Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Great Hair Debate

It's 4:19 AM and I just woke up from an uneasy sleep (surprise, surprise). This time because in a few hours I'm allowing my mom to take K to a hair salon to get her hair chemically relaxed. And I can't help but have mixed feelings about it.

Way back when, my own hair was chemically relaxed behind my mother's back on a trip to DR, where my aunts took it upon themselves to straighten my hair after I showed up at their house with my hair braided in cornrows. Let me explain something to you readers who don't understand why that matters.

My family is racist. They don't like black people and don't want to be associated with them.

Never mind the fact that abuelo is brown-skinned, the color of coffee with only a spot of cream in it, that's besides the point. Never mind the fact that the DR's rich history lies in it's mixed ancestry of Tainos, Africans and Spaniards, along with anybody else that decided to settle there. Abuelo's wife has the fairer skin of her European ancestors and gave birth to many an Anglo-looking Dominican baby with "good hair". So of course they are able to now sit in judgement of those of us on this side of brown who, in their opinion, are follically challenged.

And even though my mom had babies with two very dark, almost black as night Dominican men, she is one of them, too.

But back to the hair issue...I'm getting off topic...

So I had my hair chemically relaxed, and what that means is that you get this smelly, lye activated (do they still use lye?) cream that forces that hair to not curl, or relaxes it, so to speak. Whenever you see a black woman with bone-straight hair, chances are she has a relaxer. Because, you see, most black people (and I'm including my Afro-Latinos in this general term"black") don't have naturally straight hair.

And at first straight hair was the coolest shit in the world! It meant that I no longer had to sit around ALL DAY while my mom put these special oil treatments in my hair in order to put them in rollers in order to keep it "tame". My hair looked just like those models in the magazines after the relaxer. Those white models. I was dubbed "Miss Clairol" by some of my friends. It was cool.

But here's the dirty little secret they don't tell you about hair relaxers, especially when you're a little girl basking in the glow of new, shiny, flowing locks. It's not permanent and it damages your hair beyond repair, and sometimes, most times, hell EVERY TIME, the only solution is to cut it all off and start again.

Sure the new you is Miss Clairol, but after a month, or in my case just a couple of weeks, when your OWN hair starts to grow in, it grows in in its natural condition. Which, remember, is NOT straight. So after about three months, after you've been trying hard to perpetuate the lie that "no, this is my natural hair," you have on your head a weird and nasty combination of nappy roots and straight ends. And it looks a hot mess. So you either wear tight ponytails with loads of hair grease and gel (which ruins and breaks the hair) to hide the new growth or you go back for a touch-up, where the stylist will apply the chemical to the roots that have grown since your last visit.

This goes on and on and on every three months or so. And it would have for me, too, if in 1998 I hadn't found an stylist who convinced me to STOP, and I agreed to because at 16 I had to have most of my hair chopped off to remove all the damage from having chemicals in my hair (I liked to dye my hair, too) and I never wanted to go through that again. That doesn't mean that I don't still straighten my hair, it just means that now I do it without chemicals.

Which brings me back to K and racism and Dominican/black hair.

What am I saying to K about beauty and our culture and being a woman if I allow her to get this done? That the whiter you are the better? Straight hair makes you beautiful and kinky hair makes you ugly? I think we get enough of that on TV and in fashion magazines. Why is her natural, nappiness "bad" hair that needs to be tamed? Is this what I'm teaching her when I pull out the blow dryer and straighten my own hair? What's so wrong with an Afro? Or braids? Why should I chemically relax her hair?

My mom gave me a very good reason: it will be easier to do her hair everyday. But is my laziness enough to justify subjecting my daughter to identity issues, self-loathing and a lifetime of hair maintenance? Couldn't I just as easily take her to an African braiding salon, where they will offer some organic and natural products to keep her hair moisturized? Or am I opening her up for taunting and ridicule from her classmates?

Bottom-line, I can't go through with it. I'm having doubts about this. I need to sit K down and explain to her the side effects of this procedure: breakage and balding being just two of them. So what if she won't ever be called Miss Clairol- that bitch is white anyway. And K is a lovely shade of cocoa. She should embrace that and be proud of it. She should be proud of her roots, which on BOTH SIDES includes AFRICAN ANCESTORS (you hear that abuelo? AFRICAN ANCESTORS). So if her hair is nappy, then gosh darn it, isn't that the way it was meant to be?

* confused right now on what to do*
Good hair means curls and waves
Bad hair means you look like a slave
At the turn of the century
Its time for us to redefine who we be