How young are children when they begin to connect race with fear or a sense of discomfort? The answer is probably varied. I didn't know what to expect with my own children. They grew up with their father's brown face and my white face as equal, doting care-takers. Both colors symbolized love and affection to them. I didn't know how or when that "connection" would come. Yet it did. And surprised me none the less. It showed up in the hair shop.
As the mother of two children with "ethnic" hair, I had to learn how to "do" their hair. When I had my son, a friend gave me an article by a White woman who had mixed race children. Three girls. Now SHE had to learn how to do hair, and she emphasized what she'd learned about the importance of hair care in the Black community. Taking care of your child's hair is a reflection of the love and pride you have for your child, and Lord knows I loved my children. So I learned. I experimented with products to de-tangle and moisturize, and how to straighten hair and even cornrow it. But I stayed away from cutting it for many years. Someone else with far more knowledge than me would have to take blade to hair shaft for my comfort. So, periodically, we made a trip to one of the local Black hair care establishments. Shout out to "A Better U"!
"A Better U" specializes in barbering, but they do more than that. They work on both men and women doing cuts, washes, perms, braiding, coloring, and the ever classic "fade". Their first shop that I went to was a tiny place on the southeast side of Albuquerque. Now they have a big barber school in a busier part of town. But in that first shop, you'd walk in to what consisted of two smallish rooms connected by an archway with four or five barber chairs in a row for the customers being worked on. Another row of regular chairs was lined up along one wall where you could sit as you waited for your turn at the shears. It wasn't a fancy place, but it was cozy. Mixed with the sounds of laughter and chatter was the buzz of clippers, the spritz of spray bottles and the smell of hot comb on hair with its little poof of smoke curling up to the ceiling.
In I walked with my two mop tops desperately needing some inches taken off. We took the last two seats along the wall. My daughter sat on my lap. One barber looked at my son and a big grin spread across his face.
"That a boy or a girl?" he asked.
I smiled back. " That's my son. We're here for a haircut. One for my daughter too." My son was young enough and his hair was long enough that he could have been taken for either boy or girl. My daughter, all of 4 years old, was very obviously girl.
"Yeah he sure need one!" laughed the barber. "That's a lotta hair!" Several others smiled and nodded their agreement.
The barber chairs were full and there were several folks waiting ahead of us. One female stylist stood at a barber chair with her hands thick into running cornrows back across a man's head, her hands glistening with grease or gel. Another stylist worked the clippers over and over a man's scalp just behind the ear, making sure there were no stray hairs that were longer than any others. Someone broke open a chocolate bar and passed pieces around to stylist and customer alike. We were going to be there awhile, so we settled in to listen to the comfortable banter.
I watched my children's faces. It was a rare occasion for them to enter an environment where the majority in the room was African-American. They sat in silence as their big eyes took in every word and movement. They fit in, in a way they had not experienced before. Something so unfamiliar, and yet familiar. After a long while, my daughter turned her face up and studied me for a time.
"Mama, do you feel weird?" she asked quietly.
"Weird? About what?" I said.
"'Cause you're the only White person in the room?"
There it was. Discomfort and race had been connected. How? How in one so young and especially who had not yet spent much time outside of a family environment? And it was not her own discomfort that concerned her. It was her mother's possible sense of unease, despite the warmth I actually felt.
I chuckled. "No honey. I don't feel weird. I've been around lots of Black people before where I'm the only White person. It's okay."
Her body relaxed against mine and I nuzzled my face into her big bushy locks. Her world had just grown a little bigger.