Well, that is not how our trip to the salon made us feel, not at all. To start with, they were rude. I mean really, extraordinarily rude. We arrived on time, and I went to the woman at the reception desk and said I had a 10am appointment for my daughter.
"We don't have any record of that appointment" she said, not even looking at the appointment book.
"Are you sure?"I asked. "I phoned yesterday".
She stared at me. "No, nothing".
I was about a millimetre from saying kthxbai! and beating a hasty retreat when an older woman walked over to us. She looked at the appointment book, pointed, and said to the younger woman
"Look, the appointment is right here. It's in your handwriting". The first woman shrugged.
"I guess it's my handwriting, but I didn't make that appointment". The older woman spoke sharply to her and told her- you made the appointment, now do the braids. The first woman shrugged again. She looked at Pink's hair.
"It's too short to braid, anyway. I can't braid her hair".
"It's not too short" said the older woman.
"Well, I can't braid it".
The older woman called to a third woman.
"Can you do these braids?" she asked. "I would do them myself, but I have an appointment in half an hour"
"No, I can't" she replied, regretful. "I have an appointment in a few minutes too". The older woman raised her eyebrows.
"You don't," she said. "I have the book in front of me and you don't have anybody coming for two hours". Then all three of them glared at each other for a little while and I wished I were anywhere, anywhere but there. Eventually the older woman said:
"Fine. I'll do it. My next appointment can wait" and she led us over to a chair.
This is probably a good moment to explain a little bit more about why I chose to take Pink to a salon rather than try her first braids at home. I'm pretty confident about the technicalities of braiding; the problem is that she hates having my fingers anywhere near her head. Not while eating, not while on my lap, not while watching a DVD and absolutely no way in the bath. Both Pink and Blue are extreeeeeemely tender-headed. I have no idea how much of it is physical - I'm sure having their hair detangled does hurt - and how much is psychological - they often start to yell well before I actually start detangling. When I tried to put puffs in Pink's hair, she struggled and kicked and yelled and screamed. I've given them medicine and put them struggling into prams and changed their nappies when they were angry about it and had 101 other standard annoyed-kid experiences with them - trust me, their reaction to hair stuff is absolutely and utterly beyond. We do detangle regularly, because that's pretty much compulsory, but trying braids at home was always going to be a disaster. Getting someone else to do it seemed like a good idea - if part of her aversion was psychological, where pain from detangling causes fear of detangling and then fear of detangling causes extreme paranoia about letting mama into the space-helmet-sized-curl-zone-of-personal-space, then getting a new person to do it seemed like a smart way to try to break the cycle.
Well, I can now exclusively reveal that this did not work at all. It went wrong right at the start, as soon as we sat down. The stylist wanted to blow her hair 'out' so she could work with the maximum length. I'm not sure if I've said this before about Pink - she is scared of a lot of stuff. Two things she is particularly scared of: hairdryers and combs. So when she saw a hairdryer coming at her with a comb attached to it she nearly lost her tiny little mind. Before it came anywhere near her head she was climbing up my chest and wailing and trying to escape.
This was the point at which I began to think - okay, this was a REALLY bad idea, and not just because I feel like the white invader in a minority safe space where I'm obviously not welcome. But the stylist had gone out of her way to do this when nobody else would, and I didn't feel like I could just walk out. She blew out her hair. Pink screamed. She did the first parting. The screaming went up ten notches. She started to braid it into cornrows, and the screaming went through the roof. I was clutching Pink and stroking her back. 99% of my brain was taken up with trying to comfort my beloved child, but I will admit the other 1% was thinking Hey! I asked for box braids!
The stylist got down one row, and started the second. Pink was shuddering and wailing and I had no idea what to do. Do I sound unsympathetic? I was not unsympathetic, I was on the edge of tears myself. Her face was covered in snot from crying and suddenly she flipped her whole body across to the other side of my lap. At this, the stylist threw her hands up in the air and said "I can't do this!" She put down her comb. Air rushed back into my lungs. Mentally, I already had Pink back in the pram and we were out the door together. I decided that I would worry about taking out her single cornrow at a later point, like next year. But before I could get up, the first woman - the one who I spoke to at the desk - came over to our chair and said "Okay, I will do it."
