I don’t have “wash-and-go” hair like the girls in the commercials. Growing up my hair caused me many problems, as I am sure it has for many little girls. But the kind of problems I had were not just that I didn’t have the right bow to wear, or that maybe I didn’t like the way it happened to look that day. No. My hair just didn’t know itself. Junot Diaz’s character Yunior in Drown may have had Africa running through his hair, but I had Africa, Europe, and Quechua (Native American) running through mine – and my hair was just all confused.
When I was younger, family members called me “sambita” because I had curlier hair than my mother and sisters. I had no idea what this term meant at the time. All I knew was that it meant “different” to them and it meant “no one knew how to help me take care of my hair” to me. So for years I would spend my time pouring over magazines like Teen magazine, magazines not meant for girls of color, to figure out ways to straighten my hair to look like the women in my immediate family. “ESTE PELO!” my mother would exclaim trying to get through the African and Native American in my hair – and it all just turned into one ball of a frizzy mess.
Until one day I went to Ecuador. I was 16 years old and it was my first trip back since I was three. There I met more women from my family, more Ecuadorian women. These women didn’t have tight curls – they had frizzy curls like me but they looked healthier. They didn’t have straight hair like my sisters did – their hair was definitely curlier. That in-between state of hair – that mixture of people – evidence of our heritage – was stated plainly in our hair and on our lips. And for the first time, looking at them, I felt normal.
So I asked – “How do you keep your curls? I brush and brush, use water, pull it back at night, pull it up in the morning—I feel like I tried everything and nothing works!”
My cousin looked at me like I was crazy. She said very pointedly – “Stop brushing.”
What?! Could it really have been that simple? Stop brushing?! For years, I saw Marcia Brady brushing her long blonde hair 100 times a day and I thought something was wrong with me!
For years, I hated THE BRUSH. Who knew a brush was a tool for my own oppression!
During that time, although I was racially aware, I was not racially conscious. I was, however, mad that I had this “kind of hair” and that I had to learn this late in the game how to “manage” it. Even the term “managing” seems so oppressive. As we “manage” diversity on our college campuses or corporations or celebrate “difference” rather than discuss the inequalities that those differences represent. At a very micro-level I was learning about the ways women of color have been oppressed for years – through our hair.
A revelation is only the beginning of acceptance. From then on I looked to magazines that were dedicated to women of color – Essence, Ebony – even though I was not a Black woman they were magazines that more closely addressed my issues with hair. Latina magazine popped up in my late teenage years and that helped this mission to destroy THE BRUSH a little more.
Despite all these discoveries, I still had my struggles with hair – all issues of acceptance of course. I went through my hair-straightening stage. When I thought I would be accepted more in college if I had long, straight hair. Then I went through my curly hair stage, when I chopped my hair off and realized the curls bounced back and my hair seemed happy. This stage was really my ‘I don’t care what you think” era. I was more politically active on campus, I was more outspoken, and I didn’t spend money on a brush. A curling iron instead was used to push the European strands of hair to join the rest of the curls.
I can’t say I loved my hair growing up. The tugging, pulling, straightening, moisturizing, moussing, brushing – all of that my hair endured – just to help it finds its place. All because I didn’t feel like I had wash-and-go hair.
Today is a different story. I appreciate my hair now. I can curl it when I want. Straighten it when I want. Both are still long processes but I have learned that this is just my hair. Putting myself in the world where women have similar hair also helped. After all, who can help teach you how to love your African and Native hair – except for other women who have African and Native hair?
Today I don’t hate the brush – that much. I understand now that it is used as one of those oppressive tools – teaching some of us from jump that some of us have Marcia Brady hair and some of us don’t. So when people around me say that children don’t see color – I laugh.
What’s lovely about today is that we no longer just have Marcia Brady to teach us about hair – today we have people like Natasha Tarpley, author of I Love My Hair and Camille Yarbrough’s Cornrows, Lucille Clifton’ poetry and many others. And in following this tradition of race-work, I hope to expand this by adding my own testimony of what it means to be a little Ecuadorian girl with frizzy hair growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – and my mission to use THE BRUSH for race-love and not for race-evil.
There is a lot of race-work to do out there!
PS: I look like the little girl in this video when she wears it up in a ponytail