Blitzen woke up sobbing and screaming at 1:00 this morning. “I hate my hair. Why won’t it stay straight? Why does it have to be ugly? I want straight, beautiful hair. Andrew, you don’t know anything about girls or hair. You don’t know how to take care of me. Fix it, Andrew!”
Blitzen wants straight hair. White hair. Disney princess hair. The first week we met her, she called us to the tv: “Look at these girls — they have pretty hair just like me!” One was blond, one was red-headed, both had long straight flowing hair.
Fast forward to yesterday. Blitzen’s hair had been in braids for a few weeks. She went to the salon to get de-braided, and got her hair blown out. Yesterday afternoon her hair was straight as Barbie’s. We worked to cover her hair before she went to sleep, but I didn’t tie the scarf around her head right and she woke up 1:00 am with her hair back to normal: curly, gorgeous and alive. She was furious that she didn’t look like Taylor Swift or Beyonce, and furious at me for causing the problem.
Our struggles with hair don’t make the blog much, in part because they’re obvious to the point of cliche. Of course a black girl growing up in a patriarchal, white-dominant society that objectifies and blames her is going to have internalized racial inferiority and a complex, oversized relationship with her body and hair. Of course that relationship will be intensified by the identity issues that come with loving both your black family and your white foster family, plus the rage and pain that come from witnessing abuse. Frankly it’s a wonder that Blitzen giggles as often as she does.
Sadly, I play my role in this cliche: the oblivious, naive, not-so-bright well-meaning white man with an intellectual interest in racism and sexism and a bookshelf full of literature. Today, in my sleep-deprived state, prodded by two hours of tears from a loved one who’s educating me, I feel the pain caused by white supremacy. Tomorrow, I’ll have the privilege to intellectualize it again.
In this rare moment of being human, here’s some of what I feel. I’m pissed that women are defined first and inevitably by the way they look. I’m pissed that Blitzen will spend her life comparing herself to a standard of beauty built and perpetuated by northern European white men. I’m pissed that Blitzen will be exoticized, sexualized and othered before she can be listened to. I’m pissed that Blitzen, who notices everything, get messages every day that tell her black people are thugs, criminals, bad students, bad parents, poor, dependent, superstitious, helpless and undeserving.
I’m pissed about the recordings in Blitzen’s head: “You’re not pretty. You’re not smart. You’re not lovable. You’re not able to make it.” Those are the voices of institutional racism, and they’re not from 1850, they’re in Blitzen’s head right now as she stands at the mirror with a hair dryer and a brush hoping that her hair turns straight.
What I’m really pissed off and embarrassed about is my role amplifying and reinforcing the voices in Blitzen’s head. Blitzen moved into a home where every single photograph on the wall was of a white person; it’s pretty clear what I value. I’ve worked exclusively for culturally white institutions, even when, damagingly enough, I’ve been “serving” primarily kids of color.
Blitzen sees me wield my white privilege like a blunt instrument every time I sidestep the line, every time I casually break a rule knowing it doesn’t apply to me, every time I tell our agency or our school exactly what I need. My white privilege has gotten me jobs, credit, housing, access to power, and the opportunity to raise another parent’s brilliant child. I don’t have to use words to tell Blitzen it’s better to be white. She notices everything, and my internalized white superiority isn’t that well-hidden anyway.
You fall in love with a kid and it means you have to get better and make the world better. We white people, in accountability to kids and people of color, have work ahead of us.
Even if I had tied her scarf around Blitzen’s head correctly, her hair wasn’t going to be straight this morning. But she’s right to be furious at me. Me and my white friends built and sustain the world that makes her hair wrong. If we want to sleep through the night, it’s our job to fix it.