Wednesday 25 May 2011

Like You've Just Stepped Out Of A Salon

I owe you all a salon story. Remember this ad?

Well, that is not how our trip to the salon made us feel, not at all. To start with, they were rude. I mean really, extraordinarily rude. We arrived on time, and I went to the woman at the reception desk and said I had a 10am appointment for my daughter. 
"We don't have any record of that appointment" she said, not even looking at the appointment book. 
"Are you sure?"I asked. "I phoned yesterday". 
She stared at me. "No, nothing". 

I was about a millimetre from saying kthxbaiand beating a hasty retreat when an older woman walked over to us. She looked at the appointment book, pointed, and said to the younger woman
"Look, the appointment is right here. It's in your handwriting". The first woman shrugged. 
"I guess it's my handwriting, but I didn't make that appointment". The older woman spoke sharply to her and told her- you made the appointment, now do the braids. The first woman shrugged again. She looked at Pink's hair. 
"It's too short to braid, anyway. I can't braid her hair". 
"It's not too short" said the older woman. 
"Well, I can't braid it". 


The older woman called to a third woman. 
"Can you do these braids?" she asked.  "I would do them myself, but I have an appointment in half an hour"
"No, I can't" she replied, regretful. "I have an appointment in a few minutes too".  The older woman raised her eyebrows. 
"You don't," she said. "I have the book in front of me and you don't have anybody coming for two hours".  Then all three of them glared at each other for a little while and I wished I were anywhere, anywhere but there. Eventually the older woman said:
"Fine. I'll do it. My next appointment can wait" and she led us over to a chair. 

This is probably a good moment to explain a little bit more about why I chose to take Pink to a salon rather than try her first braids at home. I'm pretty confident about the technicalities of braiding; the problem is that she hates having my fingers anywhere near her head. Not while eating, not while on my lap, not while watching a DVD and absolutely no way  in the bath. Both Pink and Blue are extreeeeeemely tender-headed. I have no idea how much of it is physical - I'm sure having their hair detangled does hurt - and how much is psychological - they often start to yell well before I actually start detangling.  When I tried to put puffs in Pink's hair, she struggled and kicked and yelled and screamed. I've given them medicine and put them struggling into prams and changed their nappies when they were angry about it and had 101 other standard annoyed-kid experiences with them - trust me, their reaction to hair stuff is absolutely and utterly beyond. We do detangle regularly, because that's pretty much compulsory, but trying braids at home was always going to be a disaster. Getting someone else to do it seemed like a good idea - if part of her aversion was psychological, where pain from detangling causes fear of detangling and then fear of detangling causes extreme paranoia about letting mama into the space-helmet-sized-curl-zone-of-personal-space, then getting a new person to do it seemed like a smart way to try to break the cycle.  

Well, I can now exclusively reveal that this did not work at all. It went wrong right at the start, as soon as we sat down. The stylist wanted to blow her hair 'out' so she could work with the maximum length. I'm not sure if I've said this before about Pink - she is scared of a lot of stuff. Two things she is particularly scared of: hairdryers and combs. So when she saw a hairdryer coming at her with a comb attached to it she nearly lost her tiny little mind. Before it came anywhere near her head she was climbing up my chest and wailing and trying to escape.

This was the point at which I began to think - okay, this was a REALLY bad idea, and not just because I feel like the white invader in a minority safe space where I'm obviously not welcome. But the stylist had gone out of her way to do this when nobody else would, and I didn't feel like I could just walk out. She blew out her hair. Pink screamed. She did the first parting. The screaming went up ten notches. She started to braid it into cornrows, and the screaming went through the roof. I was clutching Pink and stroking her back. 99% of my brain was taken up with trying to comfort my beloved child, but I will admit the other 1% was thinking Hey! I asked for box braids!   

The stylist got down one row, and started the second.  Pink was shuddering and wailing and I had no idea what to do. Do I sound unsympathetic? I was not unsympathetic, I was on the edge of tears myself. Her face was covered in snot from crying and suddenly she flipped her whole body across to the other side of my lap. At this, the stylist threw her hands up in the air and said "I can't do this!" She put down her comb. Air rushed back into my lungs. Mentally, I already had Pink back in the pram and we were out the door together. I decided that I would worry about taking out her single cornrow at a later point, like next year. But before I could get up, the first woman - the one who I spoke to at the desk - came over to our chair and said "Okay, I will do it."

