"My Curly Hair is Different"
I have three girls. Three types of curls. Oldest has long flowing curls that are admired and replicated in some of the most beautiful of mixed girl celebs such as Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones) or Thandie Newton.
My youngest has wild, looser curls that have already passed her shoulders. Her hair will pass as ethnically ambiguous allowing her to pass as Indian, Latino, Middle Eastern or even Mediterranean.
My middle daughter has amazingly thick, short curly auburn hair. Her curls are tight and when it grows, it grows up and out. And although hers is unique because it is light in colour, her 4 year old self is already becoming aware that somehow her curls are 'different'.
I was always aware of the straight hair girl envy but within the confines of the curly hair spectrum I thought it was all the same.
I was wrong. Each morning now she insists that I brush her hair straight and braid it so it touches her shoulders, like DD1. When I oblige, she is frustrated at the outcome, pulling at her hair in all directions, unable to articulate her feelings of frustration.
It is different....
It's only recently that she's become more 'aware' of her hair, comparing frantically with her sister to have the same hair dos and frustrated that her's don't turn out the same.
I have to admit, the 'politics' that has engulfed my home over hair has surprised me. Perhaps I was naive, raising 3 girls, looks are bound to be important. But it's taken hold of my 6 year old and now 4 year old with a vengeance.
I'm done emphasising how beautiful my DD1's hair is. She understands it now as it's constantly reiterated by her cousins, her Aunties and even women in the street who stop and comment on how beautiful her hair is. She's grown to love her curls- perhaps because her hair is longer, perhaps because of all the outside admiration or maybe just because she's grown up.
But my middle daughter sees and hears all the comments intended for DD1 with long, loose curls. Just the other day, I met two Mums in the playground whom I knew from school. All of my daughters had their hair out that day and both ladies commented. "Oh I never knew DD2's hair was so ... different. Hers is definitely more Afro-like." That, in itself is not bad but always, I feel these comments are loaded with meaning.
What Can you do?
My struggle has been to acknowledge that her hair is thicker, it is more Afro-like and, it's beautiful. Each day, when we have battles over her hair as she pulls at it and screams in despair, I try to surprise my little one with new hairstyles, showing her the uniqueness and variety her 4a curls can offer. Puffballs, braids, cornrows are among some of these and helpfully, she's usually happy with the outcome.
Just the other day, I was amazed, after showing my girls a Youtube video of a natural curly hair vlogger sharing some hair tips, I could see the positive impact it had in showing my girls that their hair is beautiful. (Check out my fb post here...)
My partner and I both agree that straightening their hair is always on the table. So if they ask, we say they can- but why? And because it's never a 'no', the realisation that actually, they could have straight hair anytime, is liberating.
Truthfully, though what has had the most impact is a book called, 'Penny and the Magic Puffballs' by Alonda Williams whose experience wearing her hair up in puffballs gave her magical powers. For DD2, because her sisters can't wear their hair up in these puffballs, it offers her something unique and special that's just hers- putting a positive spin on the fact that her hair is different.
Books can be magical in so many ways but particularly in reflecting the image or experience of a child when it comes to hair or appearance. The list below is not exhaustive but it's a start to getting your biracial kids on the right track to embracing their curls. From children who just plain don't want curly hair to others who are embarrassed to leave it natural and still others who wondered why it was so... different.
These books have been liberating for my girls. I would encourage you to grab yourself a few to have handy when your kids need reassurance that different is good.
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Questions Asked of Parents of Mixed Race Kids
After realising her staring was bordering on uncomfortable, the stranger sitting at the bus stop beside us smiled and asked, "Are they all yours?"
Out of insecurity I answered quickly, without hesitation. "Yes!, they're all mine." I often feel the stares and see the eyes that (sometimes openly) question whether me and my kids are related.
I can't say it doesn't bother me. It makes me insecure. Particularly because I've been asked it 4 times in one week. I wonder, do parents of non-mixed kids get asked this? What makes this woman doubt our relationship?
Is it not the fact that two of them are climbing all over me; the fact that they all have similar features if you take away the skin colour; the fact that they call me Mama?!!
