His Braids Aren’t Funny, So Why Are They Laughing?
Last week, my beautiful and sweet boy was teased and laughed at because of his hair. He just turned 7 and is pretty sensitive as it is, so when I learned that he broke down in tears because of it, my heart just about broke.
All of my kids wear their hair naturally. My two youngest have big, beautiful hair and I usually like to keep it out in an afro, and sometimes in braids or twists. My 11 year old recently started growing dreadlocks like her daddy, and Kaden, the 7 yr old, had the same big hair until my husband convinced him to get his first haircut, much to my chagrin, two years ago. Recently he’s been expressing regret at not having the same big hair we all have, so he’s been asking to grow it out so he can wear braids and a fro like he used to, and like his brother does now.
So last week he wore it in braids for the first time in years, after begging his dad to stop cutting the top so that his mohawk would be long enough. The very next day our 11 yr old told us that the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classes were laughing at him and making fun of his braids. It’s hard enough to handle teasing from a few children, but dozens of children, including his own “friends,” is heartbreaking. The fact that they were insulting him in Spanish means nothing, because he clearly understood what was going on. A teacher did tell them to stop, but not before he burst into tears and the teachers had to take my 11 yr old out of class to come and console him. When I heard this I was so angry, and so so sad for my son and his feelings.
Had this happened in the states, I would have rushed down to the school and talked to all the teachers involved, trying to pinpoint which kids were involved, and gotten those parents involved as well. Whether it’s body shaming, or any other kind of bullying, it is heartbreaking to think of the impact that dozens of laughing and teasing kids can have on a young child. When you add in the aspect of race, and the fact that there is already an assault on black hair in the states, it’s all the more troubling. Black hairstyles are being banned in schools and work places, and children are being punished for nothing more than wearing an afro at the wrong school. Just today I read about two young girls at a Boston charter school (hubby’s home city) who were sent to detention, banned from all school activities, including prom, and threatened with suspension because they refused to take their braids out of their hair. It’s disturbing to see a child disciplined and ostracized for wearing their hair in its natural state.
But being overseas has somewhat altered my thinking. I don’t respond to things the same way I used to, especially when I’m overseas. For as long as I can remember I have had an open mind, and living in so many countries has allowed me to become even more open minded and accepting. Things that would have had me in a rage at home, don’t affect me the same overseas. I try to understand that there are cultural differences at play, and many reactions and interactions are due to curiosity or ignorance of the unknown.
In Turkey, people stared and then tried to touch and grab the children. I would attack someone who randomly tried to grab my baby from his stroller in NY, but in Turkey it happened numerous times. I would calmly try to explain (in my horrible broken Turkish) that he didn’t like to be touched, to which they would smile, nod, and then pick him up anyway. They generally love babies, but they went crazy for our little brown babies, so I learned to begrudgingly accept the cheek squeezes, the constant barrage of cookies, candies, and requests for photos. I also grew to appreciate amd welcome the countless blessings they gave (“Mashallah, Mashallah” they would say). It came from a place of curiosity and of love, and I was living in their country, after all, so I learned to understand and accept that aspect of their culture. (I wrote about it here Please don’t touch my baby).
In Germany, the faces were often surly, but many were helpful and kind behind those rough exteriors. In Belgium, the stares were not quite as nice, and if you didn’t properly speak French they could barely contain their contempt. In Argentina, I have shaken maybe two hands, and double kissed hundreds of strangers, something I would never do in the states. It’s all a part of maneuvering throughout our many worlds, and I mostly welcome the experiences.
This is the first time one of those cultural differences has negatively affected anyone in the family, so I was really at a loss for what to do. It’s been a week and I’m still sad about it.
My Spanish is limited, so I decided against talking to the school director, since she doesn’t speak English and we have a hard time communicating as it is. I considered telling our son not to play with anyone who harassed him that day, but that would be petty and unrealistic, especially since he said everything was back to normal the next day, and no one said anything else about his hair. I felt conflicted because I want to stand up for my son, but I also don’t want to make things worse and bring more attention to our differences.
Ultimately, my husband and I decided to focus on him and his feelings. We needed to make sure he knows how beautiful and smart he is, and how perfect his hair is, regardless of the style in which he wears it. We tried to explain that although kids can be mean sometimes, the kids in our small Argentinian city have never seen black hair up close, so it’s new to them and they’re fascinated and don’t always know how to react. We reminded him of all the people in Turkey who used to touch his hair because they were amazed at how different it was from their own hair, and the people in Belgium who thought that him and his brother were girls if they had their hair in braids or a ponytail. We let him know that while we of course hope that people won’t laugh at us, they will always stare and ask questions because we are different and that’s ok.
We are a large family of 6. We are American. We are giants. We are black. We are so unique that wherever we are in the world, we will stand out. This knowledge should make us feel special and more confident, and I hope that he doesn’t let this one experience affect his view of himself or his beautiful hair. In the words of the amazing Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”