She elbowed the older woman out of the way and made a start on the second cornrow. Pink, who had briefly stopped crying, started up again. It's hard to know what to say about cornrows two through eight except that I'm not sure whether holding Pink on my lap through that experience means I should get a medal or get fired completely as a mother. At one point I asked if I could sing to her, because singing has always been how I have calmed her, since she was a tiny tiny thing. The new stylist said okay, and that is how I found myself belting out 'The Lord's My Shepherd' (her favourite) at the top of my lungs in front of all the staff and customers. It calmed her for about a minute, until she realised that singing or not, her head was still being attacked and I gave up. By this point there were a few other customers in the salon. One was not very pleased at my choice of song, saying "I feel like I am back at Sunday School!" But the others were smiling at each other and making nostalgic, sympathetic noises at me, the sort of noises that older mothers make to younger mothers while they wait in fear for their children to get vaccinated. This helped my state of mind- it helped a lot, in fact. 

Once she had decided to help us, the young woman was actually pretty good about putting braids onto a writhing, screaming toddler. (I found out why later, when she rang up the price and I saw she had given herself a 50% tip). She took up the singing when I stopped, asking me for Pink's name and then singing 'Piiiiiink, she is a veerrrrryyy nice giiiiiiiirl' over and over again in a voice being both remarkably tuneless and remarkably loud. Eventually - after the longest hour of my my life - she finished. I put my girl - exhausted from screaming, eyes puffy and red - back in her pram. I paid, and didn't quibble about being gouged over price.  I stumbled out, legs quivering, as quickly as I could. 

And truth be told? I don't even really like the style. I don't think it suits her. I really wanted box braids. But I think it's going to be a long, long, loooooong time before we get to find out whether they suit her any better. 

[Part 2, which you can skip if you want to]

And okay, because I can't tell a story without picking away at what everything meant, I have to add that the whole experience was pretty confronting for me on quite a few levels. So many things to think about concerning race and hair and mothering and what's good for kids versus what they want, and then wondering whether some of those good things are really as good as I am assuming. Much of this was not really a big surprise, if difficult to live at the time. But one that was a surprise: after this happened, I had a long conversation with some really good friends at work about what the experience had been like. (They heard the original phone conversation, so they wanted to know how it would all end up). I told them what I've told you, and each person who joined the conversation said 'do you think they were rude to you because you were white?'  And I said I didn't know. Then I said that was what made it particularly hard - I had no idea whether the whole thing was about the colour of my skin or whether I had done or said something wrong, or whether the particularly rude woman just had a terrible hangover and didn't want to be at work at all that day.  Then a I said how difficult I find it that my children are going to face this situation much more often than me, where they have no idea whether a difficult situation has happened because of their colour. Nothing too monumental there. For a moment I felt like I had been through an experience that would really help me to understand what my children's life would be like.  

And then an explosion happened in my brain and I realised - every single person who has asked me about this experience has at least considered that the tension I experienced could be attributed to race. Nobody dismissed me when I wondered about it, I didn't feel like I had to apologise for suggesting it, and most people brought it up on their own.  If our Zimbabwean colleague had walked in with a different story about how rude people had been at a different place of business, I doubt that any of us would have been very quick to say 'do you think they were rude to you because you are black?'  It wouldn't have been our first thought, if the conversation that he reported hadn't been explicitly about race. And if he had suggested it himself (which he definitely would not have, based on my knowledge of how he operates) we would have considered it but I suspect that at least one of us would have said 'hey, it was probably nothing to do with that, she was probably just tired!'  I know that's happened to me a few times when I've wondered out loud about whether my children have been treated a particular way because of their colour.  But that didn't happen when the person who might have been treated rudely due to race was me . I shared my brain explosion with my colleagues and we all said 'oooooh' and sat there silently for a little while, pondering.  It's taken me until now to sort it out enough in my head to write about it, and I'm sure I still haven't explained it very well. 

I know white privilege is real, but it freaked me out a little - okay a lot- to feel that I even get to have white privilege when I'm talking about the fact that I may have experienced racial prejudice. There's something mighty messed up about that. 


