Black Hair, White Parents

Sesame Street’s famously educational programing has always had a history of inclusivity—showing a diverse spectrum of all races (and monsters) on the screen since it first aired. Recently, in 2010, the show debuted a song, turned viral video, called, “I Love My Hair” encouraging young black girls to embrace hair positivity. In the video, a young black Muppet sings:

Don’t need a trip to the beauty shop,
’cause I love what I got on top.
It’s curly and it’s brown and it’s right up there!
You know what I love? That’s right, my hair!
I really love my hair.
I love my hair. I love my hair

She goes on to rave about all the great things she can do with her hair, like braids, cornrows or just “let it sit in an afro,” and the song quickly gained praise from black communities that were touched by the song’s positive message.

Joey Mazzarino, Sesame Street’s head writer, wrote “I Love My Hair” for his adopted Ethiopian daughter as he noticed her growing dissatisfaction with her hair. She compared herself to her white mother’s long, blonde, straight “princess hair” and her dark skinned, straight haired Barbie dolls and so he wrote this song as a kind of solution to an otherwise deep rooted problem. The song was also later translated into Spanish to encompass Latin@ communities.

While I laud Mazzarino’s efforts to help young black girls love the way they look, I am concerned that the dialogue of black hair in popular media is almost always couched in a dialogue of white (“savior”) adoptive parents helping their black child get in touch with their heritage. Grey’s Anatomy recently approached the issue via Dr. McDreamy–a character famous for his perfect hair–and his adopted daughter Zola. And Orange Is the New Black’s beloved character, Crazy Eyes, gets her signature Bantu knots might very well be the only way her white parents know how to style her hair.Crazy Eyes_Orange Is The New Black

I am not arguing that the visibility of hair politics in the media is bad in any way. But, in my opinion, there’s something about white media makers proclaiming self love to black communities that feels a bit patronizing, especially when society is telling them otherwise, as demonstrated by the recent change in U.S. Army regulations.

Ginetta Candelario in Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity From Museums to Beauty Shops attributes this ignorance to a “segregated upbringing” that feeds into “the novelty of African diaspora hair textures, the racial distinctiveness of black women” (181). There is a lack of education regarding the complexities of black hair in the popular media, and that itself is the problem. But isn’t it also problematic that white stories are capable of creating a more widely visible platform for an inherently black (and latin@) issue? While it is touching that hair continues to become an important plot point in the adoptive family narrative, I don’t know that stories of blended families necessarily inspire a change within black communities to love their hair when they are not afforded the same privileges in society based on hair alone, as Marcia Mitchell brings up. So the question then becomes how might we encourage dialogue and learning across communities while also realizing our own racialized aesthetic privilege?

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