I don’t know what it is about my grocery store, but I had another incident involving race. This time I was the one struggling with how to phrase the awkward question.
I first spotted them by the shredded cheese. A 40ish white woman pushing a truck/cart that had a dark chocolate squirming 2ish year old. And the poor girl’s hair looked… Off. It was a misshapen, dull colored, tight fro. The woman and I locked eyes, I threw her my warmest smile. I didn’t want her to think I was judging her, a white lady, for adopting a black child.
Some people have a problem with interracial adoption. I don’t. I have a problem with kids who don’t have a home.
The woman smiled back and walked closer to me, trying to peer into Ethan’s car seat. I shimmied my cart closer so she could take a look. (Whenever we go to the store, people are always craning to sneak a peek of him.)
“He’s cute.” She cooed.
“So is she!” I said nodding toward the pair of big chestnut eyes.
We stood there looking at each other, saying nothing. My mind was racing, I know how challenging it is to handle black hair and I know many a white mom who has struggled to manage our kinky locks. More so I know many girls who went to school looking crazy because their white mom couldn’t do their black hair.
And by the looks of this girl’s fro, this lady was struggling too. How do you start that conversation? “Need some advice on your daughter’s hair?” No that won’t work. I thought about giving her the name of my beautician since I’ve seen her gently instruct white moms how to do their brown girl’s hair.
The silence between us was growing uncomfortable, so I flashed her a smile, said “Have a nice day!” and rushed off. Immediately I regretted taking the easy road. I scolded myself thinking here I went and passed up a great opportunity to have a teachable moment to help a little girl. Wimp.
I vowed that if I saw them again, I’d say something. In the frozen food aisle, who should round the corner? The lady and the toddler. If that white man could walk up to me a couple weeks ago and ask me if my son’s father was white or Asian, surely I could find the gumption to ask this woman about her daughter’s hair.
While she looked at frozen veggies, I reached in and grabbed some corn that I didn’t need. I turned to the little girl, “What’s your name?”
The woman said “It’s Grace.”
I opened my mouth to ask her about how she’s handling the hair situation when she blurts out: “I’m just watching her for a few days while her mom… takes a break.”
My mouth slammed shut and I just nodded. I was relieved I hadn’t said anything and even mocked myself for creating a whole adoption backstory in my head.
Then she said: “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“What kind of comb should I be using on her hair?”
And so it began. I walked closer to Grace, asked the white lady if she mind if I touched the fro. When I did, I expected a brillo pad, but it was very moist and soft. Good, she got the moisturizing part right! I demonstrated how to comb out Grace’s hair by sectioning off pieces. We talked about combs (apparently the employees at Sally’s had no clue what to do with the girl’s hair either, so the woman bought four different combs.) I told her that when combing Grace’s hair, it will never feel like it does when the woman combs her own hair. A wave of relief flooded her face. “Oh I didn’t know if I was doing something wrong. I’m afraid her mom will have to cut off all her hair when she comes back.”
I explained that those snags aren’t knots, they’re naps. We talked about texture, moisturizing and how to keep the 2-year-old occupied while doing her hair.
Ethan started to get impatient, so I had to get moving. She thanked me, I wished her luck and told her she’d be fine.
Walking away, I was really glad we talked and then I wondered are these conversations happening more frequently to only me? Or are other brown folks in these predominately white suburbs having more honest discussions as well?
Regardless, I’m thankful for the experiences. My only regret? I wish I’d gotten her name.