As a child I was ashamed of my hair. I dreamed of having a hairstyle like my friends in class, always straight and shiny. Television, the media, the toy industry, the society itself, all made me think it was ugly to have curly/kinky hair. No wonder, I was one of the many children who had nicknames because of skin color. Born to a black father and white mother in the family, my parents made me understand that I was beautiful the way I was born. There was never any speech in defense of blacks, just like there was never any custom of styling my hair in the afro style in order to reaffirm my blackness.
Perhaps, because of this, an episode that happened last week moved me. A black child, with hair that was blow dried straight got on a crowded elevator with her mother in a shopping center in Salvador. The child, who I imagined being between seven and eight years old, looked at me and, after much review, asked why my hair “was up.” I explained that it was not “up” and that I combed it like this because I liked it and that I thought it was pretty. Then she said: “It’s rough, right?” At that moment everyone in the elevator laughed. I responded that it is curly, not rough. “There is no rough hair or soft hair, but straight, curly, wavy and kinky hair. And yours, how do think it is?” I ask.
She replied that her mother says that her hair is rough so she straightens it. “I don’t like it. I wanted my hair like yours but my mother doesn’t like it. She says it’s a poor, black thing”, she said innocently. The mother, without looking at me at any moment, gave the girl a strong pinch and said: “Girl, how can you say such a thing! Shut up!” At that very moment there was an awkward silence in the air. People came in and out, the child, with a teary face, stopped looking at me and kept staring at the elevator door.
We then came to the 11th floor and I had to get off. But before I left, I spoke to the girl: “Your mother has a right to her opinion and choose how she wants to style it, but having hair like that is not poor, black thing. It doesn’t matter if the person is black, white, rich or poor, a person has the right to wear and do whatever she wants with her hair. When you grow up and can take care of your own hair, then you leave it the way that you want, okay?”
The little girl just smiled. The mother, on the other hand, looked at me with a face of indignation. She pulled the girl near to her and said in an altered tone: “You can let me take care of my daughter. She will have her hair the way I want it.” It was then that I said: “That may well be, but this is her race, ma’am. And that, fortunately, you can’t change.” The elevator door closed.
Again, I remember my parents, who always showed me that any person should be respected the way they were, regardless of color or social class. You could have your hair braided, curly, brushed, “black power (afro)”, in short, each one adheres to the style that suits that person. More than teaching their daughter to appreciate her own race, the values that were passed down to me were based on a respect for diversity. And this is how I grew up, with the understanding that, rather than my appearance, my blackness was in my consciousness.
This case calls attention to the total naiveté of the child and the mother’s position, who was as black as me. After the elevator door closed, I felt sorry for the girl. What kind of values was that mother passing on to her daughter? I wonder if having this type of upbringing, she will grow up taking a different position. Most likely not, which further complicates the battle against prejudice, since children like her are the agents of the future. They will be the heads of businesses, religious centers, government, and reproducing the prejudice that has persisted for years precisely because of this absurd transfer of values. We cannot forget, no one is born prejudiced. So parents, I ask: What kind of values are you passing on to your children?