We were waiting for the bus when Tanisha approached me in her puffy pink jacket with tears streaming down her face. I asked her what was wrong and her mouth opened and closed several times in silent sobs before she finally spoke. “Joshua said I have a weave,” she said.
Joshua, who was right behind her waiting for my reaction, responded with second grade indignation, “But Ms. E, she does have a weave.” And she did.
I kept my arm around Tanisha and looking down at the hundreds of tiny, intricate braids tied up with a pink and white clip, I wondered what to do. Tanisha was calming down under my arm and wiping her eyes. Perhaps my comforting would be enough? Did I need to say anything? I knew I did. And Joshua did too as he was still standing by, waiting for my reaction.
This was certainly not the worst thing I had heard kids say. In the past, I’ve ignored comments, stifled a laugh (totally inappropriate, I know!) and caused what I later felt was too big of a scene. I felt I owed it to Tanisha to say something, but I didn’t want to risk embarrassing her and making her more of a spectacle.
Finally, with Tanisha still under my arm, I told Joshua it was not nice to talk about other people like that. He argued with me again that it was true, but I told him it didn’t matter. If people don’t like it and it is hurting their feelings, then it is not ok to talk about it. I went on to tell Tanisha how beautiful her braids were while Joshua watched me and stood silent.
As teachers, we constantly second guess ourselves. We expect ourselves to know the correct response to any situation, and days later wonder if we did the right thing. I’m still not entirely sure I handled the situation appropriately. I think I found balance in defending and supporting Tanisha, while correcting but not condemning Joshua. But still I wonder, should I have addressed the cultural issue? Explained to Joshua that black women often wear braids or weaves in their hair? Was this a missed teachable moment?
What did Tanisha, an African American girl, think of me, a white woman talking about her hair? Am I reading too much into this? Probably. Yet, on my visit to the Early Childhood Special Ed class at Herbert Elementary, on the west side of Chicago, many of the little girls—all African American—asked if they could touch my hair.
Tanisha was not too young to understand. Joshua, on the other hand, may or may not have completely grasped the situation. I’m sure he knew his comments would upset her, but I’m not sure he understood why. No girl wants to hear her hair looks anything other than beautiful. I hope Joshua learns that before he starts dating. I hope Tanisha remembers I told her she was pretty. I think that is the most important.