Thoughts on Being Exotic


Growing up it was my white straight haired mother who cared for my hair. Or I should say tried to care for my hair. She had no idea what she was doing and neither did the black people around us or the white hair dressers she asked for advice could help her. She did the best she could I guess. My hair was the first experience she had with caring for African/curly/natural hair. In the 1980's there was no YouTube or blogs. And let's be honest, there wasn't a lot of products for natural hair, specially in a place like Sweden.

As a grown up you have a tendency to look back on your childhood and realize that some things look different when you look at them from your adult point of view. 

I read a Facebook discussion the other day where a white mother wrote something about her brown skinned child's hair. Some people in this group found the mother's wording quite offensive and pointed out how she was exotifing her child. Not long after this Valerie Kyeyune Backström (blogger at Rummet among other things) brought up how we (mixed people) don't speak about how our white parents or relatives exotify us (brown skinned children); is this an attempt to protect them? This made me think of why I don't speak about my experience with this.


I don't have a lot of vivid memories from my childhood, but I do remember how my mom didn't speak positively in regards to my hair. Maybe not a surprise since she didn't know how to care for it. 
A few years ago I had a "hair touching experience" with my mom. All of the sudden she reaches out and touched my hair at the same time saying "I just have to feel it." Now for some having their mom touch their hair is normal, but to me it was strange. My mom isn't a very "touchy feely" kind of person so to me this experience was odd. Mostly because I didn't know how to feel. She did what so many random people have done in the past; touched my hair without asking and without any reason other than that she felt like it. When things like these happen to me I don't know how to react; I'm 32 years old and I still get taken back by situations like these. And it leaves me with a feeling of not being completely entitled to my own body. A feeling that my body can be touched whenever someone feels like it. 
My hair is a huge part of my identity and very much an essential part of my body. I care for my hair more than say my breasts, but when a stranger touches my breast the feeling is very much the same as my hair; I feel violated. I feel insulted. I feel exotified. 

Thinking back on my childhood I think the way my mother treated my hair and how she at times exotified my features has definitely left it's marks. It has everything to do with how I deal with the being exotified still and the racism I face today as an adult woman. She didn't always have to say things in a negative way for me to feel bad. Sometimes it was just her pointing out a feature of my body as an observation or in comparison to her body or other white peoples bodies. Or even a compliment could leave me feeling like "the other." I think it's important to speak about these things, because if we don't it will never change. 

If you are a white mother to a brown skinned child reading this please take a step back and take a moment to be honest with yourself; how do you speak to your child? How do you speak about your child? How do you view your child? What do you say to your child about their hair? How do you work to strengthen your child's positive self-image? 

Sometime in an attempt to compliment your child you may actually be exotifying your child and making him or her feel uncomfortable. Children cannot speak for themselves and sometimes don't realize what is happening until much later. As parents we sometimes have to admit to ourselves that we are part of the problem. But that also means that we can be part of the solution. 

A few years ago I watched the movie Black Venus - if you haven't seen it watch it. And it was scary and horrible to be able to relate to something so terrible. Not only because it is based on true events, but because black women still deal with this typ of objectification and exotification today. 

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