My patience and understanding of this question has started to wear thin as I've tried not to react to it and give those asking the benefit of the doubt. I get the curiosity, I get that perhaps it's just because they're a cute bunch of kids and people like to make conversation.
But while my children are oblivious to it now, there will come a time when they will start asking me, 'why does everyone ask whether we are yours? Aren't we??'
Whether they are my biological children or not, (and they are, nobody can take that away from me- the nine months of carrying each one and the 1 year of feeding, changing and growing a newborn baby, plus the next 2, 4 and 6 years of cuddling, soothing, protecting and playing with my child) that one question, loaded with ignorance is tremendously powerful in its power to reduce our relationship to carer/ nanny or whatever else is implied.
I wonder, why, in this day and age, people feel that it's ok to ask this question or, even worse, that they assume based solely on the fact that a family has different skin colour? There are so many diverse families out there and so many new shows, books and programmes depicting diverse families, I wonder how people can be presumptuous about what is 'normal'.
It bothers me because it's about me and my family. The relationships I hold dearest to my soul. I know I'll need to have some conversations with my daughters about why and how people might ask this and I'll need to rehearse my own response because my patience is wearing thin. When the world stops asking the questions, I'll stop writing about it.
For more from Mixed.Up.Mama, read Is Interracial Marriage Unfair for Our Children?
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The other day my husband of 7 years asked me 'do you identify as black?' His question was in response to an moment me and my girls had experienced earlier that day. I'd felt defensive and self-conscious while walking through the English countryside and being asked (multiple times) whether we 'belonged' there or... "are you lost????" definitely made me feel 'other'. I knew it was too subtle to call it racism but it definitely felt uncomfortable and something I knew I wouldn't have experienced if I was on my own.
The topic of racial fluidity has been raised several times in the last couple of years. Recently, Paris Jackson called herself black through her relationship with her tenuously 'biological' Dad Michael. And of course the controversial Rachel Dolezal, who has called for black identity to be 'fluid' and non-binary in the same way gender is. With more questions being raised about how identity is formed and racial constructs that lie behind it, the question whether it is possible to identify as black through one's relationships has intrigued me.
I am part of a multiracial family, the majority of whom are black, or who will be viewed as black by society. Apart from my daughters and my husband, I am the only white face you see in my family. So, not to feel any sense of identity by virtue of osmosis or relationship would be impossible. Or, at least for me.
I have heard of other spouses who have non-white partners who become sensitive to the subtle racism that their partners feel on a daily basis. The wake-up to white bias is shocking and infuriating when it comes to the ones you love.
The first time it happened was upon entering a jewellery shop early on in our relationship. Soon enough I noticed a security guard as well as the shop floor assistant following hubby closely while he perused the rings. I, on the other hand, was not even noticed. Or, shall I say, after a few minutes, they did offer to help me but completely ignored hubby-to-be apart from the stares. I felt defensive and angered as though it were happening to me.
The experience rocked my understanding of our world. Yes I knew racism existed. I wasn't that naive but when you experience it and you become the object of it through your partnership (that was later on), you start to identify with it.
Since then, my children and I have felt the oh-so-subtle effects of middle class racism. The stares, the indignant looks that you may not belong in 'this' park- nothing major but enough to waken me up to the some of the realities of being non-white.
So yes, I guess in some ways I do identify as black. I still have white privilege and I'm not naive as to think I know exactly what it is to walk in the shoes of a black person. But by virtue of my relationship. Because my family is black. Because I am part of a black family. And because my identity is multi- layered, my identity as a mother of mixed race kids and as the wife of a Nigerian man is intertwined.Read more
Appearing on the radio last week to talk about mixed race issues, I realised the most topical question people wanted to discuss is actually the intersection of culture in an interracial relationship. (And just to clarify, being mixed race and multicultural do not necessarily go hand in hand).
In my case, they do. My husband is from Nigeria. I am half-English, half Iranian and I grew up in Canada. So cultural differences play a big part. As does race.
