In today’s column: A White mother loves her Biracial daughter’s curls, but her mother-in-law is a Hair straightening Tyrant.
I have an ongoing conflict with my mother-in-law. She thinks I am a bad mother because I will not straighten my daughter’s hair. I am White, my husband (and both his parents) are Black and we have one beautifully-blended, seven-year-old daughter with a wonderful head of tight ringlet-curls. We live in a diverse community where there are several other mixed families with girls who have similar hair.
I was very fortunate that our neighbor, who has since moved, was a natural Black hair specialist who taught me how to condition and finger-comb my daughter’s hair to keep it healthy and work out the tangles. I admit that it was a steep learning curve for me (my hair is flat and dead-straight unfortunately) but I am proud of having mastered the technique. My daughter was always proud of her hair and liked wearing it out and free, unless her grandmother was coming.
When Grandma would come visit, I’d bite my tongue while she combed grease through my daughter’s hair or used a hot comb to straighten it, ignoring my child’s tears. When Grandma would leave, I used to take my daughter to our neighbor to put her hair back to normal.
While my mother-in-law used to keep my daughter out of our conflict, only chastising me in private, lately my mother-in-law has started saying in front of my daughter that her hair looks nappy and “unkempt.” (My daughter had to ask me what that meant.) This little girl loves her grandmother and wants to please her. Lately, my daughter has been complaining about her hair, saying she wants it long and smooth and straight. This breaks my heart.
My mother-in-law’s hair is always relaxed and perfectly coiffed and she says that it is the reason she is always treated well and respectfully wherever she goes. She thinks that my daughter should have her hair chemically relaxed at puberty. My mother-in-law says that, as a White person, I do not understand. She says by allowing my daughter to run around with her hair “a mess,” I am subjecting her to unnecessary racism. My husband, by the way, is no help. He is conflict-adverse and says he knows better than to argue with his mother. He also feels that hair is not his territory. How do I protect my daughter’s self-esteem when her grandmother is being a hair straightening tyrant?
At a loss
Dear At a Loss,
At issue here is not just a difference of opinion on how to care for your daughter’s hair, but her self-esteem and identity as well. When your mother-in-law claims that her straight hair “is the reason she is always treated well and respectfully wherever she goes,” I am registering internalized racism. I wonder: does your mother-in-law believe it is your daughter’s job to curb the racism of others by wearing her hair straight? I hope you and your husband—who must start playing a bigger role in this discussion— can counter this message.
That said, here are some positives I must note about your letter:
- You have done some work in learning to care for your daughter’s hair.
I am glad you had such a neighbor who was willing to show you the ropes and help you understand how to make your daughter’s hair its healthiest.
- You—the parent—support your child’s hair texture and are not the one trying to change it.
You spend the most time with your daughter, so ultimately, what you say to and model for her will be the message that gets through.
- You mention living in a community where there are other children with hair similar to your daughter’s, which means she is not alone. When she looks around, she can see others with natural hair that does not conform to dominant culture norms and is celebrated, not hidden or tamed.
On the other hand, here are a few things that concern me:
- Your daughter’s beloved grandmother has called her “unkempt” and your daughter sounds as if she has begun to internalize this idea.
- Your neighbor moved, so she will not be able to advise you as your daughter enters puberty—a time during which hair texture tends to change somewhat. (See the list at the bottom of this column, “Antidote to the Hair straightening Tyrant: A List of Websites to Help Celebrate Natural Hair.)
- Your husband will not be an ally and help you stand up to his mom. Hopefully, as noted above and below, this can change.
Another worry of mine is that your daughter will become more aware of the rift between you and your mother-in-law, and as she grows, become troubled and confused by it. After all, her hair is the cause of it, as far as she knows.
Most mothers of your generation, of any race, would consider your mother-in-law wrong for “hair shaming” your daughter in her presence. I understand your frustration. However, it is important that her love for grandma remain intact. It would be a shame for this child—who is clearly loved by all her family—to think of her grandmother as a Hair Straightening Tyrant. Vent to your husband, vent to your friends who believe in the beauty of natural black-and-mixed hair. But around your daughter, I recommend you use loving language about your mother-in-law.
Calling Your Mother-in-Law a Hair Straightening Tyrant Might Harm Your Daughter as Much as Grandma’s Rejection
Here’s where you can ask for your husband’s participation. Ask him to help you explain the meaning of hair among women of color of his mother’s generation. How straight, White-looking hair came to be valued and why, for so many years, women of color have straightened their hair to be more appealing or less threatening to the White mainstream. Fortunately for your daughter, we are living in an era that is beginning to embrace natural hair more and more.
The next thing I have to say concerns you and your mother-in-law, a relationship that you will have to negotiate for as long as you are her granddaughter’s mother. Since you are White with straight hair, you have never faced any of the pressures that led your mother to straighten hers. The odds of you changing your mother-in-law’s perspective on hair are approximately zero. Therefore, I suggest you declare a total cease-fire with her on the matter. For your daughter’s sake, set the tone for Grandma’s visits to avoid conflict. One step is to come up with a Grandma-friendly hairstyle for your daughter that pre-empts the discussion about straightening. Look online, or contact your old friend for a simple top-knot or “contained” hairdo that your mother-in-law will be okay with, but that doesn’t change the actual texture of your daughter’s hair.
Your daughter is now old enough to understand that we do certain things to make Grandma happy even if these are things we would not normally do. We don’t wear ripped jeans when Grandma comes over. Similarly, we’ll put our hair back. Your daughter will understand that this is not to please anyone else, especially if you tell her how much you love her hair when it’s free.
Next, when your mother-in-law she comes to visit, firmly discourage hair talk. Say, “Her hair looks lovely this way, doesn’t it?” Then encourage her to tell your daughter stories of her childhood, to introduce her to food and music and activities that she cherishes.
If you refuse to let these visits be a battleground, your daughter will grow up embracing both sides of her family, loving her hair, her grandmother, and the whole beautiful being that is herself.
Now, about that list …
Antidote to the Hair Straightening Tyrant: A short List of Websites to Help Celebrate Natural Hair: