MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Today, we're going to talk about a video that is sparking a firestorm of cultural debate, and no, we're not talking about a music video with half-naked girls shaking it. We're talking about a video recently posted on YouTube of what is, for many people, a mundane, even pleasant, ritual: a woman combing a child's hair.
But in this video, a woman, and we don't know if it's the child's mother or not, is brutally ripping through the child's naturally curly hair, and all the while, the little girl is pulling away and screaming as the woman curses her, and the unseen videographer laughs.
Now, we're going to play a short clip, and we have to warn you: It is not easy to listen to, let alone to watch. So here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
Unidentified Woman #1: Get over here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
BEEP: Move your (BEEP).
Unidentified Child: No.
MARTIN: Now, some online viewers were so disturbed by this that they have even started their own investigations, trying to trace the little girl and the woman so that they could file abuse charges with authorities, but this has prompted a great deal of debate online and a lot of soul-searching among African-Americans.
Hair is a tricky issue, it always has been, but even after all these years of emphasis on black self-awareness and celebration of black aesthetics, is hair grooming a painful, even brutal, experience for too many young women, or do some young children not know how to act? So here to talk about all this is Teresa Wilz. She's a senior culture writer for The Root, an online magazine, and she recently published a piece about this video. Also with us with us Susan Peterkin-Bishop, the owner of Jaha Hair Studio in Maryland. She specializes in natural hair care and styling. And regular TELL ME MORE parenting Dani Tucker. Welcome ladies, moms, thank you for joining us.
TERESA WILZ: Thank you.
SUSAN PETERKIN: Thanks for having us.
DANI TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Teresa, first I wanted to ask you: How did you hear about this video? You wrote a piece about this for The Root. How did you hear about it?
WILZ: Surfing the net and visiting naturallycurly.com, which is a Web site I've gone to to try to figure out what to do with my hair, and there was just this really impassioned debate on the site with people weighing in, talking about whether or not this was abuse or not abuse, and what I found was interesting was that a number of white women were also posting and saying that they thought it was abuse and that it was triggering their own memories of growing up and having their curly hair kind of brushed into submission and everything. So I thought that was different, that you had women of different races weighing in.
MARTIN: There were some people who didn't think it was abuse.
WILZ: Absolutely. They did not see it as abuse. They just saw it as a little girl who had a little too much attitude and just needed to sit down and get her hair brushed.
MARTIN: Have we ever figured out who these folks are?
WILZ: No, no. They've nailed it down, it's somewhere in Detroit. The mother has a blog; the daughter had a blog.
MARTIN: It is a mother? We do think that is the mother?
WILZ: Well, the caregiver, the caregiver. We don't know who she is, although...
MARTIN: We do think the videographer is the girl's sister, correct?
WILZ: Well, she said my little sis in one of the postings, so, I mean, but it could be a foster-child situation. I mean, you don't...
MARTIN: I want to ask each of you, Susan and Dani, what this brings up for you. Susan?
PETERKIN: When I first saw the video, I couldn't watch the whole thing all the way through. I had to stop and watch it again because my personal opinion, that was abusive. I'm used to seeing little girls coming into my salon and crying to get their hair done because it does hurt, but what I don't see is the pleasure that I seem to see on the female's face.
That's the thing that really disturbed me, and there is no empathy for this child, you know. Because when the children come into the salon, you know, I tell them straight up, you know what? It's going to hurt, but not for long, just to get, you know, those kinks out of your hair. It's going to hurt a little bit, and I try to hold their hands and try to make it as pleasant as possible.
MARTIN: Dani, what about you? What do you think?
TUCKER: Oh, well, I thought it was far from abuse, and I put it out on my Facebook. You know, I have 500 friends on Facebook, and all the moms that responded, none of them said abuse. Some of them said that she was too rough, and what I did notice, that the people who understood and sympathized with the mom were people who have to go through it like I had to with Imani, you know, I mean...
MARTIN: You have a daughter.
TUCKER: I have a daughter who was tender-headed, just like this young girl, and had a hair full of thick hair, and as this young lady, like she's about eight or nine, and when Imani was like that, I mean, it was - it would have been abusive, I guess, what I was doing, combing her hair.
