99 Problems

Published on August 27th, 2013 | by Rhea St. Julien

23

RHEA ST. JULIEN on ‘That Hair!’

“Is she yours?”  “She’s so beautiful.  She must look like her father.”  “Oh! I just assumed you were the nanny!  Where did she get that hair?”  “Is it hard to comb out that hair?”  “Are you going to put her in modeling?  They go crazy for that ethnic look.”

The questions that I field on a daily basis about my child can be probing, assumptive, and, especially when they tell me that she’s gorgeous and then that we look nothing alike – insulting.  ‘What’s the problem?’ you may be asking.  ‘People are just trying to compliment her.’  Perhaps I should be glad that we are getting positive feedback instead of out-and-out bigotry, but this new form of ignorance where everyone is congratulating themselves for saying something good about a cute biracial child makes me uneasy.

I know these strangers mean well, but it is humorous to see that once they get their questions answered about her heritage and our relationship, they move on, curiosity satiated.  I get it – my kid is cute, her curls are extraordinarily awesome, and as a pair we stand out in a crowd.  But I long for conversations that go further than skin tones and hair follicles.

Sometimes I feel like a defender in the WNBA, swatting off hands as they reach to sink them into my daughter’s hair – that I do work hard to keep clean – knocking away the back-handed compliments (“I just thought you were the nanny because you’re so young and hip looking!”) and the many ways the world tells my daughter and I ‘You do not look like a family to us.’

But really I got used to people not thinking my family was a family long ago.  My husband and I have been a couple for 13 years, and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been in line together and had the person waiting on us assume we were two separate parties.  We’ve had checkout people try to separate our groceries with plastic dividers (God forbid my precious white person yogurt should touch his scary-black-man kale), and theater workers become befuddled when my husband hands them movie tickets for the two of us (“Where’s your other person?”).  It has become so common that my husband has taken to introducing me every chance he gets, “This is my wife, Rhea.”

Rhea3

The problem I have with questions about my daughter’s appearance and our relationship is that they don’t go far enough.  Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me, “Do you worry that as a white woman, a group that has historically oppressed black women, that you are going to fuck up the raising of this young black girl?”  Yes, yes I do.  I worry that I’m not investigating my own internalized racism enough, that the time I spent researching the best binky clip would have been better used re-reading bell hooks, that my laziness to engage with anti-racist action any further than in my writing is setting the wrong tone for my daughter.

Where is the person bold enough to ask not  “What product do you use in your daughter’s hair?” but “Do you think your daughter will hate you when she goes through her racial identity awakening?”  Because I would like to talk about that much more than the merits of shea butter versus No Poo. I would be worried if my daughter didn’t go through a period of being very angry at all white people.  It would mean she was doing a bypass on how messed up things are with race relations in this nation.  It would mean she had a less-full picture of her own heritage, and how far we have come.  If her adolescence is anything like mine, she’s going to go through a period of hating me no matter what, but I don’t doubt that the wrinkle of racial identity could add a fold to the issue that I’ll want to iron out, rather than allow to smooth over time.

Rhea2

Plenty of people in our neighborhood in San Francisco are willing to bemoan the rampant gentrification that has been going on for over a decade but which recently went into overdrive with the New Wave Tech Boom exploding in high-end boutiques and $12 sandwiches all over the Mission District.  But none of my neighbors have been brave enough to ask me, “Are you sad that all the black families you know moved to the South or East Bay?  What does it mean for you?  What will it mean for your daughter to go to a school that is predominantly white, with all her authority figures a different race than her?  What can we do, as white families in your community, to help you stay connected to people who can guide your daughter in navigating this racial landscape, while keeping you in our neighborhood?”

No white person has ever asked me any of these questions.  All I get, time and time again, are compliments on how amazing her cocoa skin accents the big, blonde curling afro that tops her head.  That hair, that hair, that hair.

That hair that she lately has been saying she doesn’t want.  “I want hair like you, Mama.  When I grow up, can I have hair like you, and other people?”  Other people.  She means white people.  No one ever says, “Are you worried that with you as her picture of what it means to be a woman, to be beautiful, that she will grow up unconsciously hating her Haitian features?”

Do I really want to have in-depth conversations with total strangers about race?  Possibly not.  But the sheer number of superficial questions I am asked on the daily about my daughter’s ethnicity calls into relief all these deeper things I’m wondering about, things that go unspoken.  I do have plenty of people in my life to talk with about race – the people I called when the tragic Trayvon Martin verdict came in, and I began to fear for my daughter’s teenage years in a new way.  A lot of people point out, “She’s gonna be a knockout!  Look out for when the boys come calling!  Her father better start arming himself!”  And I can’t help but think, “Yeah, from vigilante citizens, right?”

