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Lily’s big hair day

How a brief social interaction underscores the need to affirm Black girls early and often

Jialei Sun

In the Black community, hair is sacred. As with many women, hair is our human crowning glory. We take pride in the way our hair looks. We revel in the texture and the many styles we create. And when it’s freshly done, you can’t tell us nothin’.

Black women also have elevated to an art form, something society frequently diminishes. Society has told us for centuries our hair is nappy, unkempt, and downright unacceptable in its natural state. Hair care is a multibillion-dollar industry whose products we consume but whose companies we often don’t own. We spend thousands of dollars on hair care and styling, often not to show our authenticity but to assimilate into an “acceptable” version of ourselves as dictated by respectability politics.

It’s one of the aspects of raising a daughter I’m hyper-aware of, which includes helping my 5-year-old feel confident and empowered rocking her natural, textured, tightly curled hair in our majority White Boston-area neighborhood.

For the last year of pre-kindergarten, my daughter, Lily, has thrived as the only Black child in her entire school, where her teachers and school administrators love her, care for her, and support her. But there have been some bumps that mostly involved race; one instance was related to her hair.

Most of the time, we keep Lily’s hair braided. She’s very active in school, and thanks to her dad, Lily is an avid swimmer. Braids are most manageable for an active child with textured, curly hair. Typically, there’s a day or two in between when we take Lily’s braids out and when we get it rebraided. In that in-between time, my go-to styles are Afro puffs in some form. One big puff, two on the sides, or a really fun one: three Afro puffs going straight back like a Mohawk.

Lily posing with her puffs.Kristen L. Pope

One morning, I made sure to perfect Lily’s puffs. I put some edge control on her sides, pulled her beautiful thick hair up and brushed it into three Afro puffs going straight back. I was thrilled with how cute Lily looked. She was pretty impressed as well. We went outside to the front of the house, as we often do to commemorate a well-put-together look, and did a photo shoot. She posed with her puffs and her “Be kind” shirt, as if the hairstyle gave her a powerful alter ego.

At school, I could tell Lily wanted to show off her hair. As she walked to the center of the classroom, where most of her friends were playing, one little boy ran to another classmate, whispered into his ear, and pointed at Lily. He then asked, “Is that a Mohawk?” I replied, “Yes, it is.” He gave a look of annoyance, as if to relay confusion or downright disgust, and ran off to another side of the classroom.

Clocking this microaggression, I leaned over to Lily and whispered in her ear, “Do you like your hair?” She replied, “Yes.” To which I responded, “That’s all that matters.”

I shared what just happened with her teacher, who told me it wasn’t OK and that she would talk to the boy. She then more deliberately commented on how much she loved Lily’s hair.

More than half of Black mothers say their their daughters have experienced hair discrimination as early as age 5, according to a 2019 CROWN Research Study for Girls. Moreover, 66% of Black children attending majority-White schools have faced such treatment, and 86% of Black children have experienced hair discrimination by age 12. The effects can be devastating to a child’s sense of self-worth: The study shows 81% of Black children in mostly White schools say they wish their hair were straight.

Hair is just the beginning. My Lily doesn’t have to face these situations now, but it’s a fact that Black girls bear the weight of their gender and race. A phenomenon known as “adultification bias” exposes them to higher standards and negative stereotypes, according to the Georgetown University report “Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias.” This leads to Black girls being treated more harshly in school and being miscast as hypersexual and aggressive. The report also showed Black girls receive less empathy from adults.

Black girls face higher rates of school suspensions in high school compared with White girls, according to the film “Pushout.” They are twice as likely to receive corporal punishment and four times more likely to be arrested than White girls, according to the film.

Lily's perfect puff photoshoot.Kristen L. Pope

As a mother of a child who happens to be Black, the experience at school that day was infuriating and exhausting, but also an opportunity to encourage Lily in her beautiful presence. That night at home, I told Lily, “People are going to stare at you because you’re beautiful. Some will stare because they’re curious about you. Others will stare because they’re lost for words in how to interact with you. And some will stare because they’re jealous of you. No matter who’s staring, be your best Lily.”

My daughter’s identity is not her hair. But she is the only child in her class who looks and has hair texture and styles like her. When she’s with her friends, most of the time all she sees are her friends, until someone points out a difference. Being different is what makes us special as long as it’s messaged positively. But being made to feel wrong is what brings about shame and insecurity.

I can remember the relaxers, the hot combs, and the flat irons during my childhood, all designed to make my natural hair “behave.” It’s something I am deliberately delaying with Lily until she and I can make the decision together. I want her to love her natural hair and feel confident wearing it.

I never expected I would have to empower my daughter at such a young age. But ultimately, my No. 1 goal and focus is to love, affirm, educate, empower, and advocate for my daughter. My husband and I can’t control what might be said or shared or done to Lily, but we can anchor her so deeply in the greatness of who she is and where she comes from that potential harm doesn’t have the ability to take root.

Kristen L. Pope is an award-winning entrepreneur and journalist, and founder and CEO of Pope Productions Inc. She’s also a multimedia strategist, mom, wife, and engaged citizen.