Aunty Suzie Hates My Hair: Mixed-Race Boys and Their Quest for Hair Love
Written by: Sabrina Razack
The topic of hair receives a lot of attention in every Caribbean diasporic community. The focus, similarly with other cultures, lies primarily in girls and young women. Men and boys unfairly move more freely with their choices of hairstyles, (in)frequency of haircuts, and embody a privilege of not having to really comprehend women’s endemic struggles with their hair, and quite frankly, unrealistic aesthetic standards.
My son is mixed race. Both my parent’s heritage is Indo-Caribbean from Trinidad while my husband's parental lineage is Afro-Jamaican.
Growing up, my son adopted a very complicated relationship with his hair.
Right out of the womb, my son had soft curly hair. From three-years-old onwards his curls and texture became thicker and then the questions started. “Mama, why is my hair like this? Why don’t I have hair like Daddy or you?” In the shower, Kamal used to pat down the top of his head wishing his curls would permanently straighten.
Once Kamal started school, he kept his hair traditionally short thereby removing the possibility of curls emerging that might necessitate ‘uncomfortable’ conversations. One of the colonial legacies, tirelessly discussed, is our community’s obsession with aligning with whiteness. This of course includes changing our hair to ‘fit in.’ Once Kamal hit puberty everything changed. Aside from the lovely mood swings, eating literally everything in the fridge and constantly evaluating our parenting decisions, Kamal finally began to embrace his hair.
He was refusing to cut his ‘head top’ (the lingo of my son) and I witnessed an evolution of acceptance and finally a sense of belonging. For Kamal, social media (my love-hate relationship for IG will not be captured in this post) provided ubiquitous images of Black men in sports and entertainment that cleaved open new ideas for racial and gender expression.
One of the dominant symbols of Blackness in adolescents and men in the context of hair is braids.
My son is heavily into rap music and many of his idols showcase beautiful braids, intricate designs, accessories, and proudly display a ‘fresh braid up’ that he would constantly bring to my attention. I was somewhat new to this scene. My husband never braided his hair and I grew up in Kitchener where there was little if any exposure to Black men and braids (that I noticed). Despite living in Toronto for over 20 years, immersed in the diasporic Caribbean community, my knowledge of braids came from TV, my girlfriends and...social media. Nothing close to home.
As Kamal’s hair started to grow and he adamantly insisted that he needed braids, I was hesitant. Being an educator in the system, I felt that he would be discriminated against or wrongfully perceived. My husband was also against the idea of him getting braids and quite vocal about his position that donning braids in school was simply out of the question. This was four years ago.
In Caribbean diasporic communities we often have many Aunties and Uncles growing up and you truly believed everyone was related. A chosen family friend on my side of the family, Aunt Suzie made her distaste for Kamal’s decision to grow his hair known to him, myself, and my entire family. Aunt Suzie was extremely close to us, more specifically me, as she was in my life since I was in diapers. I began discussing with her, my husband, sister, friends and the ever-reliable internet to give me some direction on allowing my son to wear braids.
During this time, my husband’s family also came to visit and their reaction to Kamal’s hair was, for the most part, antithetical to my extended family’s position. They marvelled at his hair, praised his decision to want braids and embraced this newfound relationship with his appearance. I spoke to Donovan’s cousin’s wife who also had two boys who revealed that she permits her boys hair to be braided and does it sometimes herself.
This was a turning point for my thinking.
I had multiple conversations with my husband and was now convinced that if we did not allow Kamal to braid his hair, we were contributing to denying his agency in creating a sense of individuality. But what was of more consequence was the strong message that we were falling prey to a narrative that attached braids to a stereotypical, prejudiced idea of Blackness. Eventually, my husband and I reached a consensus and Kamal got his first braid up. I was encouraged to see both sides of my family relinquishing in his new ‘look.’ Aunt Suzie thought the braids looked ‘clean’ and was also in approval. I was pleased by their acceptance yet felt guilty about being relieved.
Over the years, Kamal eased into the two states of having braids and leaving his hair out. The number of products (yes, we are continuously looking for new ones) and routine to keep Kamal’s curls in places at times seems harder than a grade 12 calculus test. Aunty Suzie has spoken out about the ‘largeness’ of Kamal’s curls, this also includes several private chats with me, insisting that I must cut his hair to look more ‘kept’ and ‘manageable’.
Kamal is a teenager and fiercely protective of his ability to make decisions around his clothes, styles and…hair.
During the early lockdown, in April, I overheard Kamal and his younger brother speaking. The topic of hair came up and then I heard Kamal say, “Aunty Suzie hates my hair.” I froze. At that moment, I felt like I failed as a mother. Failed to shield my son from the harshness of the world. Simultaneously, I also felt anger toward Aunt Suzie and an older generation that was hardened. The racial history in Trinidad and strife between ‘Afros’ and ‘Indos’ persist and I was once again having to think about how to deal with this situation.
No Barber Shop was open, and I was not about to let anyone in my house for a haircut – so what to do? Was saying anything to her going to make her change? How long was Kamal feeling this way? Why on earth didn’t I say anything to stop Aunt Suzie’s harmful comments? At this point, Kamal was receiving a lot of attention for his hair, thankfully more compliments than scrutiny. We were about to have a bubble birthday party for my younger son and both their ‘headtops’ would probably be ‘unpresentable’ in Aunt Suzie’s opinion. I made a mental note to have the conversation with Aunt Suzie to simply remind her of the circumstances. The larger issue concerning Kamal’s feelings I rationalized delaying for a bit longer.
The birthday arrived and we had some drive by greetings and then Aunt Suzie pulled up. So kind, generous and loving, and the boys were of course excited to see her. We were outside and then I heard “Whoa, Kamal look at your hair, it’s so big, you can’t even get it cut eh?” My whole body shrank. I forgot (or sub/consciously avoided) to have the damn conversation. As we wrapped up, I shared my sentiments with my husband and then sent Aunt Suzie a text explaining what Kamal said about her feelings towards his hair.
She was shocked and profusely apologized.
Aunt Suzie was painfully unaware of how her words impacted my son. We eventually had the difficult dialogue and she revealed that her ideas around hair were antiquated and willingly conceded to change.
Since then, Aunt Suzie has even tried her braiding skills on Kamal’s hair and evolved to being a champion for his hairstyle desires (which admittedly is exhausting). I too have slowly accepted the transitioning phases of hairstyles and looks that are truly outside of the Canadian norm. I recognize that my learning journey of Kamal’s hair crusades is far from over. I think I have acquired a little bit more patience and compassion as well, both for my son and others, who might not be as exposed or knowledgeable on complex issues related to hair expression. I am thankful Kamal, for now, is able to negotiate and take some ownership in crafting his place in this world.