‘Little Racist’ Pebbles: When Your 5 Year Old Daughter Is Ashamed of Her Afro

Eva Luna showing her dress for Kindergarten class.
Eva Luna showing her dress for Kindergarten class.

Before leaving for Kindergarten today, I lovingly lathered my 5 year old’s light fluffy afro with some Shea nut oil and olive oil like I always do– and with a hint of Geranium oil (because of its anti-lice qualities). After our regular routine, I then fluffed up her afro. She immediately told me that she does not like when I make it fluffier because the kids in her class make fun of her hair for looking funny. I know it was bound to happen, but still, it really broke my heart to hear her say that– that very same thing I heard has a child. Me and her little sister also have afros and we don’t straighten our hair. I’ve always taught her to love her hair and that it’s beautiful. However, she attends a school in which most of the kids have straight hair (either naturally or treated). I’d say It’s about 68% white and 20% Asian/Asian American. At 5 years old, some of these kids in her class have already been taught anti-Blackness. I’m not looking too deep or making this up. I can’t imagine any one of these children making fun of a child for having straight hair. Now, how do I talk about this to a school community that collectively think they are NOT racist or consciously anti-Black? Anti-Blackness is the core of the USA white supremacist racial caste system. Intentional or unconscious, most folk who have spent a fair amount of time here will be taught to ‘love’ what is closest to ‘whiteness’ and despise what is closest to ‘Blackness’ . They will teach their children this as well. The funny thing is, if I bring this subject up of ‘Negrophobia’ , ‘anti-blackness’ or even systemic racism in Albany CA (which I have already using NextDoor), there is immediate defensiveness from non-Black folk who seem to know better about race and discrimination than the few Black people living in Albany (sigh). I know I should not be surprised, but still, was hoping not to have to deal with this with my daughter; was hoping this would be done and buried during my generation as a child [in an all white school district]. (I remember countless morning burning my neck by mistake to thermally straighten my hair as a tween/teen because of the internalized hate I had about my natural afro, fueled by white peers who were relentlessly cruel about my hair if it ever ended up transitioning back into an afro– usually due to rain or humidity in the air that day, despite me straightening it that morning).

What other things will Eva Luna ‘learn’ in this new school community that teaches anti-Blackness? Have children already said negative things about her mommy ? I become very enraged when my observations are dismissed and that I’m told I’m worrying too much about ‘nothing’.

My daughter feeling ‘bad’ about her Black hair is the result of what many would think is ‘just little racist’ action by very young children…but the problem is that this is not ‘little’ at all. This indoctrination starts even before these children enter Elementary school– as I’ve witnessed many times, nursery school aged children talking about, though not conscious of it, white supremacist hetero-normative notions of beauty as if it’s simply ‘normal’) . Most adults aren’t engaged in squashing that behavior immediately– either because they don’t think it’s ‘serious’ or because they don’t have the critical race literacy skills to understand that it’s the ‘little racist’ behavioral patterns (intentional or not) that create ‘big’ racist/racial consequences 1 year, 10 years, 100 years down the road. If there is no intervention now, it becomes a catastrophic avalanche by the time these kids are adults themselves.  It starts off as a supposedly ‘little harmless’ pebble rolling down that snow covered mountain…and before you know it, entire communities at the bottom are devastated by an avalanche accumulated from those ‘harmless’ little pebbles. But that little pebble that started it all is buried with that community, undetectable; those at the top ‘confused’ what may have caused the devastation. I also want to note that it’s not just non-Black people who feel that afros are ‘ugly’. I’ve met plenty of Black identified people who have internalized white supremacist notions of beauty and have colorist and anti-Afro perceptions of ‘beauty’. (We also can’t forget the recent battle that Black students went through at South African prestigious Pretoria school to have the right to wear their hair in its natural state vs. being forced to straighten it. However, Albany CA is very different from S. Africa and I don’t want to say it’s the same either).

I’m glad when my husband heard about what she said this morning, he told her to tell him what child or children made fun of her fluffy afro and that he’ll talk to the teacher this morning (since he is the one who brings them to school). I also think it’s interesting to point out that when visiting my parents house this past August in Lebanon CT (4% Black), my husband (who is White and German) asked my mom(Black) about how she tackled systemic racism in the white school system that we grew up in and how he can make sure his children aren’t being subjected to racist treatment. I sat there listening to my mom talk for about 30 minutes about how you have to constantly fight for your kids because of the white supremacy bound up in the educational school system. I couldn’t believe we had to have this conversation 30+ years later and it was really painful re-hearing all the examples she shared with him (from the speech therapist asking if my brother has a speech impediment “because he is Black” to certain teachers being very angry that I took home nearly all the academic awards one year because they thought these awards should have been given to white students). My mother understood the avalanches that these actions would create if she didn’t intervene and just let teachers and students think these were simply ‘little’ things (Looking at my mom, folk wonder where I got my, I just can’t keep my mouth shut about injustices, attitude! Well, now you know! LOL) 