Now, I'm sorry if I looked a little too heavy-handed, but that wasn't my intention, to hurt my child. My intention was to get her hair done so we could get on to the next step. And most of the people, like one of the mothers said, everyone is commenting about it being abusive. You've never done it. You know, even one of the dads weighed in. They said you do this once a week with this child and realize how much drama and how - you know, like he would tell his daughter. It's not that bad. Sit down and get your hair done. And you know, you may think she was a little rough you know or the comments that she made.
That's not in my opinion, but what would they think if this young girl has to see her mother removed from her because she was abused for doing her hair? That I think is a stretch. It may be your opinion that she's too rough, but have you thought about what would happen if you did push abuse charges and this little girl had to see...
MARTIN: Well her...
TUCKER: ...her mother go through this because she was doing her hair and put it on YouTube?
MARTIN: Well, maybe it's indicative of something else, as opposed to just hair. I mean that, the question for me is not just the hair pulling because my daughter cries sometimes when we have to do her hair and it's not fun. But I don't see using the F word. I don't see cursing her.
TUCKER: I think...
MARTIN: And frankly, there's also the commentary. At one point the caregiver, whoever the adult woman is, is saying well, I have to do this so you'll be pretty.
WILZ: Get these F bomb naps...
PETERKIN: Get these naps out of your hair...
MARTIN: Naps. Get these naps...
PETERKIN: ...so you can be somebody.
MARTIN: ...so you can be somebody is something that, I don't know.
PETERKIN: To me...
MARTIN: Susan, you deal with this a lot.
PETERKIN: Yeah. To me...
MARTIN: So it's different textures of hair. In fact, I've seen, I just want to disclose that I do come to your salon. I see all different kinds of textures of hair being worked on in your salon and there are some times that little girls cry because their hair has not been combed in a while...
MARTIN: ...and it becomes very very tangled and...
PETERKIN: Yes. And what I come up against is I know, to me, it's just a matter of ignorance. I mean I see it all throughout, you know, 20-something years that I've been in the business. At first I was really upset with mothers and caregivers, but then I realized they just did not know, so then I set out to really give them that knowledge.
MARTIN: Have you ever spoken to anyone about something that she said to a child?
PETERKIN: I was doing a book signing with Michele Collison, who wrote "It's All Good Hair" for kids and we were in Philadelphia. And a mother came up to me, and you could see she's a caring mom, and she came to me and she put her hand on her child's head, and she said what do I do with this hair, it's so nappy? And when she started talking, the little girl held her head down and her eyes went down. And all I could see was this little girl hearing her mother, who was supposed to love her, talk about her as her hair was just the most negative thing in the whole world.
And I know the mother wasn't trying to be, you know, because she loves her child. And the first thing I did, I asked the little girl to sit aside. I'll be right with you and I pulled the mother aside. I said you don't know this, but every time you talk like that in front of your daughter, you're putting her down. You're not making her feel good about herself and her hair. I said you are the person who has to always lift her up and let her feel good about her hair.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the much viewed viral video of a young black girl screaming and crying as she gets her hair done.
Our guests are regular Moms contributor Dani Tucker, hairstylist Susan Peterkin-Bishop and writer Teresa Wilz of the online journal theRoot.com. Teresa wrote about this video and all the commentary that has ensued.
You know, I have to tell you, this is a very emotional discussion for all of us here. I think we're all - it's interesting we're all kind of trying to maintain our decorum here. But the fact is that there's tears in all of our eyes, and I think Teresa, that I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear just what a big deal this is in this day and age, and I just wonder why do you think that is?
WILZ: I just think the roots are, no pun intended, are just so deep and that you know it's so tied to that legacy. I mean it's clichÃ©, it feels clichÃ© to even talk about this because I feel like it's territory we've just tread over again, and again, and again. But it has its roots in slavery. It has its roots in being compared to a more Westernized ideal of beauty and straight hair being the norm and what's considered pretty and it's just loaded. And I think if you're black and a woman in America, no matter what your texture of hair, you don't come away unscathed by it. You got some baggage around it.
MARTIN: Dani, what do you think?
TUCKER: I draw the line when you start to judge a mother. This is a five-minute video. And from looking at it five minutes we've got the abuse, we've got, you know I don't agree with the way she talked to her child, but again, that's her child. You know? And I don't think she broke a law. I hope she never posts a video again because there are people out there that's not going to understand.