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 8.04.58 AM

The reality is that it is up to me to start these conversations and so here I am, writing about it on the Internet, the place where strangers are a bit bolder with what they say. It’s okay to ask about my child’s ethnic background if you really do want to know more about our family. (She’s Haitian, Irish, and Italian.  There’s a lot to talk about.)   But it should not stop once the need for classification is met.  If you want to talk about race, let’s really talk about it.  Let’s talk about it in a way that doesn’t objectify my daughter as an object of ethnic fascination.  Let’s include insight on our own ethnicity and how it informs how we raise our kids, whatever their race may be.  I’m not trying to shut down the questioning – I’m calling us all to more. But no matter how inviting her hair looks, please, keep your hands to yourself.

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About the Author

Rhea St. Julien

Rhea St. Julien is an arts-based psychotherapist who lives and works in San Francisco’s Mission District. She and her husband are a part of the Stay Woke Families Collective, a group of parents and caregivers working for racial justice, one Story Hour and Mini-March at a time. Twitter/Insta: @rheabette



23 Responses to RHEA ST. JULIEN on ‘That Hair!’

  1. Natalie says:

    I think about these issues a lot. I’m not a part of a biracial couple, much less a mother to a biracial child, but in all my awkward whiteness I wonder if I’m going to offend someone with hard questions. My focus of study in grad school (along with feminism) was hybridity in culture and Western fascination with “otherness” (which goes hand-in-hand with questions of beauty in Western culture), so I try to be aware of my cultural biases when dealing with race. In truth, I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than white, but I want to know – I want to understand people’s experiences with race, so I don’t make ignorant assumptions.
    Thank you for inviting conversations that need having.

  2. Amy says:

    Love it. Thank you, thank you! As the biracial daughter of a white mother and Haitian father, and as a mother myself, of a 7-month-old son who is _much_ lighter than me, I really appreciate what you’ve written here. It resonates with so many of my experiences, not the least of which was having this exchange at the pediatrician’s office the other day. The nurse entered the exam room, where I was sitting holding my son on my lap, and asked, “Who’s the mom?” Genuinely not understanding, I said, “What? Who’s the what?” She replied, “Who is the mother of this child? Are you his mom?” Keep in mind, she’s holding our file, which shows we have the same last name and address. And that, apart from skin color, we look a lot alike. Who else would I be? It was infuriating…
    Anyway, thank you for writing this and sharing your story.

  3. Jason says:

    Rhea,
    Thank you for this piece! For continuing to help pull our white heads out of the sand or wherever else they may be. I often don’t know how to talk about race and I am trying to learn….thank you for continuing to push me/us. And for your vulnerable leading

  4. Kathleen says:

    I really appreciate that you’re opening up the conversation. It can not be easy, so you are very courageous. I imagine it must be infuriating to hear those comments day after day, especially when you know that your little girl is soaking it all in. Adults, myself included, can be so quick to forget how much they take in.

    I’m wondering if you’ve developed any responses that help frame it for her while also helping educate those asking questions, or at least save face? Or not? I’m just curious if you’ve found a way to speak into the situations in public.

    Thanks for this important, vulnerable writing, Rhea.

  5. If you’re not already familiar with her, you should look up Kristen Howerton, blogger at Rage Against the Minivan. She expresses these feelings often and offers sage advice for teaching children about race. As a white woman who is dating (and plans to marry) a mixed man, this is our daily reality as well. Thank you for raising awareness on these issues so that my future children can (hopefully) grow up in a less ignorant world.

  6. Carrie says:

    Your daughter is beautiful and I’m sure if your husband took a DNA test, especially being of Haitian descent, he’d likely find that his ancestors are more likely most recently from the UK than Africa. I’m not sure how closely your husband identifies with his background but there is a distinct difference between how Caribbean Americans view themselves in comparison to African Americans. There are subtleties within the black race to navigate as well. In any event, by initiating this conversation now and being aware of the implications, you’re already doing her a HUGE service.

  7. Amelia says:

    Thank you.

  8. Thank you once again for writing with such heart and soul. On the eve of the March on Washington, I’m reading this and Patricia Williams in The Nation on the Trayvon Martin verdict (http://www.thenation.com/blog/175275/patricia-williams-how-did-trayvon-martin-become-defendant-zimmerman-case#axzz2dEDTMku4). We have come a little way, I suppose, but have so much farther to go. Your voice helps us think about how to get there.

