My daughter hadn’t even seen “Frozen,” but she was obsessed. Her preschool friends knew the songs, so she knew the songs. At home, we watched PBS and the Williams sisters, but it didn’t matter. Elsa, with those thick braids and bad ombre, was everywhere. We could be in line at the grocery store and Elsa would stare down at me from a balloon: “There’s a storm brewing inside you, Taylor,” she’d say. “Let it go.”
Now, I get preschool obsessions. I’m a child of the ’80s, so, naturally, mine was “ThunderCats.” I mean, supernatural feral cats? No-brainer. But last summer, I realized my daughter’s love for Elsa was different. Even damaging. Maybe it was evidence of self-hate, I worried. When we were shopping for lunch boxes in Target, she, of course, wanted the “Frozen” bag. Even though there weren’t a lot of colorful options, I pushed her a bit:
“Why don’t we find one with a brown girl on it?” I asked.
“I don’t like brown girls!”
“But you’re a brown girl,” I shot back.
“Still, I don’t like them.”
My daughter is strong. She’s often defiant. But it’s usually about pizza vs. tacos or sandals vs. sneakers. Not black vs. white. I felt broken, like I’d failed her.
This exchange in Target came on the heels of another hard moment. My daughter had received a sticker book with both black and white dolls in it. She dressed the blond dolls first and told me how beautiful they were. I asked about the others. Some of the brown girls were kinda pretty, she shrugged. They didn’t have nice hair. A rock lodged in my throat as I watched the famous Doll Test of the 1940s replay itself through my own daughter, in my own living room, in 2016.
Where, as a mother, did I drop the ball? I worked hard for this not to happen. I ran to the American studies department in college, where I studied lynchings and sit-ins and the white gaze. And I didn’t just write papers that questioned this great America. I lived it. I was the token black girl in high school — suitable as a class president but not as a prom date in my small white town. I breathed the rejection, the self-hate, and I thought that my own experiences, coupled with years of study, could make a difference.
But here I am, a mother of three. And I’m looking at the huge, hazel-brown eyes and tightly-coiled hair of my first child. The hair that won’t hang down her back like Elsa’s but that college students love to compliment. But natural aesthetics aren’t “in” yet for my daughter. Her self-love can’t be buttressed by a T-shirt or sassy roommates who look like her.
Did I mistake my awakening for hers? Did I think that loving blackness could be coded into her DNA, passed down just like athletic ability or creativity?
And then there’s environment. My daughter, since she could stand, has watched me flat iron my hair in the mirror. Because straight hair is easier for me to control. Because I’m not putting chemicals in it, so it’s still natural. Because I’m a mom, and I don’t have time to figure out my curl pattern. “Mommy, can you flatten my hair?” she asked one day. She was 2, maybe 3. Eventually, I did. I straightened one little piece, and she gloried in it. Ran her fingers though it, tucked it behind her ear. It became the good hair. The preferred hair. And she asked again and again for it.
I’m not blond, my skin not as fair, but all this time, I wonder if I have been my daughter’s Elsa. I don’t think straightening my hair is wrong, but, for her, it carries so much weight.
So I stopped straightening my hair and bought more products and raged under my breath, because I have a 6-month-old baby, and at that stage in life, wearing your hair curly is not easy when you don’t even have time to shave your armpits.
I still don’t have the answer. When I push my daughter too far, she rebels. “I hate brown princesses,” she’ll say. And “My skin is the color of a peach crayon.” Girrrrl, I wanna tell her, don’t believe the hype. Those peach crayons wanna be burnt sienna.
But there is something to quietly doing. Silently guiding. I’ve worn my hair curly for the past three months. Now, she says, “My hair is curly like yours!” Or she points to her baby sister’s tuft and says: “Look! We both have curls!”
The other day, when I got frustrated and straightened my hair anyway, she looked at me and then herself in the mirror and said, “I hate my hair. I just hate it.” Nothing was worth that look on her face.
I’d much rather it work another, easier way. Like through genetics or osmosis. But I’m learning that just because you read James Baldwin in college and couldn’t sleep until you finished Ellison’s “Invisible Man” doesn’t mean your baby girl won’t despise her hair or skin. It doesn’t mean she — or we — will escape the world and its effect on us. She’ll have to fight for her freedom. Maybe we’ll fight some of those battles together. Maybe this is just a start.
Taylor Harris is a writer and stay-at-home mom living in Ashburn, Va. Her work has been featured in Narratively, The Toast, McSweeney’s, Babble, NPR and other publications. She also blogs at tayloraharris.com.
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