A few months ago, while we were riding in our mini-van, my Eva Luna attempted to use a fine tooth comb that her grandmother from Germany gave her that was part of a ‘beauty box’ play-set [clearly made for children with straight fine hair]. After 10 seconds of trying to get it through her tightly coiled hair, she threw the comb on the ground in frustration and exclaimed, “What is the point of this comb!?” I tried to explain that the comb was made by people who aren’t mindful enough to know that not everyone has straight hair.  It then dawned on me that it would be so awesome to do a project that is a vegan beauty box for children with very curly/afro hair like her: (1) an afro pick (2) a wide tooth comb (3) Shea butter (4) manual of different ways to style their hair (5) other types of soothing oils and (6) beautiful photos of children with afros who have styled their hair in creative ways. Of course being distracted with 3 little kids, pregnant with #4, and attempting to find housing for months, I forgot about this idea I had. But after this morning, I want to put it into full effect. I want it to be a beauty box for any child with tight curls/afro, as I don’t like beauty boxes that assume those using it should only be cisgender girls (Who else is sick of seeing beauty sets labeled ‘For Girls’ on it?)

What are your thoughts?

Update March 24, 2017

My daughter’s teacher handled the situation very well. She checked in with me constantly about the matter after speaking to those bothering my daughter. She also didn’t dismiss my concerns about conscious or unconscious anti-Blackness, so I appreciate that very much. Since then, Eva Luna has not been bullied about her hair.

(Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen 2016)
(Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen 2016)

About Dr. A. Breeze Harper

Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a senior diversity and inclusion strategist for Critical Diversity Solutions, a seasoned speaker, and author of books and articles related to critical race feminism, intersectional anti-racism, and ethical consumption. As a writer, she is best know for as the creator and editor of the groundbreaking anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books 2010). Dr. Harper has been invited to deliver many keynote addresses and lectures at universities and conferences throughout North America. In 2015, her lecture circuit focused on the analysis of food and whiteness in her book Scars and on “Gs Up Hoes Down:” Black Masculinity, Veganism, and Ethical Consumption (The Remix)which explored how key Black vegan men use hip-hop methods to create “race-conscious” and decolonizing approaches to vegan philosophies. In 2016, she collaborated with Oakland’s FoodFirst’s Executive Director Dr. Eric Holt-Gimenez to write the backgrounder Dismantling Racism in the Food System, which kicked off FoodFirst’s series on systemic racism within the food system

Dr. Harper is the founder of the Sistah Vegan Project which has put on several ground-breaking conferences with emphasis on intersection of racialized consciousness, anti-racism, and ethical consumption (i.e., veganism, animal rights, Fair Trade). Last year she organized the highly successful conference The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter which can be downloaded.

Dr. Harper’s most recently published book, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England (Sense Publishers 2014) interrogates how systems of oppression and power impact the life of the only Black teenager living in an all white and working class rural New England town. Her current 2016 lecture circuit focuses on excerpts from her latest book in progress, Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches: A Critical Race Feminist’s Journey Through ‘Post-Racial’ Ethical Foodscape which will be released in 2017, along with the second Sistah Vegan project anthology The Praxis of Justice in an Era of Black Lives MatterIn tandem with these book projects, she is well-known for her talks and workshops about “Uprooting White Fragility in the Ethical Foodscape” and “Intersectional Anti-Racism Activism.”

In the spring of 2016, Dr. Harper was nominated as the Vice Presidential nominee for the Humane Party— the only vegan political party in the USA with focus on human and non-human animals.



13 thoughts on “‘Little Racist’ Pebbles: When Your 5 Year Old Daughter Is Ashamed of Her Afro

  1. The funny thing is, i felt that way as a child to so my mom pressed my hair. I wore my hair pressed and permed until i was in my 20’s when the natural part of my being took over and i now proudly sport my locs, am a happy vegan, use only natures natural items on my skin, and love love love being me. Ive not once thought of when my hair was straightened or the few times that i was teased. It wasnt many so i dont have that engrained scar or memory that you seem to remember as a child. So…..my question is, whats wrong with straightening your daughters hair so she does feel included, doesnt have to defend herself hourly at school, doesnt have to come home crying saying this person and that person are teasing her, and is just able to feel happy and joy like most 5 year olds and beyond should be feeling at this age. Its tough, every generation, to be the kid thats different. The parents, in making a stance because now that we are older, know better and try to do better, dont realize that its the child that has to endure this for 6 hrs after being dropped off at school and not having anyone there to fight their battles. It makes for a tough childhood that, if endured long enough, produces internal insecurities and scars that can sometimes take half of a lifetime to overcome and sometimes never to overcome. I raised 2 daughters, while i had my locs and had transitioned to the me that i love to be, but they resisted. They wanted to fit in. They wanted to have fun. They didnt understand my blackness stand. So, i decided to let them be the jovial, intelligent, carefree, eager to learn and explore little girls, and have faith that what i was still teaching and displaying, which was too a part of them, evolve and grow as they evolved and grew, Just as it did me. And you know what? It did. 🙂 Thank you for all that you do, teach, and share. Its a refreshing blessing.

