing a beat grill me about what I was putting in her hair. But she was a baby, I couldn't imagine clogging her pores with product at such a tender age. This would cause Black Stranger to let out an audible harrumph, making me feel I'd egregiously let the culture down. Then, she would tell me about a hair care product that does wonders and make me swear to go out and purchase it that day. Which, of course, I would.

On Maxie's bureau, there are bottles and jars of leave in conditioners, lotions, oils, hair balms, moisturizing creams and tonics. The goal is to find just the right cocktail for my daughter's specific hair type: a soft tight curl. As of this writing, Maxie has amassed fourteen containers of product. She's two.

Michael originally promised to be in charge of Maxie's hair and I was thrilled. Teaching my sausage fingers the intricate art of twist, braid, puff and lock, was highly intimidating. But at some point, he got busy and I became the caretaker of my daughter's do.

I am partial to her natural hair and that's not just because I sometimes wake up woozy from late night vodka binges and want to do as little styling possible. I actually think Maxie's curls are beautiful.

Now, we're to the crux of the story. Maxie goes to a nifty little pre school. I chose it for two reasons: proximity and really cool staff. My one complaint is that the student body isn't incredibly diverse. Where the staff is a fricken Benetton ad, the students are Eight is Enough. Maxie has two beautiful teachers, one is of Mexican dissent, the other black.

One day, Black Teacher tells Black Husband using black vernacular, "If she comes to school with her hair looking like that one day, that's okay. But three days in a row! That's unacceptable. Bring her early, I'll do her hair."

Michael was mortified. He was raised to be better behaved, better dressed, and better groomed than his white contemporaries. His sisters always had their butter whipped. And it was never a consideration to keep their hair natural. His culture had wrapped him on the knuckles and he was smarting from the pain.

I'd like to introduce another character into this narrative. Sally Foster. My mother. A woman who probably still hasn't visited my blog because she's too embarrassed to type the word penis. Sally would never let us leave the house unkempt. I remember my aunt saying, "Only Sally would dress her kids in white and then demand they not get dirty." And we wouldn't! We sipped soup without slurping. We answered the phone with, "And whom may I say is calling?" And we wore alligators on our clothing with alarming frequency. Welcome to my culture.

At some point, this broad definition of culture gets silly, doesn't it? It can apply to pretty much anything. Letting your pants hang down half mast...culture. Creative spelling, using a 'k' where a 'c' should be...kulture. Five thirty cocktails, face lifts at fifty, wrapping the family car around a tree...culture, culture, culture.

With my mother firmly a part of me, you better believe that both my children look good when they leave the house. So, I couldn't take Black Teacher's chastisement with the same gusto that Michael did. Besides, kids at Maxie's school have leaves in their hair, grape juice stains on their shirts and drag around old wigs as toys. Trust me, my daughter is put together just fine.

Two weeks ago, I was late picking up Maxie at school. And when I got there this same teacher was tightly weaving Maxie's hair. French braiding...or corn rowing...not sure which, perhaps it's a cultural distinction. What first looked to be a loving gesture from behind, became a thing of horror from the front. Maxie was near tears from the pain. I mention this and with a knowing smile Black Teacher says, "Well, we all had to go through this."

Bam! The culture card trumped parental concern.

I didn't know how to respond.

I then collected my daughter, who was thankful to be out of her clutches, and we bumped into Mexican Teacher, who said, "Maxie would really look cute with pierced ears."

Bam!! Culture card again.

My mouth hung open like a codfish.

I am positive that Paulina Perfect, WASP mom of Vanilla Viv, has not been subjected to such blatant cultural beatdowns! My kid was singled out by dark skinned ladies because of her dark skin. I'm sure their hearts are in the right place, but it's part of my culture not to concern two year olds with excruciating hair designs and ear lobe piercing, not yet. I know there are some painful years to come. Battles to win and loose on both sides. But for now, isn't she allowed to be a little girl who's hair comes loose on the playground, without social repercussions?

Of course, my husband shrugs his shoulders, siding with Black Teacher. So, I mention this to a longtime friend (also black) hoping to get some balanced perspective, but she tells me "It's not too young for her to learn." Learn what? I query. Then she tells me what a teacher said about her son's afro, "Isn't there something you can do with it? It distracts the other students." Her son does not attend that school anymore.

I thought it was black folks who were judgemental about black hair. But now I'm told white folks are the ones who judge. Is this the case? I thought back. Have I ever stood in follicle judgement? All I came up with was, "Oprah, girl, before you went in front of the cameras, did you really think you looked good?"

Maybe white people are intimidated with natural black hair. It's big and ballsy. It's Empire State and Everest. It says take me as I am, bitch. Barack Obama probably wouldn't be president today if Sasha and Melea didn't have their hair pulled and straightened and contained in neat curls. A bit of a leap, but anyone willing to challenge me?

There's only so much I can do to control my daughter's hair, let alone her world. She will meet many people who will want and need her to be a certain kind of women. So, for you, Maxie Pearl, when it gets a bit thick, I offer the following India Arie lyrics...

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within


Lindsay said…
Natural is beautiful.
She's a baby. And to be honest, you and Michael are creating a whole new culture for your children. Neither of you were raised in the current "culture" that exists within your home. You have the freedom now to say, "Nope. That is not part of OUR culture." :)
Out-Numbered said…
Ahhhh, be thankful she doesn't go to Yeshiva. She would have come home with peyes. Could always be worse...
Gaston Studio said…
Number one, there is no way I could have left that school without telling the teacher she had no right to touch my child's hair. Did she ask your permission? I'm assuming this is not a school of cosmetology, therefore the damn teacher wasn't teaching, she was interfering!