  9. Sydney Brown says:

    You are smart and I love your writing. I hope that even when Olive hates you a little as a teen ( as most daughters can’t help but do), she is able to look back at the record of you striving to learn to be a better person, mother, etc. It’ll help too, that I like you so much, and i can remind her of that. Thanks for reminding us to ask bigger questions.

  10. lee says:

    Just to put the hair thing in perspective. I am white and grew up with extremely blond hair and my mom was constantly asked what my background was and when I got old enuf I was asked constantly for decades (the blond hair lasted a really long time). I was never offended. I think people are enchanted with looks that are striking in some way that is different from themselves and they are naturally curious about where these looks came from.

  11. Rebecca says:

    I would be despairing after reading this if it weren’t for knowing that you will be your daughter’s personal crusader, guiding her through this crazy world. I heard an interesting bit of an interview with LeVar Burton recently talking about how he had to use his personal experiences to educate his children about not getting killed by the police. Insane, and true, and all the more complicated for you because you didn’t grow up with the same skin color that your daughter will, which sort of makes you a metaphorical non-native speaker in navigating issues of race. I know some white couples in the city who have adopted black children, and I can’t begin to imagine how they’ll tackle those subjects with no personal experience from either parent. The more that I worked with black kids at Paul Revere, the more I realized just how much I didn’t know and hadn’t ever considered. White privilege is just so deep and pervasive I can’t even begin to imagine how I could ever appreciate what it’s like to grow up not being white.

    And in all of the thinking I’ve done about what my black students encountered growing up, I know even less about the dynamics of biracial families. I wouldn’t have thought about how insanely frustrating it must be for people to not assume that you and your husband or you and your daughter are together, family. You, like everyone else, want to proudly show off the people that you love and your closeness to them, and instead you’re treated like a curiosity. Fortunately for the world you’re the type of person who’s willing to talk directly with people, which alleviates the curiosity and then allows people to move forward and get to know you, but unfortunately for you that’s really exhausting and a huge load to carry. I’m selfishly grateful that you’re out there as an ambassador for educating people about race and family, because I know that you’ll work at it tirelessly and make a huge impact, even though as a friend I wish that you didn’t have to suffer the endless frustration of it.

    Also, as an aside, I feel for how you have to address the feminist issues too. I read another great article recently about how women just shouldn’t talk about looks and body AT ALL – little girls shouldn’t be told that they’re cute or their outfit is adorable. I couldn’t agree more – there’s nothing gained by it, no need to label girls pretty pretty princesses. And here you have people going out of their way to build up her looks and talk about her hair because talking about race is so scary that it’s just become this universal icebreaker to talk about hair incessantly. You make me uncomfortably aware of all of the ways in which I have it easy – the joy I get when people say my kids look just like me, the ease of raising boys without ever thinking about their looks, and the lack of urgency in talking about issues like race because there are just so few obstacles confronting my young white boys.

    I guess this all just leaves me feeling helpless. I hope your next article will be on what the rest of us can do to shoulder the burden – you shouldn’t have to be the only one on the front lines talking about the tough issues. What should I be talking to my boys about, and my friends about, and doing, that can help us stop perpetuating this cycle of privilege and ignorance?

  12. Natalia says:

    I just started to cry as I read this, I too have a gorgeous biracial daughter with amazing hair. I too have experienced the never-ending questions about her hair and the products I use. I have no one to talk to about this topic. I am always so disappointed in my social circle when I reference race and my fears and they respond with “Oh I never thought of that!” It hurts my heart. I have so often wanted to grab the other biracial couples I see at the park and ask them if they want to get together, be friends and support each other. The challenges we will face as a family are unique. My husband recently was offered a job in another state and I was scared out of my mind about whether or not my kids would be accepted in that particular community. My husband and I left San Francisco and moved to the East Bay and talk all the time about the lack of black middle class in the city. We talked about it as a couple, we’ve been together 14 years and now we talk about it as parents. I will talk to you about these topics. Anytime.

  13. Laura says:

    The superficiality thing? I don’t think it’s just about race. Comments about a child’s appearance are the main way people talk about babies, especially girl babies.

  14. Michele says:

    This subject is near and dear to my heart. I’m biracial (white/black), and my whole life people have looked at my family like “how do you all belong together?”. Now that I’m a mother of very light children, when I’m out with my dad who is white, people think he’s my husband and father of my children. Why do we feel the need to know belongs to who? And lets get excited when we see kids playing with joyous abandon or a great laugh, not just great hair. Thank you for this article!