She elbowed the older woman out of the way and made a start on the second cornrow. Pink, who had briefly stopped crying, started up again. It's hard to know what to say about cornrows two through eight except that I'm not sure whether holding Pink on my lap through that experience means I should get a medal or get fired completely as a mother. At one point I asked if I could sing to her, because singing has always been how I have calmed her, since she was a tiny tiny thing. The new stylist said okay, and that is how I found myself belting out 'The Lord's My Shepherd' (her favourite) at the top of my lungs in front of all the staff and customers. It calmed her for about a minute, until she realised that singing or not, her head was still being attacked and I gave up. By this point there were a few other customers in the salon. One was not very pleased at my choice of song, saying "I feel like I am back at Sunday School!" But the others were smiling at each other and making nostalgic, sympathetic noises at me, the sort of noises that older mothers make to younger mothers while they wait in fear for their children to get vaccinated. This helped my state of mind- it helped a lot, in fact.
Once she had decided to help us, the young woman was actually pretty good about putting braids onto a writhing, screaming toddler. (I found out why later, when she rang up the price and I saw she had given herself a 50% tip). She took up the singing when I stopped, asking me for Pink's name and then singing 'Piiiiiink, she is a veerrrrryyy nice giiiiiiiirl' over and over again in a voice being both remarkably tuneless and remarkably loud. Eventually - after the longest hour of my my life - she finished. I put my girl - exhausted from screaming, eyes puffy and red - back in her pram. I paid, and didn't quibble about being gouged over price. I stumbled out, legs quivering, as quickly as I could.
And truth be told? I don't even really like the style. I don't think it suits her. I really wanted box braids. But I think it's going to be a long, long, loooooong time before we get to find out whether they suit her any better.
[Part 2, which you can skip if you want to]
And okay, because I can't tell a story without picking away at what everything meant, I have to add that the whole experience was pretty confronting for me on quite a few levels. So many things to think about concerning race and hair and mothering and what's good for kids versus what they want, and then wondering whether some of those good things are really as good as I am assuming. Much of this was not really a big surprise, if difficult to live at the time. But one that was a surprise: after this happened, I had a long conversation with some really good friends at work about what the experience had been like. (They heard the original phone conversation, so they wanted to know how it would all end up). I told them what I've told you, and each person who joined the conversation said 'do you think they were rude to you because you were white?' And I said I didn't know. Then I said that was what made it particularly hard - I had no idea whether the whole thing was about the colour of my skin or whether I had done or said something wrong, or whether the particularly rude woman just had a terrible hangover and didn't want to be at work at all that day. Then a I said how difficult I find it that my children are going to face this situation much more often than me, where they have no idea whether a difficult situation has happened because of their colour. Nothing too monumental there. For a moment I felt like I had been through an experience that would really help me to understand what my children's life would be like.
And then an explosion happened in my brain and I realised - every single person who has asked me about this experience has at least considered that the tension I experienced could be attributed to race. Nobody dismissed me when I wondered about it, I didn't feel like I had to apologise for suggesting it, and most people brought it up on their own. If our Zimbabwean colleague had walked in with a different story about how rude people had been at a different place of business, I doubt that any of us would have been very quick to say 'do you think they were rude to you because you are black?' It wouldn't have been our first thought, if the conversation that he reported hadn't been explicitly about race. And if he had suggested it himself (which he definitely would not have, based on my knowledge of how he operates) we would have considered it but I suspect that at least one of us would have said 'hey, it was probably nothing to do with that, she was probably just tired!' I know that's happened to me a few times when I've wondered out loud about whether my children have been treated a particular way because of their colour. But that didn't happen when the person who might have been treated rudely due to race was me . I shared my brain explosion with my colleagues and we all said 'oooooh' and sat there silently for a little while, pondering. It's taken me until now to sort it out enough in my head to write about it, and I'm sure I still haven't explained it very well.
I know white privilege is real, but it freaked me out a little - okay a lot- to feel that I even get to have white privilege when I'm talking about the fact that I may have experienced racial prejudice. There's something mighty messed up about that.