Racism is in the Details

Two mothers reflect on the implications of the length of their son’s hair. For one, it’s a preference; for the other it could mean life or death

[su_accordion]whitehair
[su_spoiler title=”When Hair is Just Hair.” class=”my-custom-spoiler”  ]

[su_spacer size=”30″][/su_spacer]

autumn

 

My son is almost nine. His skin is a smooth and milky white, tanning more easily in the summer than his older sister’s, irritating her to no end. Her skin is adorned with freckles, her hair shot through with strawberry-gold. Whiter still, she’ll only ever burn if left unprotected in the sun.

Oh, but her little brother, with his bright blue eyes sparkling, his nose kissed by warm rays of light, his lightly bronzed arms and legs, his little webbed toes. He is built for the beach. A born surfer dude, a boy meant for the sea.

It’s in the way he wears his board shorts, in the way he kicks off his flip-flops running for the waves, in his wild joy as he dives under the salty surf.

And it’s in his hair.

His long, white-gold hair is gorgeous. People stop him in the street and offer compliments, joking that he must be some kind of cool bro, inevitably bound one day from land-locked Vermont to the coast of California.

People might notice him, take note of his locks, and perhaps make assumptions based on what they see. Maybe he’s just a mellow little dude chillin’ with his long hair. Maybe he’s the son of hippies. Maybe he’s afraid of getting his hair cut. Maybe he grew it long on a dare. Maybe he just loves it, identifies with it, celebrates it.

My husband and I smile talking about it, delighting in it – how lucky he is with that glorious head of hair, how much we love him, how proud we are of him, how endearing and hilarious we think he is. He’s our little Jeff Spicoli, our mini Matthew McConaughey, our golden boy.

Beautiful. Blonde. White. Free.

His hair’s been long most of his young life. Save for the one terrible haircut at the mall when a trim-turned-disaster left him with a hacked buzzcut. I cried. It’s true, I did. But only because the sight of his soft cornsilk piled on the floor startled me. Only because the haircut had gone so terribly wrong. Only because, out from under his long hair, emerged a slightly older boy, clearly growing and changing and destined – just exactly as it should be – to eventually leave me.

[su_spacer size=”40″][/su_spacer]

little surfer boy at the beach with long blonde hair

[su_spacer size=”40″][/su_spacer]

But I did’t worry that he was somehow more vulnerable, more exposed, more likely to be mistreated. It is, after all, just hair. It’s not life or death.

He’s had lice in that hair. Persistent, gross, exhausting. Combing and combing and combing. For hours, for days. At one point, riddled with frustration, I threw my hands up and thought briefly: Oh hell, let’s just shave his head. Why not? It’s just hair. It’s not life or death.

And he sometimes entertains the idea himself – of cutting it all off, or even shaving it like his dad. He knows he’s welcome to do this anytime. It’s just hair. It’s not life or death.

Yes, cutting it would make him look different. Maybe less like a hippie, and more like a kid whose parents believe boys should have short hair. More clean cut, less wild child. More jam band, less financial advisor. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s just hair. It’s not life or death.

My son’s hair is just that: Hair. It doesn’t protect him. It doesn’t need to. His long hair fetches positive attention, adoration, and comments from aging men who wish they’d grown their’s long back when they still had some.

If his hair was short, he’d just blend more deeply into the throng of other little white boys. Safe among them. Safer, even.

My son is white. And his long, silky blonde hair is just hair. Having it long or short is not a decision about his safety, it’s not a survival skill, it’s not a matter of how much more or less threatening he’ll appear to others. It’s just what he wants. It’s his preference. And that’s my luxury. That I know, viscerally and completely, without even having to consider the details of it, that my boy –  my baby – is as safe as a person can be in this world.

Beautiful. Blonde. White. Free.

It’s just hair. It’s not life or death.

[/su_spoiler]

[su_spacer size=”50″][/su_spacer]

[su_accordion]Blackhair_5

[su_spoiler title=”When Hair Protects.” class=”my-custom-spoiler”]

 

[su_spacer size=”30″][/su_spacer]

sara

 

When my son was born, he had a faint whisper of fine brown hair. “Have his curls come in yet?” my mother would ask each time we spoke. By the time he was two, they sat on his forehead in perfect spirals; a mop of coils that bounced about in every direction as his body did the same.

“He’s got the good hair.”
“Oh, I just want to touch it. Can I?”
“What a beautiful little girl you have!”

We couldn’t leave the house without someone strange or familiar commenting on the head of my child. If he was bothered by the attention, he never really expressed it. He didn’t necessarily thrive on it either, but rather came to accept it as something to navigate and traverse like cracks in the sidewalk.

When he was three, he quietly took a pair of kid scissors and hid in his room, hacking a chunk out of the back before being discovered by his dad. I arrived home to find my husband far more anxious about delivering the news than the would-be hairdresser himself.

“WHAT DID YOU DO WITH IT?” I demanded.

“What? The hair? I threw it in the trash can. Why?”

I scrambled to the kitchen to rescue what I could. The curls I had stroked as they lay splayed against the pillow as he slept. The curls I untangled each morning and marveled at from across the playground. I tucked them safely into an envelope and away in a drawer acutely aware for the first time that his body was not simply an extension of mine.

In preschool he came home from a sleepover at his grandparents house, his scalp tightly lined with cornrows. With his hair out of the way, it was so easy to appreciate the angular beauty of his maturing face. If he ever had baby fat, all traces of it had vanished, leaving behind chiseled features that hinted at the man he’ll become. I loved finding his eyes so easily; the eyes that always hold a soft skepticism, reluctant to give anything away before letting someone in.

He loved it, too. He said it made him faster. As he darted up the busy pedestrian mall in our tiny city, the same people who’d stop in their tracks to compliment or observe this wild and wonderful creature when he was much smaller now said nothing. I can’t make assumptions about their assessment of my son, but I know that as his mother, I sensed the world was receiving him differently. It weighed on me.

Not long after, we faced the childhood scourge of lice. Teeming with bugs that evolved simply to make people miserable, I could have shaved his head completely. Instead, I spent countless hours combing, picking, treating, and obsessing. As we sat, “Spongebob” on loop, I considered why I was so reluctant to simply cut it off. How much should a child be defined by their hairstyle? What was I teaching him?

[su_spacer size=”40″][/su_spacer]

Little black boy at the beach with long hair

[su_spacer size=”40″][/su_spacer]

I tried to envision him with a closely cropped cut – without the curls that echoed his sweet and silly free spirit. In my mind’s eye, he looked harder, more stand-offish and tough. As much as I had tried to convince myself otherwise, I considered what adding those qualities to his brown skin would mean.

There’s nothing I hate more than the fact that we live in a world where a child too young to cross the street alone can be seen as threatening. That police can pump bullets into the torso of a boy who closely resembled my son with only two seconds of gathering information. Black boys aren’t granted the benefit of the doubt. And it’s my duty to parent from a place of knowing that.

He’s 10 now and with each passing year, his unruly mass of brown hair with copper streaks has grown longer and more deeply connected to how he defines himself. As far as he knows, it’s cool; a feature that makes him unmissable even in silhouette. He likes it just the way it is and for that, I am grateful.

But the day may come when he asks to cut it, and to be honest, I don’t know how easily I’ll give in. Not because I want to control him, but because it’s the one thing to which I’ve hitched the illusion that I can control the way people see him.

His body is not an extension of mine. My white, small-statured body bears the weight of mothering a boy in a world that sees him as less than.

[/su_spoiler]