  15. Maria says:

    Rhea…this is so well written. I enjoy reading your articles. I have so many thoughts with all of this that I’m having a hard time knowing where to begin. I want to start out by commending you with this piece. It’s about time that someone speaks up with such a sensitive subject. I feel that people choose to not speak on this issue because they are fearful of their own ignorance. I know I am. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or say anything wrong. I feel we (my family) suffer some of these challenges too. Your situation is more obvious to the naked eye. My kids are Middle Eastern, Filipino and white. I often times get, “What are you?”, and it’s said in a weird way. I’m Christian and the hubby’s Muslim. If we “followed the rules” I would be Muslim. His family accepted me. Here’s where it gets weird…traveling to the Middle East could get scary because I didn’t convert. I didn’t follow the tradition of giving my kids their dad’s first name for their middle name, making it hard for the kids to identify with their father. It’s all so “snpoken” therefore making things quite unsettling. My cross that I wear on my necklace, part of my everyday attire, can be frowned upon by some. My niece, who according to tradition and who should also be Muslim, has actually been told she shouldn’t wear her cross. At that time she had no clue why. Our kids, although untainted by others’ words and actions, and us as their parents, deeply affected!! Much peace and patience to us parents of bi/multi-racial babies!

  16. SCRP says:

    thank you for this piece of writing. a lot to respond to but one thing in particular I wanted to share on the question of how / whether your daughter will hate you as a teenager. a few months ago I was having a conversation with two black women (Haitian women in Haiti, as a matter of fact) about how we as black women (I am black American — not Caribbean) did NOT go through the phase of teenage girl hating our mothers. And how the kind of disrespectful war that goes on between teenage girls and their mothers is culturally specific / condoned. And my friends even had a name for it “white girl-ing your mother.” So even the idea that mother-hatred is a natural part of female adolescence is an assumption of your white womanhood. It will only be part of her experience if it is a part of your culture / experience that you deem worthy of passing on. (For the record, my mother problems came a lot later!)

    • Rhea says:

      This is really helpful for me to hear. Thank you for sharing!

    • Lisa Parsons says:

      As a biracial woman who grew up with a white mom, I did go through this phase.

      I dare to think it’s about having a white mom, not being a white girl. The way white women raise their kids is different from how WOC do. I do wonder sometimes if I had had a black mom instead I would have had more stability and less self-hate. In fact, I’m almost certain I would.

      I think some parents of color are less willing to tolerate bullshit from their kids, but in return, those kids are fiercely loved and never question their parents’ devotion. Yikes! Someone is going to come at me saying I’m racist against white parents, but it’s what I’ve come to realize in my life and others.

      My mom did place her boyfriend before me after my father passed away, so it’s no small thing.

  17. Beth White says:

    I have wondered some of these things, being in a serious, interracial relationship. However, I honestly did not think of so many of these things.

    My situation is slightly different: I have no children yet, and I’m from deep south east Texas. I will at some point have to face this same thing! Finding that balance between “you’re loved & accepted” and “be prepared” is going to be difficult, but I have been relatively shallow in my approach. You have seriously challenged me. Thanks for that!

  18. berit says:

    As I am not part of a biracial relationship and have no children myself I can only add what your daughter is also in for as what I DO have is awesome, curly hair:

    – Groups of drunk girls coming up to you screeching “OMG WHAT BEAUTIFUL HAIR”, trying to touch it
    – Random strangers in public transport ping-ing (as in straightening it and letting it lose, so it bounces) a loose curl (it really happened)
    – People asking you whether your father is from Africa. Thinking about it, they never asked if my mother might be from another country.

  19. Golden says:

    I just found this article and it resonates so deeply with me. I’m the black mother of children who favor my Jewish husband in every way. I’ve been asked if I’m the sitter, people always assume my husband and I aren’t in line together, people always comment on their features and how they look nothing like me. And I too just want to have a real heart to heart on how to maneuver through this multi-racial society. Thank you for just trying to open the dialogue that so many people feel uncomfortable having.

  20. Lizette says:

    Do you think people assume you are the nanny because you are white or because your daughter doesn’t resemble you? I ask because there are biracial children who resemble their parents. This isn’t an insult or meant to be dismissive, but your daughter, at this time, doesn’t resemble you. It’s not about the hair or skin color. I have know a good chunk of biracial couples and their children have some resemblance to each parent. Children and their looks change, and with time, she might resemble you more, but perhaps people are just surprised due to this reason. Likeness is beyond skin tone.

    I can imagine how hurtful it is, nonetheless. And I would be heartbroken if my daughter expressed a desire for mainstream hair. Very difficult.

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