As a baby of the 90s, I did not have many dolls that looked like me except for the Bratz dolls Sasha (the African American) and Yasmin (the Latina). Even then, they did not have curly hair, let alone kinky afro hair like me. Instead, they had bone straight hair so long it passed their knees.
Having gone to predominantly white international schools my whole life, I wanted nothing more than to fit with my peers. There were very few images of Black natural beauty growing up — not on television, not in my books, and not from other Black women and girls around me. I did not believe my mother when she said my hair was beautiful and that there was no need to perm it because her hair was permed and straight!
After years of straightening my hair with a hot comb to perming it and wearing weaves to achieve the bone straight Sasha look, I did what natural hair influencers of the 2010s were calling the “Big Chop.” In my last year of high school, I decided I wanted to embrace my natural hair. I cut off all the perm until I was left with a TWA (Tiny Weeny Afro). I felt liberated, despite some peers’ comments that “I looked better before” (i.e. with a straight long weave).
A part of the natural hair movement, I rocked my afro throughout college with pride. It was a bittersweet moment. I was ecstatic at the wave of representation with Black girls and women who looked like me in more books, dolls and shows. However, the other part of me lamented, If only this stuff had been around when I was growing up. Maybe I would not have had the identity crisis that comes with never being able to measure up to white Eurocentric beauty standards.
In my early 20s, I felt confident that I had the tools to raise a Black child. My college degree in Africana Studies provided the cultural and political education I missed growing up abroad. Equipped with this knowledge and the abundance of Black Is Beautiful media to share with my child, I believed she would not have to go through what I did growing up. She would have many mirrors reflecting her beauty and her belonging in the world.
But boy was I wrong! To my surprise, I gave birth to a light-skinned, straight-haired racially-ambiguous child of Afro-Guyanese, Tanzanian, Punjabi Indian, and Mexican descent. Or simply, put an Afro-Latina (or an Indo-Afro-Latina?). Given her ancestry, I guess it comes as no surprise my child defies labels. She cannot be put in a box. After having spent 10 years in the US learning about my Blackness, I now find myself in a position where I have to remember the complexity of my identity that defies categorization.
When I moved to the US in 2012, I had a hard time with my newfound Black identity. I spent the prior 7 years of schooling in Geneva, Switzerland, the colorblind, multicultural center of diplomacy. There I did not identify nor was I identified as Black. Instead, I was the American-born, Guyanese, Tanzania-Indian girl. Like Chimamanda Adichie famously stated, “I wasn’t Black until I came to America. I became Black in America.”
So now my three year old is helping me unlearn my preconceived notions about Blackness. As I parent I wonder:
- What does it mean to be Black when not everyone identifies you as such?
- What does it look like to be a cultural chameleon in the US belonging to many spaces, not to none exclusively?
- How do I teach my baby the beauty of the culture and ancestry that she has inherited from me while also honoring our differences in lineage?
Where are the books, media, and political education for the mixed babies? I have a lot to learn when it comes to the Afro-Latina identity — the complexity of Mexican heritage vs Mexican-American heritage and how this fits into or divest from Latinidad. And not to mention language education! Thankfully I grew up learning Spanish in school. However, it’s an entirely different undertaking to teach it as I am not a native speaker. Throughout my daughter’s life, I’m hoping to give her roots in one place and emulate the good from my transnational childhood, giving her an education that makes her aware of different cultures, languages and ways to be in the world.
I will conclude my musings by returning to the hair issue: I spoke to an Afro-Puerto Rican woman who gave me advice about how to educate my daughter about her identity as she gets older. She let me know that my daughter may encounter the opposite problem I had growing up — that her peers with kinkier hair may give her a hard time out of jealousy. She told me I need to instill in my daughter an awareness of her privilege when it comes to attributes like skin color and hair texture so as to make her a true ally and conscious of these issues that stem from colonialism and white supremacy. This really took me aback — I have so much to learn as a mother and I cannot do it alone. I want to raise my daughter in community with those that affirm the complex and multi-faceted nature of Black identity and are determined we all thrive, no matter the shade of our skin or the texture of our hair.
Image Description: Foamy hands comb through curly black hair.