I know a lot of mothers like her. You know I hear my neighbor's daughter getting their hair combed and they go for it. But I know she loves her daughter. Now you know, I may share things with her and I do share things with her, but ultimately it's her right the way she raises her child. I liken it to the people who wouldn't give their child a blood transfusion because it's religious. I didn't totally agree with that, but that's their child and that's their right. So where do we draw the line with that, that's my question?
MARTIN: Hmm. Susan, what do you think?
PETERKIN: I think we draw the line when you see, yes a child might've had you know might've been high-strung and as you said, a little girl with attitude - because I've seen those in my salon also - but to me if you really watch the video, she kept combing the same spot. It was not like she's trying to get to different places. It was the same spot. And she wasn't combing through the hair. She was like hitting the child in the head and pulling the hair all over and ripping out her hair.
That's what I looked at, because, of course, because I'm used to seeing children react a certain way. Because I have scars on my hand where I've held children's hand and say okay, calm down. Their fingernails clamp into my skin so hard because it hurt when we're combing the hair out. You know what I mean? So I know it hurts. But there has to be a line drawn. I mean to me, that was just abusive hair care.
MARTIN: How does it ever change, though, if we don't talk about it? Dani, I take your point and I'm really grateful to you for being willing to make it.
MARTIN: But if we think that this is emblematic of a sense of lack of self regard, a self-hatred, as if we hate our hair and so we'll do anything to tame it.
MARTIN: What changes this? What makes this different? I mean and okay, it did not escape notice that the woman in the video is wearing a weave.
MARTIN: And I'm not, I hope I'm not morally judging someone by the way they choose to wear their hair, but it does have to be said and I don't use chemicals in my hair. I don't straighten my hair. So and so you do have to wonder whether it's because this woman has embraced a certain aesthetic and the only thing she considers acceptable is this aesthetic, which happens not to be hers or the typical African-American natural aesthetic.
Dani, what should we just not discuss it? What is your thought here?
TUCKER: No. We discuss it just like we're doing and I'm glad we're having a discussion. But one thing we're dealing with is that this is habit, years and years of habit. And you want to come and - some people want to say okay, well you should do it this way. Well, why should I do it your way? What's wrong with my way? So I think that - it's the approach that I'm questioning.
Let's not approach it this way, because a lot of times when we do we approach it with a judgment and that puts people on the standoff. It's well, who are you to tell me? And who are you? That you know, a lot of comments I got from Facebook. Your mamma did my hair like that. My mother used to beat me in the head with the brush. It wasn't abuse then, you know, but then she would tell me how it happened for her. So it's hard to break that cycle with so many years of it, you know?
MARTIN: This is Teresa.
WILZ: I hear what you're saying.
WILZ: What I reacted to the most was the language and watching the face of the hair brusher, for lack of a better description...
WILZ: ...because she seemed to be enjoying inflicting pain on the little girl.
TUCKER: I honestly don't think this mother was enjoying the pain.
TUCKER: It's a chore for us, because did you see how she was getting down with her? They were moving like they were synchronized swimmers. They do this every time she get her hair done. Could you tell? You know but that's the way they see it. They don't see that perspective until you give it to them.
MARTIN: Teresa, why don't you give us a final thought about hair. Where do you think the conversation's going on this?
WILZ: I don't know. I don't know. I mean because I feel sometimes that talking about it just is like picking at a scab.
WILZ: We don't seem to be getting better from talking about it. But I also I look at my niece who's eight and has hair a lot like that little girl's and she loves her hair and she's growing up in suburbs of Cincinnati. She's one of very few little black girls and the little white girls in the neighborhood want hair like Nina's.
WILZ: They want braids like hers so that cheers me up a lot. That gives me some hope.
MARTIN: Teresa Wilz is a senior culture writer for theRoot, the online magazine. Susan Peterkin-Bishop is the owner of Jaha Hair Studio in Silver Spring, Maryland which specializes in natural hair care and styling. And Dani Tucker is a TELL ME MORE parenting regular and they all joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Ladies, moms, thank you so much.
TUCKER: Thank you.
WILZ: Thank you.
PETERKIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: On a practical note, hair stylist and salon owner Susan Peterkin-Bishop also offers some tips on hair care for black children and others with textured hair. For that information, you can head to our website. Just go to the new NPR.org, look for the programs tab and click on TELL ME MORE.