Friday, June 18, 2010

I am not my hair

“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war and until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes. And until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there is war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained... now everywhere is war.” ~Haile Selassie I (Popularized by Bob Marley in the song War )

Last week my sister cut her hair. It may not sound like a big deal, but for some black women a decision to "go natural" is the almost the equivalent of a man deciding to have a vasectomy.  Deciding to cut off something precious that we have spent many hours and a LOT of money to nurture is not one to be made quickly. Like many black women I grew up relaxing my hair, straightening it, blowdrying it in curlers and anything else to get it as straight and shiny as possible. In fact, when I was really young I wanted blond hair like my German best friend (of course she wanted curly hair like I had...)! About 3 years ago I decided that I no longer wanted to spend so much time and money on my hair so I began thinking about cutting my hair. It was also my attempt to reclaim my identity - I wasn't interested in being defined by my hair, I wanted a hair cut that made me feel good! I cut my hair and have loved my natural curls ever since! It wasn't until I started looking up different natural hair styles that I realized that "going natural" was such a big deal for many black women. And it wasn't until then that I started to realize just how sheltered I had been growing up in multiculural Toronto.

I spent most of my childhood surrounded by white people. Most of the schools I went to were not very multicultural - there were 3 black girls in my entire grade in high school. But I was lucky. I rarely experienced outright racism or faced discrimination from my teachers and classmates. In fact, for most of my childhood I didn't really think about my race. I knew I was black, and that my parents are Ethiopian immigrants, but I never felt that my race affected me in one way or another. My race was neither a negative or a positive, it was just a part of life.

Recently there was quite a bit of controversy in Toronto about the opening of public Afrocentric elementary schools. Looking back at my education in the Ottawa and Toronto public school systems, I can see why people feel excluded and disconnected from the school curriculum. There was very little African-American or world history in my schools other than the cursory unit on Ancient Egypt or Greek Mythology. In fact the best source of African-American history in my childhood was 'The Cosby Show'. Various episodes covered topics such as the Million Man march, the history of Jazz and Black colleges in the US. The Cosby Show presented a side of African-American history that was rarely seen elsewhere. They promoted artists like Dizzy Gilespie and Michael Jackson, while discussing controversial topics like Apartheid in South Africa and American civil rights, and they did it in such an entertaining, hilarious way that you didn't realize that you were learning so much! In a city like Toronto, where every culture and race is represented, the school curriculum needs to represent the diversity of the students in the classrooms. It's not enough to be aware of and sensitive to each others differences. Every child needs to be proud of their history because where we are from helps to define where we are headed.

I hope that one day we will have found a way to incorporate different histories and cultures into the public school curriculum making it unnecessary to have separate Afrocentric schools. Only through education and awareness will children start to appreciate the things that make them unique, whether it is their hair, their skin, or their accent. I look forward to a day when kids can enjoy learning about each other's cultures and where our differences are celebrated. I look forward to the day when other women will embrace their uniqueness and the beauty that is African-American hair!

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