Number two, I love your little poem at the end of your post. Actually, I loved your entire post and felt your pain, but that little ditty at the end is terrific!
For the teacher: I don't care if she is pink with lime green stripes, unless there are live creatures crawling around on Maxie's head - leave her hair alone! She's TWO YEARS OLD!!

Maybe when she is 12 she'll worry about how her hair looks and you guys can fight over it.. .. .. but a day care is not the place to determine how she should wear her little "do"!

I don't think you need to make a Federal case out of it. Just get a little control over the situation. Try a couple of pony tails! They're always cute on little girls - quick and easy, too!

Joanie M said…
NO way should that teacher have touched your daughter's hair without permission. And she was inflicting pain on her! You can be damned sure, if her kid was getting her hair yanked by a teacher, that woman would be screaming lawsuit! And the only people who are distracted by these cute little black kids with puffy hair are the teachers! If it happens again, I'd tel her to keep her damn hands to herself or you're calling the police for physical abuse! Now you got me all riled up! LOL
surprised mom said…
I would have wanted to slap that teacher if she was touching my daughter's hair. Hands off! My daughter has naturally curly hair that often "misbehaves." She hated people touching her hair because more often than not they would hurt her. Sorry what culture says, but your daughter is two! She can fuss later. By the way, I loved the lyrics at the end of your post.
Venom said…
PenisMommy - Hallelujah! Bullshit smells just as bad when it's called 'culture'.
Chris said…
Culture rears its head in many ways, MWP. Wait till she start's dating.

Nice writing . . . very well said.

Danielle said…
Awesome post. I am new to your site and am hooked. You sound like a great dad.
Isabella said…
First of all, great post.
(and funny that you wrote this, because I've been milling over a similar "hair" related post for a while now)Secondly...so many words, so many words. I'll try to be concise. :)

That teacher has NO RIGHT to touch your daughter's hair. I am still in utter shock that she actually DID that. Handle it how you will...but I'd confront the teacher and/or the principal.

I know all about this hair stuff. Mixed heritage, super curly hair - I'm right there with your daughter (my curls weren't that tight when I was little. Still crazy curly though).Your daughter's hair is beautiful as it is. And it's your choice, as the parent, to make it look however you want. She can choose to change it when she's older.
Ivanhoe said…
Lindsay sait it beautifuly. I have nothing to add :o)
Kathy B! said…
I am a white woman of liberal thought, and I can't fathom the reasons behind torturing yourself into looking anything but natural at sucha young age...

The teen years are a different story and all bets are off, but this crosses cultural and racial boundaries. It's just a free-for-all!
trashalou said…
OMG!!! Seriously, a teacher was cornrowing her hair? Without your permission???? Over here you could have her up on an assault charge!

I would have been furious. Unless it was causing some issues with your child's learning/ enjoyment of preschool then your daughter's hair is irrelevant to their facility. Her actions impugn your parenting and put her in a very bad position professionally.

Your baby is two! Hair should be left as free as possible.

OMG (again)! I an stunned that this has happened - black husband culture or not you and your man need to address this issue soon!

And don't let them anywhere near her ears until she is at least double figures!!!!!
The Good Cook said…
Beautifully written.
Steely Dad said…
It's "cultural" in Judaism to let a boy's hair grow until he is three. We're not particularly observant but we liked the idea of our son having long hair so we let it grow. Well, he's almost four and we still haven't cut his hair. Why? One, cutting those beautiful curls would constitute a sin. Two, we figured we'd let him decide when he wants to cut his hair. After all, it's HIS hair and he likes it that way. We make every other decision for our children: what school they attend, what they eat, what they do. He can let us know when to cut the locks. Speaking about culture, it's funny because we're from Southern Cal and now live in Chicago. In Cali, everyone knew my son was a boy but in Chicago, they all think he's a girl, even when he's wearing his football jersey and jeans. They all tell me I should cut his hair but I just tell them to mind their own business. He doesn't want to look like everyone else. That's what I love about my son: he's a true individual who could care less what people think of him.
Amanda said…
I am new to your blog and was very informed from your post but I really don't agree. I guess I don't live in California :) so it isn't that big of a deal in Idaho, I would have been thankful if someone would take over my daughters hair! I cannot braid, I am clueless, but still after adopting our first we have a cupboard full of products people have suggested, and with 3 girls under 4 all with unruly black hair I just need a hair break!
I do admit to having their ears pierced at 2 months old, but I am also like you in making sure they are looking good, I used to make sure they never wore the same thing twice when we went somewhere!

Very insightful!
Doctor Err said…
What a beautiful post.
Lala said…
my mother directed me to this post because I struggle with my biracial daughter's fro every day. oy do I get nasty looks when I don't tease and tame but it's taken a long time to get her just to sit still and submit to having it brushed.
Anonymous said…
I seriously can't wait for Chris Rock's "Hair" to come out. If you can, google it and check out some clips. @ Trashalou: really? Assault charges?? WOW.
For the record, I am Mexican and White, and my hair is that of a black girl. Thankfully mom (Mexican) mom was married my whole life to my stepdad who is black...therefore,I use a flat iron and have been known to use relaxers as well...(translation: not talkin out the side of my neck right now) I GET IT. Hair, culture, it's HUGE. The hardest part for me has always been white people (who obvs don't have hair like black folk, hello) trying to act like THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE between white natural and black natural. White natural doesn't tend to look as unkempt as black natural. Black hair NEEDS products to maintain health. We're not talkin about throwin some mousse or gel into it....I could clearly go on for days...but please just keep the baby's hair taken care of....try Carol's Daughter products. Natural, home made not going to 'clog pores' (where did that come from?) or anything like that.It's food for hair. Not styling products.

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