The problem with “Crazy” Hair Day
This post has been edited from its original which generated largely positive feedback from other White people and critical feedback from people of color. I have learned a lot through this process and I believe I will be a better anti-racist advocate for my daughter because of this experience. While I am grateful to those who learned from the original post, I want to thank those who pushed me to understand my own biases and gaps of knowledge.. I have attempted to revise this post with the goal of critiquing and problematizing the conversation I had with my daughter.
On the last week before summer break, my White four-year-old daughter’s preschool participated in a common event in elementary schools across the country: “Crazy Hair Day.” That morning, I pulled her blonde hair up into about 10 ponytails and sent her on her way to school. As soon as I dropped her off, I started to feel anxiety about what I had done.
My personal issues with “Crazy Hair Day” are numerous. Briefly, 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 many people find it offensive. As such, many are trying hard to delete the word from their vocabulary.
My anxiety about the style I chose for my daughter is related to the potential implicit (and sometimes explicit) racism that I feel a day like this can reinforce. Very simply put, many common ways for White girls to wear their hair on a “Crazy Hair Day” are either suggestive (sometimes exaggerated versions or parodies) or direct examples of ways that Black girls wear their hair everyday. I interpret “Crazy Hair Day” as a day to put your child’s hair in a style that is weird, unusual, silly, or laughable. Though my daughter’s ponytails were not the same as the hairstyles that some Black girls her age might wear, I felt I had implied that wearing her hair in multiple ponytails was “abnormal.” In a society where Black girls have been policed and even punished by schools because of the ways they wear their hair, I’m not comfortable participating in that message.
When I picked my daughter up from preschool and observed other kids, and even teachers, wearing similar styles, I knew I needed to talk to her about it. I chose to focus our conversation, and consequently this post, on Black girls’ hair styles, but boys are not exempt from this (nor is this solely an anti-Black racism issue either; Mohawks come to mind here, as well).
Our actual conversation took place on and off over the course of that afternoon 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 verbatim, but what follows is a sample of the general progression and some of the specific things I said, as well as some critique of my framing and ways I might have said things differently.
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 really “crazy?” Have you seen other girls wearing their hair kind of like that?
I did a Google Image search of Black girls’ hair styles and showed her different examples and, at one point, we went through and talked about what we admired about each style. She was particularly fond of a girl who she noticed had hair styled just like Miss Elaina, one of her favorite characters from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. 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.
In the end, I want her to understand that no one’s hairstyle is “crazy.” But I also want to try to counteract the many messages she will receive from TV, movies, books, ads, etc. that equate straight, blonde hair, like hers, with beauty.
My daughter has very limited experience with advertisements and only a vague exposure to ‘princess culture’ and other things that explicitly reinforce White hegemonic beauty to girls her age. As a result, I did not focus our conversation on these issues that relate to structural racism. In retrospect, I could have used this conversation as an opportunity to introduce these issues, but I did not.
Instead, I continued the conversation by referencing a story I had seen on Twitter that touches more on interpersonal racism (Caveat: I now regret having shared the Twitter story with my daughter. My goal had been to describe everyone’s beauty and to challenge the notion that “White is normal,” but by introducing this story, I unintentionally implied that Black girls feel ashamed of their hair.)
Me: I heard a story recently about a young 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 like theirs. 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. We should celebrate all the different ways that people can wear their hair!
We then watched this Sesame Street video, which she had seen before. In it, Segi, a Black girl puppet, sings about how much she loves her hair and all of the awesome ways she can style it. After it was finished, it was clear that my daughter was tired of talking as she didn’t have much to say in response.
I closed our conversation in a way I also regret. I recalled an article I had read about why the creator of the video had made it and I chose to steer the conversation in that direction. I mentioned 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 girls, or even adults, like you or me say mean or bad things about it.” In reflecting on this conversation, I regret referencing the Twitter story and then framing the video in negative terms. While it is certainly true that the culture of power values White girls’ hair over Black girls’, I did not intend to communicate that Black girls feel bad about or ashamed of their hair.
I wish I had said something like, “I really love this video because it makes me so happy to see all the different and cool ways Segi can style her hair. I’m glad she loves her hair. And I just want you to know that we don’t think any hairstyles or types of hair are weird or strange, even if they might be different from yours.”
During the course of this conversation, I struggled to interpret adult themes and vocabulary around power and privilege in a developmentally appropriate way—and I am conscious that I did not do as well as would have liked. As an educator, I have been comfortable wading into complex, nuanced topics about race with my daughter, but I realize that I have to be open and reflective about my own gaps of knowledge and that I need to return to conversations, like this one, where I might have created new biases while trying to dispel others.
When I revisit this topic, I will also talk about the diversity of Black girls’ hair—just as White people have many different types of hair (straight, curly, etc). Thankfully, I have endless opportunities to talk to my daughter and I am committed to complicate her understandings in the future. I am also committed to keep listening, learning, and trying.
My daughter and I are also planning to write a letter to her school asking them to consider changing “Crazy Hair Day” to something else for next year.
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.