  1. Oh wow!
    Your brain explosion has left me with a lot to think about.
    Sorry Pink's first salon experience was such a disaster :(.
    I am pretty decent at box braids...and I have never been to England ; )

  2. Her hair looks beautiful! I love cornrows, that's what Zufan always had before we did the locs. It should stay awhile, and is supereasy to maintain. You just have to find a place you feel welcome and comfortable. We had a great girl do Z's hair, for $20.00 a time which is super, super cheap, so I'd always give her a big tip. The experience shouldn't be tramatic for anyone. Including the washtime, we were always in and out in 1/2 hour, 3/4 hour max. It took our girl about 15 or so minutes to do the 8 or so rows. However, you don't find that on the first shot. The very first salon we went to Z got braided, and it took over 2 hours, including messing around and breaks and general slowness and awkwardness. Keep at it, and find somewhere that works!!! She is SO cute. LOVE the hair. Really. It is perfect.


  3. Yikes--this sounds like it was quite an experience. I'm sorry it was so hard--although she looks absolutely *adorable*. Sounds like you hung in there with her, though--just wish it was a more welcoming environment. As usual, lots to think about!

  4. Wowzer. And I thought I was traumatized by taking Joseph to get his hair buzzed, but it was nothing like that. And, loved reading your brain explosion. I think if everyone could have an experience like this, have an open mind to truly ponder like you ... well, wouldn't the world be a much better place!

  5. I was cringing throughout. I would have been SO tense.

    Poor Pink :)

    Although... as a lot of my family keep saying when I say I don't like the pain of having my hair blowdried by rough hairdressers, "you have to suffer for your beauty" :)

    what about if you hold her (and EXCELLENT choice of songs, Pink!) and J tries to braid??? :)

  6. DS#1 hated to have his hair cut until he was at least ....hmmmmm....I wanna say about 12 years old. Nah, just kidding, but he was a difficult one. He had sensory issues, my poor guy.

    Anyway, I think pink look spectacular but your experience was an eye opener on so many levels. Thank you for taking the time to type it out and examine it for us to think about.

  7. I am pissed they did cornrows, takes WAY longer and is WAY more painful. I kinda wish you'd walked out. And I don't give a shit why they treated you the way they did, it was totally unacceptable. And then charging you more was also unacceptable.

    I like your part two mind blowing experience. Love it. LOVE IT. LOVE YOU.

    Here is a thought: I went up to girl with awesome twists sand braids at the store yesterday and asked where she got her hair done. She said friends do it. We exchanged emails and one might be able to come to my house to do it. I wonder if you could find someone who could be kind, be respectful, avoid a new environment, and hand that girl and ENTIRE bag of chocolate chips that she gets to hold and eat from in front of her favorite movie...

    Ok, that's it. I am out of ideas. For now.

    I am so sorry.

  8. I actually think this should be required reading by Caucasian parents who are interested in adopting trans-racially. While most parents think they might be up to the challenges, I have to admit, I would have been super-intimidated at that salon!!!
    Your point about racism is very valid. I definitely went to the race issue when reading the story. A lot to think about.

  9. I am sure if you go to an Ethiopian hear salon the experience would be different. I am not sure if there is one in your area but if there is an Ethiopian restaurant in your area they will help you too.

    From an Ethiopian

  10. So, I was too mad to read the bottom of this post well. I will come back to it First I have to get my say in (and yes, I know, you all just started feeling sorry for my husband.)
    Whether the women's behavior was racially motivated or not, it was still unacceptable, completely rude, crazy behavior. Where is the sisterhood? Oh, they don't feel a sisterhood towards you because you are white? Okay, well what about the sisterhood to your daughter? What about mentoring a VERY young black girl? What about showing respect to that girl's mother?
    I feel terrible that it didn't go well for the woman who was willing to do the braids, because I like that she at least confronted her coworkers in a professional way. I am sorry I was not with you.
    I wonder if I would have had the presence of mind to say, "If our business is not welcomed here, can you please just tell us directly?"
    Well, I am learning again. I will now have that sentence in my arsenal (and hopefully will remember it when I need it.)
    As for the white privilege thing, yes, and wow, and just another thing to think about.
    Bigotry is one possible explanation for poor treatment in many, many interactions. When is it important to recognize that? When is it important to ignore it as a reason because we risk becoming victim-like in our relationships/dealings with other people?

  11. I can't believe you told people they could skip part II - part II is where it's at!

    I give you a lot of credit for putting yourself in such an uncomfortable position. One of the reasons I've worked so hard to learn how to do Elfe's hair myself is so that I don't have to figure out how to be a white woman in an African-American salon - I'm just not ready to step that far outside my comfort zone yet. You should not have been treated like that, it doesn't matter what the motivation behind it was, that's no way to run a business and no way to treat people, period!

