Hair and Cultural Awareness

Observations and Ramblings about my hair and some recent encounters related to hair:

I teach a range of courses in a School of Social Work. One of the courses I teach is a course on diversity. In social work we refer to the use of skills, ways of thinking and behaving, and understanding in such a manner that a person’s various identities are considered – cultural competency. I’d have to write another blog just to fully cover cultural competency, but suffice it to say that it can occur in many small and larger ways in any number of contexts.

A couple of days ago I was pleasantly caught off guard when the director and owner (CB) of my son’s day care center complimented me on my hair.  Like many women I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my hair and have changed my hair more times than I care to remember.  Hairstyle, length, and texture are especially touchy subjects for women of color.  Hair can be political for women of African descent living in American (think of the puffed out afros of the 60s and 70s). People sometimes have strong negative reactions to natural hair, braids, dreadlocks, etc. stating that none of the mentioned styles are professional (that’s another blog post for another time)

semi-natural

Semi-natural

Currently I am wearing my hair semi-natural. Semi because it still has chemical in it and it’s not completely natural and I’m putting styling product in it to enhance the natural kink (or curl as the styling product states on the label). Needless to say my friends who have known me for some time might ask “What is going on with you and your hair?!” So anyway…it’s cute in a “I’m not sure what to really do with it” way. I’ve been thinking a lot about raising a son who sees his mom with natural hair so that he knows that beauty is not necessarily about straight relaxed perfectly combed hair. I’ve never had strong feelings about what’s going on with my hair until I had my son, so this is all kind of new. I typically change my hair a lot but it has nothing to do with wanting a certain type of hair, it has more to do with boredom and the fact that I have options and it’s fun to play around with hairstyles, wigs, braids, waves, etc.  Anyway…as I was dropping my son off CB was in the room and she just commented on my hair being natural, she said she liked it and that it worked for me because I have a pretty face. I smiled and laughed because it was something my mom would say! But I felt nice…most Caucasian women I’ve known don’t know enough about black hair to know when my hair is natural or not. My friend PC always notices my hair and sweet in her encouraging comments and questions – it’s always a nice cultural exchange! My pleasure in CB’s comment had less to do with me being cute and more to do with my satisfaction that I knew the day care we chose really had a culturally competent leader (as required by NAYEC).

Day care center teachers are notoriously white and female. So enrolling our African American son in a suburban day care center caused me some anxiety. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and until I moved to Atlanta had not seen African Americans in the majority let alone in positions of power and prominence. And I don’t expect great diversity where my son goes to daycare because the center, while adjacent to a city full of immigrants, is located in the suburbs. I chose this day care because it is owned and operated by a woman, it is not a franchise chain, and it is close to home. The teachers are wonderfully nice, my son is safe, well cared for, learning new things, and the kids are incredibly cute! I teach cultural competence for a living and write about it as often as I can. It is a skill that encompasses many levels of understanding, behavior, and thinking. It is more than just knowing when a black woman’s hair is natural versus straightened with chemicals. In this context this simple small exchange said a lot to me. The fact that CB displayed cultural competence around something as benign as my hair was a pleasant bonus!

Flashback to a week ago when my son and I were at the mall with my friend BD (culturally competent Caucasian woman). We stopped to play at the indoor playground. I was a little bit nervous because he’s young (15 months) and the children there are appeared to be at least 3 years old and older. But in fashion true to himself, my son jumped right in there with the other kids and slid down the slide (head first) and climbed into the cars and ran around the carpet enjoying himself as if he had been there a thousand times! There was a little girl who was about six years old or so and she was the type of child that likes children younger than her – you know the type who will end up being a teacher or a social worker – she kept holding the hands of the younger kids, but in particular kept wanting to hold/lift up my son. Her mom kept telling her to let my son run on his own and to not hug/hold him. I was bordering on being annoyed and thinking “how cute.” And then she patted his head and said “He has fluffy hair!” My friend BD looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said “It’s time to go.” So we smiled, scooped up my son said “bye” to the little girl and left.

Do you take on a 6 year old around cultural competency? Probably not. I’m an educator so maybe the “right” thing to have done was to say to the girl “Yes, different people have different kinds of hair, that’s what makes the world so beautiful” or something like that. But I’m not always in my culturally competent educator mode and sometimes I just want to enjoy my time out with my family and friends. I’m hoping that the little girl will grow up to meet many different kinds of people with many different types of hair and that she will appreciate each person and her hair for who she is!

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