I get my hair cut once a year or so. I’m lazy and I’m cheap, so I don’t place a high priority on going to the barber shop. When I do, it turns into an event, with several hours dedicated to picking the right haircut and the right barber. My son is sometimes with me on these occasions, and he joins in. Amber, my son and I were looking through potential hairstyles, and he showed me this one.
“You can’t get your hair cut like that,” I said to him. “Your hair is too curly.”
“But I want my hair to look like that,” he said. That led to a conversation about how he feels about his appearance. He wants straight, blond hair and lighter skin. He thinks white people are more attractive than black people. He wants to be white.
The last time I heard a child say this, I was eighteen years old. I was sitting at a picnic table near my grandfather’s house reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, coincidentally enough. There was a group of little girls standing near me, going through a Toys R Us sales flyer and looking at princess dolls. As they leafed through the pages, one of the girls said, “I wish I was white.”
Before that, my brother said something similar. I was watching a Michael Jackson concert with both of my brothers and my mother. It was my first exposure to the King of Pop, and I was quite young. I asked my mother, “Who is that white woman singing on the stage?” After my mother explained the racial and gender ambiguity of Michael Jackson, my brother declared, “I want to be white too!” My mother jokingly informed him that if he was white, he couldn’t be a part of our family anymore, because he wouldn’t look like us. “But I’ll be a white friend!” he said.
Google “beauty.” Google “doctor.” Google “rich.” You know what? It makes perfect fucking sense for black children to wish that they were white. Why wouldn’t you choose to be part of that which you’re constantly being told is the best? They say it out loud because they haven’t yet learned that openly acknowledging that the weight of American culture, society and history makes you feel bad about yourself is a treasonous offense; you can only do it in private with your closest friends or in overanalyzed thinkpieces like this.
Unfortunately, we’re caught between the rock and the hard place on this issue. Becoming white is impossible (skin-lightening doesn’t accomplish this either, because they still remember who you used to be and there’s no escaping that), while ending the social conditions that puts whiteness above blackness seems unlikely to ever happen. Instead, I hugged my son and kissed him on the forehead and told him that he’s beautiful, that he’s unique, that all of his features make him who he is, that his curly hair is special. And after he left my arms, he returned to a world which doesn’t agree.