The problem with “Crazy” Hair Day

by guest blogger Sara Leo 

This week my daughter’s preschool participated in a very common event in elementary schools across the country, “Crazy” Hair Day.

As I pulled my blonde-haired, White, four-year-old daughter’s hair up into about 10 different ponytails scattered haphazardly across her head, I started to feel twinges of anxiety. By the time I picked her up from school, despite the praise she received from her peers and teachers, I was in full-on regret mode. Instead of posting a silly picture of her on Instagram, I knew I needed to sit down with my daughter to talk about it.

The issues with “Crazy” Hair Day are actually fairly complex. First of all, since “Crazy Hair Day” was the official title of the day, I use that wording in this post; however, the word ‘crazy’ has problematic ablest connotations and we, along with many other families, are trying hard to cut it from our vocabulary.

Aside from that, there are a plethora of racial politics related to hair involved in dissecting a day like this; but, for the purpose of this conversation with my daughter, I want to specifically discuss the politics (values, meanings, etc.) attached to Black girls’ hair.

Very simply put, many common ways for White girls to wear their hair on a “Crazy Hair Day” are either a suggestive or direct examples of ways that Black girls wear their hair everyday (such as the segmented ponytails I put on my daughter), thus perpetuating the negative stigma attached to Black hair and further ascribing hegemonic value/normalcy to White hair.

Let me be clear, I am not equating the ‘haphazard’ ponytails that took me less than three minutes to put on my daughter with the types of ponytails or braids that Black girls wear that can take hours of time and energy (and pain!) to put in. The point is that my four-year-old isn’t old enough to make that distinction. She normally wears her hair straight. On “Crazy Hair Day” I put it in a bunch of ponytails. The reason I had anxiety is because I believe what I did there was subtly communicate to her that wearing her hair in several different ponytails is inherently ‘crazy’. I can distinguish what I did to her hair from the very carefully crafted hairstyles that Black girls her age might wear, but she might not be able to.

Our actual conversation spanned a couple of hours and was pretty rocky from time to time due partly to my fumbling and also to my daughter being tired. I therefore can’t recount all of our dialogue exactly, but here is a sample of the general progression and some of the specific things I said.

Me: You know, I want to talk with you a little bit about “Crazy Hair Day.” I’m kind of wishing we had decided not to do it. I think there are some problems with it.

My daughter: Why?

Me: Well, how would you feel if someone called your hair “crazy?” I mean just your hair the way you wear it normally, on a regular day?

My daughter: Um, I don’t know, maybe happy?

Me: Well, what if someone said your hair was weird or strange? I think that’s kind of what we really mean when we say “crazy” sometimes.

My daughter: Oh, then, I think I wouldn’t like it.

Me: Ok, well do you think that any kind of hairstyle should be called “crazy?”

My daughter: No…

Me: So you wore your hair in lots of different ponytails today and that was maybe a little strange for you because you don’t normally wear your hair like that…but is wearing your hair in lots of different ponytails “crazy?” Have you seen other girls wearing their hair like that? (Since there are no Black girls in her preschool class, I referred to her cousin, who is Black, and often wears her hair in segmented braids with beads at the end.)

I kept the above line of questioning going for awhile. We did a Google Image search of Black girls’ hairstyles and showed her different examples and, at one point, we went through and talked about what we admired about each style. She understands that we think all people are valuable and beautiful just as they are, so talking about hair was a natural extension of that.

But I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to talk to her specifically about how White people sometimes treat Black girls because of their hair. So, I referenced a thread I had recently seen on Twitter.

Me: I heard a story recently about a little Black girl. She had hair kind of like this (I showed her a picture from my Google search). And some White girls, who looked like you and had hair like you, told her that her hair was ugly and they told her that she couldn’t be friends with them unless she had straight hair. How do you think that made her feel?

My daughter: Really sad.

Me: Yeah, is that a good way to treat anyone?

My daughter: No, it’s mean!

Me: Yes, and Black girls have beautiful hair just the way it is. They should not have to make their hair long or straight like your hair to feel beautiful or pretty.

We then watched this Sesame Street video (which my daughter had seen), in which Segi, a puppet who is a Black girl, sings about how much she loves her hair and all of the awesome ways she can style it. After it was finished, I asked, “Why do you think Segi sang that song?”

My daughter was unable to form an answer, so I tried to help her understand that sometimes Black girls feel bad about their hair and they wish it was different, so Segi wanted to help Black girls love their hair. I also shared, “Sometimes Black girls feel bad about their hair because White people like you or me say mean or bad things about it.”

Overall our conversation went well, but I did find that it was difficult for her to grasp the impact of wearing her hair in a certain way for “Crazy Hair Day” on other peoples’ feelings. I think this concept is probably even complex for some adults!

This is one of the difficulties of raising race conscious children. Sometimes it’s hard to know what they can and can’t process. And sometimes we will get it wrong. But this conversation opened the door for future conversations. We’re also planning to write a letter to her school together with some suggestions for alternatives to “Crazy Hair Day” for next year.

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Sara Leo is an educator, mother and PhD candidate in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education program at Michigan State University. Her areas of study include media education, public pedagogy, and critical issues of race, gender, and sexuality, particularly as they relate to young children, parents, and the intersection of schooling and society.

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