Jenny, the host of BBC's Women's Hour host last week asked a number of questions about how my husband and I work out cultural clashes and how our multiple backgrounds may cause confusion in our children.
A minority of internet trolls caught onto this and criticised our choice to 'interbreed' as they put it and put our children unhelpfully into a perpetual state of confusion.
It made me think. Is this true? While I didn't want to give any troll the value of my consideration, I did wonder:
Are we doing a disservice to our children by marrying outside of our culture or race?
Indeed, there were definitely times growing up where I was confused being half Persian and half English. The question, "where are you from?" often caught me off guard. And other times where, appearing at an Iranian gathering, I longed to speak the language better, to 'look' more Persian and to legitimately say, yes I am Iranian. But I always felt unsure or not 'legit' enough- whatever that meant.
On the other hand, laying claim to solely my Canadian identity also felt an uneasy relationship, as if I was ignoring the parts of me that were Iranian and mixed and which I knew made me 'different' somehow.
How is it Different Today than When We Were Growing Up?
Today being mixed represents a plethora of experiences. When Tiger Woods spoke out in the late 90's calling himself "Cablinasian", the world took notice. Referring to his "mix of half Asian (Chinese and Thai), one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American and one-eighth Dutch, he’d adopted the term as a way of honouring his mother Kultida (of Thai, Chinese and Dutch ancestry) as well as respecting all aspects of his cultural and racial heritage."
Since then, dozens of celebrities have spoken out about their experiences being mixed including actress Meghan Markle, recently featured in ElleUk talking about her identity as a biracial woman and currently dating Prince Harry. Although her mixed race background has, even in this day and age, caused ripples in the aristocratic 'white' circles that define the British class system, it's not made enough headlines to deter Prince Harry from his new romance.
Today, being mixed race or multicultural represents so much more than it did back in my day. Back in the 80's, people didn't talk about being mixed. You were either black or white, Canadian or 'other'. Today, while being mixed can also still be confusing, it also means one person's own experience can embody the essence of globalisation- diversity, diplomacy, multiculturalism, immigration, tolerance and equity.
My husband and I teach our children about all of their experiences, backgrounds and histories. We celebrate a multitude of festivals- including ones that are not our own- and practice traditions that draw from the best of our childhoods. It means our children are confident about who they are and where they come from. When they perform a traditional greeting for their grandparents just before tucking into Iranian rice and stew, I know we've done ok. They are not 'confused' but instead proud that they can call many different countries 'home'.
We've Come a Long Way from the Old School Way of Thinking
So, 'interbreeding'- as my friends the internet trolls accused my husband and I- yes, admittedly may not be as easy as marrying the next Dick who grew up next door. But today it represents so much more. We've come a long way from the old school thinking that one must marry within their race. Experience and exposure has done a lot to help that along. Sure, there are challenges but I'm happy in the knowledge that my children are not confused, but 'enriched'.
Have we done them a disservice? No, rather I would think they will grow up confident and openminded. And perhaps by the time they do, this question will not even be worth considering.Read more
It’s become popular and, indeed, a must in most primary schools and nurseries worldwide to have some sort of diversity woven into the curriculum. From black dolls to books featuring kids in wheelchairs, you shouldn’t have to look too far to find diversity in the classroom.
My daughter has now entered primary school in inner city London- a much more ‘diverse’ school in terms of its student population. And yet, sometimes I feel their nod to diversity is just a box-ticking exercise. When it came to a superhero theme in her first year, visiting ‘heroes’ from the community including a local policeman, a vicar and a doctor were all white and male. Really? I thought. When asked about it, my daughter said “I’m not a superhero, that’s for boys”.
When it comes to teaching, perhaps the odd nod in the direction of diversity in the classroom is sufficient but if we’re talking about understanding and making a difference… we need more. Because we are a multicultural family living in a diverse society, valuing and understanding difference is not only part of our being. It is essential.
But just because we as a family wear our diversity on our sleeve, why shouldn’t other families understand it in the same way? Children should know that difference is not bad… it is interesting and it is worth learning about...