A few days ago we were out of the babies' curl cream and I went to the beauty shop to get it. I wanted to get a particular brand but they were out and I was talking to the assistant for a while about products and hair and the babies and so on. We don't go in there all that often, but she remembers us, which is good / bad. She remembers that last time it was J who came in with them. I like that she knows us, but then I freak out about what that means about how few transracial families our town has . And then I remember we have twins, and the twin-mamas all know what it feels like to be conspicuous, whether we match our children or not. Also there's the fact that my children are spectacularly, mind-poppingly beautiful. But I digress.
She looked at Pink's hair and said 'are you going to braid it?' I said 'I've tried, but she's really tender-headed and she won't sit still'. And she shrugged said 'Oh, children never sit still for their mothers. You need to get someone else to do it'. And so I asked 'do you do children's braids here?' and she said 'yes, of course'. And I got all excited and asked 'do you think her hair is long enough?' and she felt it and stretched it out and said 'yes, it's long enough. And it is getting a bit dry. Braids will help it to feel less dry' and then we talked for a while about conditioning, and what I've tried (most of the jars in her shop, it feels like) and what else I can try (every remaining jar, it seems). Sometimes I wonder if they laugh at me after I leave - 'You'll never believe how much I sold her this time! That woman is so insecure she'll buy anything!' Sorry about that college fund, Pink and Blue, I rubbed it all into your heads.
She told me to wash Pink's hair and detangle it a day or two before, then bring her in. I talked to J that evening and agreed that he would look after Blue Saturday morning while I take Pink to the salon. I was super-excited, but I felt a bit sad, too. It's a rite of passage, her first toddler braids. No more baby girl for me.
So today I phoned and made the appointment. I was hoping to speak to the same woman but got someone else entirely. And as soon as I opened my mouth, I realised what a stupid, ridiculous, utterly dumb thing I was doing. I opened my mouth, and said "Hi, I'd like to book an appointment to get my daughter's hair braided" and as soon as I said it I realised Oh no. She can't actually see my kid. Because it's one thing to be a white woman pushing a brown toddler in a pram, and quite another to talk in my white-lady voice on the phone and expect the person at the other end to magically know that my daughter has spirally African curls. And yet another to be thinking oh noooooooo but not quite know how to say 'And by the way, she's black, although you have no doubt correctly deduced that I am not'
She asked 'will she sit still?' and I tried to relay the conversation I had with her colleague because honestly, I will bet you a million space dollars that Pink will NOT sit still and I want to be able to blame someone else for the fact that there will be a nearly-two-year-old screaming her head off in the middle of this person's shop. She sort of 'hmmpphhhh'ed at me and then asked 'do you want cornrows?' and I said 'no, box braids' because, hey, I do want box braids. And then she said very skeptically 'you mean you want one single plait?' and I said 'no, I want small braids over her head' and had a moment of thinking most of my hair knowledge comes from the US. Maybe box braids is not even the right term, in the UK. And it very, very soon became apparent that her skepticism wasn't because I used the wrong word but because she couldn't fathom how braids would ever stay in the slippy, straight hair of a daughter of a woman with a voice like mine. Which is fair enough, I suppose. I tried to explain that Pink's hair will hold braids because of the curls but I do'nt really think I made myself clear, I think she was under the impression that I am trying to do this to my daughter.
which I totally am not. She asked me if Pink had Afro curls and I said 'YES' and she said 'oh, she is mixed' and I said 'No, she is Ethiopian' and the whole time there were dryers or maybe jet engines going in the background and I was standing in a spare office at work shouting down the phone and wishing I had never gone into the shop for curl cream yesterday and we were just going to spend Saturday at the park, like usual.
She asked me what Pink's name was, and I told her, and she said 'her name is WHAT?' and I had to spell it, twice, and I felt like a fool for having given my daughter this beautiful African name that the womanfrom the salon clearly thinks is ridiculous. Her accent sounded maybe West African, and she didn't sound like her own first name was Annabel or Charlotte. The salon was not where I expected to get grief for an Ethiopian name that means Precious Jewel.
It was such a difficult conversation. I'm used to eye-rolling at my incompetence when it comes to hair, and mostly I think I take it in pretty good spirit. I understand that I'm incompetent. I do my research, but I haven't had a black childhood of my own. I haven't got any instinctive knowledge about when my daughter should begin to get her hair braided because I don't remember what age I was when I got my first braids because I've never had braids. (Except for that one time in Zimbabwe, and that was a mistake). I can spend as much time as I like reading I love My Hair with my daughter but it doesn't actually mean I have the faintest clue what I'm doing. I'm an adult in the white community, but in the black community, when it comes to hair, I don't feel like an adult. I feel like a child. I feel like a child because I make stupid mistakes, because I don't know basic things like what age my daughter should start to have her hair braided. I feel like a child because I am so utterly inexperienced. I feel like a child because I always, always have to ask other people for help.
This felt like a lot more than eye rolling, though, it felt like hostility, and I wasn't expecting it. And it can't be because she thinks I'm not caring for my children properly because she hasn't even seen my children. Everyone else I've met there has been really nice. I was really upset afterwards and phoned J and he said 'ummm, I washed their hair but I think I put too much product in because now it's sort of.... crispy' and I wailed in disbelief and he continued 'and I detangled it totally but I think the crispiness has done something awful and now her hair is all tangled again already'. And I almost cried because I already do not want to take my child to get her hair braided by a mean lady, and I'm freaked out about what might happen.
'What's the worst that can happen? asked J.
'Maybe Pink will just scream. And maybe they will tell us that they aren't doing a good job with her hair', I said. 'And maybe they will be right'.
And he said, 'So what? If it's true, we need to learn'. And then he said 'BLUE! NO!' because he was touching the cat's litter box again and then he had to get off the phone to make him stop. And he's right of course, but he's not the one who's actually going.
So that's me booked up for tomorrow, then. One thing they never told us in pre-adoption training: Here is why pink parents of brown children should be living in diverse towns. Not just so we can foster their self-esteem, ensure they have positive same-race role models and send them to school with lots of other kids who look like them. No, fellow stupid white mamas, the real reason is this: when I get banned from the salon tomorrow for bringing in a wriggly girl with dry, tangled, crispy, wrong-length hair, there are still dozens of others where I can try again.
And I will, I promise.
Just as soon as I recover from the post-traumatic stress disorder.