Opinions, Column, Featured Column

Childhood Crisis As Told By My Hair

In my younger years, Wednesdays were the bane of my existence. Not because broccoli was served for dinner or because the weekly spelling quiz was given out in school, but because Wednesdays meant one thing: hair-washing night.

Picture this: A helpless, single, white mother trying to hold down her screaming and flailing biracial daughter as she attempts to comb through her conditioner-lathered incredibly tangled curls. I have to give it to my mom—she tried, she really did.

The reality, however, was that she just didn’t understand how to deal with hair that wasn’t “white hair.” If I could tell my 6-year-old self anything, it would be to give mom a break—how was she supposed to know?

My hair (which from 4 to 12 years of age was in one of two styles that my mom could pull off) could have used a few more washes, but I think the emotional toll of one time around was enough for the both of us. And Wednesday wasn’t the only day I had to think about my hair: I was constantly wondering and breaking down into tears about how my hair wasn’t like my white, Hispanic, and/or Asian friends’ hair.

No one else was like me.

I’m not just speaking for biracial children, but for all children: we all had an identity crisis at some point growing up, and some of us still struggle today. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t black, and I wasn’t white. I felt as if I couldn’t fully identify with either side without completely renouncing the other half of my heritage, a half which was just as valid.

My mother sacrificed so much so that I could attend a good school and live in a safe part of town, and for that I am grateful. But as a biracial child raised completely by a white mother, there were parts of my life and my identity that escaped conversation and understanding between us. What is important, I have found, is that she still tried to understand my struggles, and more broadly the struggles of other biracial children. That’s what matters.

Enduring those long, arduous Wednesday hair-washes made me want nothing more in the entire world than to have long, straight hair like all my white friends had. It just seemed so much easier. No pulling, no screaming, and no frustrated mothers, right? I begged my mother to let me wear wigs or hairpieces.

It wasn’t until I was 13 years old that my mom finally allowed me to get my hair relaxed. (Relaxing is a chemical procedure which “tames” hair and makes it easier to straighten). I don’t think I had ever felt so happy in my entire life. Maybe now I’ll fit in, I thought. I remember running my hands through my hair for hours and hours and not feeling one tangle—a dazed smile was plastered on my face all day long. There was no pain or feeling of isolation anymore.

Sadly, the elation did not last long. After discovering that my newly straightened hair would never look as good as when the hairdresser styled it, I grew weary. Now my complaints transformed from, “I’ll never have straight hair,” to, “Why can’t my hair just naturally be straight? Why do I have to put in all of this effort to straighten it when other girls just wake up with straight hair?”

This should have been a blaring sign to me that something was wrong with the way I was looking at my life. Whatever I did to my hair, nothing was ever enough for me. I cared so much about fitting into the world around me that I completely lost sight of my own sense of racial identity.

Then, it happened. One day during my sophomore year of high school, I decided to wear my hair down in its natural curly, frizzy, wild, not-black, not-white state. I’m not sure what compelled me to do that. But sometimes the simple things you do are the most important.

My worst fear was standing out, but when I finally did something that embraced the fact that I am different, I felt happier than I had in my entire life. The full potential of my hair, unbeknownst to me, had been stifled for years through chemical procedures and the heat from a flat iron. With every day spent trying so hard to keep my hair the way I thought society wanted it to be, I was keeping myself from being who I really was.

Though I still struggle with identity like most college students do, I am light-years away from that 6-year-old girl dreaming of long straight hair so she could look like Barbie. Today I cherish my biracial hair and my biracial being. Today I am a young woman who is passionate about racial issues that affect both my black brothers and sisters and me. I am a young woman who understands now that trying to conform to white culture and deny my mixed identity was the most detrimental thing I did to myself growing up. Today I wear my hair curly and I wear my hair proudly, because I am proud of who I am. I just wish I had embraced myself sooner.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics

September 20, 2015