  12. Hi Claudia, I'm a devoted reader and lover of your blog, but only an occassional commenter (tisk). I loved this post and hated that you had a horrible experience. I agree with everyone above. You really made me think about the bit where all your white colleagues asked if you thought it was because you were white, and how that seemed an acceptable question to everyone. I wonder if white people think its okay to ask that because we have a collective and unconscious guilt about our treatment of black people and so perhaps we are deserving of their unfriendly behavior. Or, perhaps (more likely) race only matters (to most white people) when a white person is on the receiving end of hostility. Just my thoughts and not sure I added anything of value. (I don't know how you manage to write such coherent posts as I feel I'm getting tied in knots just trying to get this comment out as I'd like it!)

  13. That sounds just awful, really awful. I give you a ton of credit for sticking with it and seeing it through. Of course, your daughter is adorable and would be with a mop on her head, so the row braids only make her cuter!

    I think, had a black person related a similar story I would have thought there was racism involved but would not have mentioned it. Why? I would worry I might make them feel bad. Which sounds absurd I'm sure, especially since the fictional black person would have probably already been aware. I would only mention it if we were close. Anyway.

  14. Here I am... Back from the non-commenting abyss! :)

    I have to think a lot more about your part II. As I've mentioned, Michael's applying to different jobs in different states. We've intentionally chosen states or cities where we would be minorities or very close to it.

    Your part II gives me a lot to think about as I imagine playgrounds, churches, doctors' offices, etc.---all places where occasional rude interactions take place.

  15. BTW, I keep coming back because it's shocking to me. I have felt totally embraced by the black folks I meet, like Semi Feral's arguments: for the sake of my kid. Not ostracized.

    Yes yes, there HAS to be Ethiopians somewhere near you, right???

  16. Thank you very much for posting this! We just brought home our 5 year old daughter and 9 year old son from Liberia. We are Caucasian. we have not met with this "yet" but we live in Tennessee. I am sure we will. I dread it. I don't hold my tongue very well. I will have to learn. I am so sorry you and your daughter went through this!

  17. She seems way too young to go to a salon and have her hair braided by strangers. When I would do my daughter's hair, I had to have lollipops, videos, and another adult read her books. If they don't usually do toddlers, they could have been annoyed that you even brought her. Even Supercuts seems annoyed when you bring in little kids. They don't have any toys to distract them.

  18. The woman at the salon was just plain ol' WRONG! Although it wasn't racism, it was definately prejudice and bigotry in full force, to which I would have taken my children out of the salon, wiped my feet at the door and NEVER looked back. Oh BTW, I'm Ethiopian too, and yes, it could have happened at an Ethiopian salon as well because I've experienced stupid business behavior and the ill treatment of those in management from all forms of ethinic groups. Like Sugar Honey Iced Tea, it happens because folks aren't loving nor respectful to others outside of their familiar. Good for you for recognizing when healthy race relations towards one another is smelling FOUL (like Sugar Honey Iced Tea)! I applaude you!

    Jebena---the Abesha-bunna queen!

  19. Oh, yeah, just wanted to say, too, that is an awesome insight: "I even get to have white privilege when I'm talking about the fact that I may have experienced racial prejudice." Exactly. A lot of people don't get it. Thanks for articulating all that you did in part 2.

  20. oh my oh my. sorry for you and sorry for pink. sorry that in life people will experience prejudice.....
    Pink looks SO CUTE and would even with no hair... which I am thinking might have to happen to get the braids out! ;-) Love to you all!!!
    (I am sure others have told you about the tangle teezer.... for us it WORKS! In the bath....

  21. This was hard to read. I'm sorry for Pink. I'm sorry for you. I hope there is someone out there who can help you both the way you deserve it next time...which will be when she is around 15 judging by how hard this was. Many hugs, friend.

  22. Commenting late, but your bad experience at the salon was most likely due to you taking a toddler to a salon. Unless a salon specializes in dealing with young children, they really aren't prepared for a child that young. This is coming from a Black mother of Black son who started going to the barber at 2 1/2. He squirmed a lot and the barber wasn't very happy.

    Also, part of it might be due to race in that "White parents are adopting Black children and have no idea how to do with their hair." I don't know any Black parents who would take their 1 or 2 year old daughter to a salon to have their hair braided. That's usually something you learn at home. In your case, you can try looking for young woman who might be willing to come to your home (you go to hers) to do your daughter's hair and teach you as well.


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