  2. I like your idea for the vegan beauty box. Your post reminds of me of a conversation I had yesterday with my eight-year-old daughter. She pointed out the lack of people of color in the video games she was interested in. It was something that stood out to her. I told her that the dominant culture makes items with themselves in mind, and if we want anything different, we will have to do the same and not expect someone else to make things for us. I’ve brought her up to love her features, hair, and natural beauty. It’s not easy when so many expect us to conform to their idea of what is acceptable.

  3. I’m sorry your daughter is experiencing this bullying at such a young age =[ I think a lot of school bullying has to do with picking out things about people that are different from the normal they are used to. If the diversity of the school represents the diversity of your neighborhood I would assume that many of these kids and parents do not see many people with textured hair. You daughter may be the first person with textured hair the kids may have ever seen. And the kids are not yet at an internet age where they can see the diverse landscape of the world from their computer screen.

    In dealing with the parents I, personally, would not start by calling the children racist because in my opinion that is bound to cause problems and create boundaries between you and them. I would instead maybe work with PTA and/or teachers to get them to schedule an in class session where the kids can learn about all of the different types of hair humans can have and how they differ but also how they are made of the same things. They can also learn the science behind how hair presents as soon as it grows out of the scalp and what triggers this in the body.

    If that happens, then the kids might even start to see your daughter’s hair as unique and special because she is the only one in their class with that texture and style.

    In terms of your daughters preference its hard because of course she is going to see the Beauty Standards that exist. I don’t think anyone can escape from that. I would recommend showing her all the awesome women (and men) who wear their hair natural (which I am sure you already do). When I was young my favorite person in the world was Mel B from the Spice Girls and she wore her hair natural for many years. I even had a barbie of her with natural hair and I would cary that doll around with me all the time.



    1. I love the science lesson idea! 😀

      It can also show the parents that the more scientific approach (knowing the facts about the variety of human bodies) and the more geeky approach (judging girls according to how much they resemble Japanese schoolgirl cartoon characters) are so not always the same thing.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. Growing up as a girl/woman before my gender transition, I never learned to love my curls until well into adulthood. My mother (who is black; my father is white) put my hair in braids when I was a child, then started straightening it when I entered middle school. Fortunately she didn’t use the hot comb much, but I remember the burn and horrible smell from the few times she did, and I was regularly subjected to chemical relaxers. It wasn’t until my 30s that I learned how to take care of my naturally curly hair properly. I wrote about my “black hairstory” here: http://funcrunch.org/blog/2015/08/05/my-black-hairstory/

    Thank you so much for wanting to create a gender-neutral hair kit! The book I read that changed up my hair care routine, “Curly Girl”, is very gendered, which is a shame. It’s also written by a white woman, and more geared (at least in the first edition that I have) toward people with looser curls rather than Afros; I’m about a “3c” on the curl scale. But I learned a lot from it, including to use conditioner instead of shampoo to wash, and to never use a brush or fine-tooth comb.

    I hope Eva Luna learns to love her beautiful hair just the way it is! She has a great Mom for a role model.

  5. The beauty box/kit sounds like a brilliant idea! Maybe Eva Luna can work with you to develop it? 🙂 Her hair looks beautiful and I hope you manage to get through to the school; it sounds very frustrating :/

  6. Your daughter is lovely! And I think your beauty box idea is fabulous!

    Little girls always want to look like their friends. It’s hard to be the odd one out. Last year my granddaughter was the only white child in her class, and she was not happy with her hair. She didn’t want to be different. No little kid does. That’s normal.

    What isn’t normal, or shouldn’t be, is bullying and meanness. I’m with your husband about saying something. I don’t think small children are intrinsically racist or evil, but most parents don’t know to provide proper guidance. You’re right about the pebble. Nip it now while it’s still small. Just be sure to use the right tool. Don’t go after a pebble with a sledgehammer. ?

  7. That hair beauty box sounds awesome! 😀

    As for the racism, that sucks! >:(

    Also, when I was a kid I spent a lot of time in geek culture. Some white-majority branches of geek culture in the U.S. actually have Japanese supremacism instead of white supremacism (basically believing the stereotypes about Asians and being all “fewer social skills? less body hair? next best thing to a robot!!!!”).

    Ï would not be surprised if a few of these pebbles come from *that* direction, and get dismissed in the name of “I want him/her to be the next Steve Jobs/Elon Musk!!!” and “but geeks and bullies are opposite so it can’t be bullying!!!” >:(

  8. I so resonate with this reflection about the racial caste system in so many schools. We are sadly seeing the same issues at my son’s school where, despite the Kindergarten class being over 50% “kids of color,” these very same dynamics are at play- from black kids getting singled out and bullied with a bumbling colorblind response from the school; to watching african american kids turn into “special needs” kids with “behavioral problems” over developmentally normal behaviors that white kids don’t get penalized for. The pervasive problems of neoliberalism is killing us all. I sometimes find white Trump supporting people refreshing because at least their white supremacy is obvious and out in the open.

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