My Daughter Rocks an Afro -- That Doesn't Mean You Can Touch It


Wendy Robinson

Every Sunday, Evelyn sits in my lap and I carefully detangle and style her thick and curly hair. After four years of practice, I can braid and make twist-outs with the best of them. We spend about two hours getting her hair set for the week. The goal is always to make sure her hair is healthy, cute, and out of her eyes so she can focus on playing and learning. Her hair has never been an issue –- that is, until I sent her to preschool rocking an Afro.

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Last week Evelyn decided that she wanted to wear her hair "big and fluffy," so I skipped the braids. I couldn't help but smile as I saw how delighted she was by the size and spring of her natural hair. She kept gently patting her hair and saying "so soft!" as it tickled her hands. She laughed when she had to tug extra hard to get her T-shirt on over her head and begged to not wear a hat to school.

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When I got home that night we had the usual "how was school?" conversation and I was surprised when she reported that it hadn't been a good day. Her classmates had spent all day touching her hair, even during nap time, and she didn't like it. It made her feel funny, she said, but she didn't tell them to stop, because they were her friends.

My husband started to gently remind her about the conversations we'd had about bodies before. Remember, he said, that our bodies, including our hair, don't belong to anyone else? Remember that you get to decide who touches you? Remember that you can tell people "no" if you don't like what they are doing, even if they are your friends? 

While he was nailing the parental consent conversation, I was silent. I was too busy feeling guilty. Maybe it was my fault, I thought. Maybe I should have known better than to let her wear her hair like that -- it was bound to attract attention. Maybe I'd expected too much of curious 4-year-olds, especially since most of them don't have hair like Evelyn's. Maybe I should just put her hair back in braids so the kids won't be tempted to touch it.

I was about to get the comb and rubber bands, when I realized that doing so would only teach my daughter the exact WRONG lessons about being both black and a woman.

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I'd worried that her Afro was a problem because it was different, but it's her natural hair, growing the way it should. It's only different because most of the kids in her class aren't black. I don't blame 4-year-olds for being curious -- heck, curiosity is their job at that age. However, I also recognize that this is almost certainly not the last time people who aren't African-American (or mixed, like she is) are going to notice or have an opinion about Evelyn's hair. I don't need to braid it so it doesn't attract attention; I need to help her understand that her hair is perfect just the way it is, and give her the right words to use when someone is paying attention to it in a way that she doesn't like.

Immediately, I felt ashamed that my reaction had been focused on how to make her hair less distinctive, less tempting. This was basically the hair version of telling women and girls not to dress a certain way in order to avoid sexual assault, right? Obviously a classroom full of little kids with curious fingers isn't the same thing as sexual assault, but the underlying principle is the same: If my response to her story was to tame her curls, to make her smaller, to make her less noticeable, then I would be -- in a small way -- telling her that when other people invade her space or touch her without consent, she's the one responsible. Oh, hell no to that.

So I put the brush away. We snuggled on the couch and I helped her practice saying "I don't like that" and "Don't touch my hair, please." Later, I watched her get ready for bed, noticing how she carefully pulled on her sleeping cap, tucking in her curls and grinning at herself.

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She still sees how fabulous she is, and she knows that she is smart, strong, and kind. She doesn't think she is less-than or different from her friends. She is entirely comfortable in her own skin. And my job is to make sure it stays that way -- no matter what hairstyle she decides to rock.

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