Do Your Baby's Hair!


When a friend told me the gist of this clip, I thought I would write: “This clip reminds me of the benevolent cultural community policing of the sort that Barbara Katz Rothman described in her book about race and adoption, Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption. Rothman, who is a white Jewish adoptive mother and sociologist, writes about a black neighbor who sends for her, saying, ‘Barbara…it’s time,’ in reference to teaching Rothman the proper way to style her black daughter’s hair. Armed with a comb, brush, and a jar of hair grease, Rothman’s neighbor indoctrinates her into the world of black hair.”

Zola’s hair, at least the glimpse of it I got in the clip, didn’t look awful. We, the Black Women’s Brigade of Judge and Jury on the Subject of Children’s Hair, have certainly seen worse. It wasn’t in impeccable condition, but someone had made an attempt.

On any given day, my youngest daughter, who happens to be adopted (and black like me), wouldn’t look much better about the head than little Zola. And yet I can’t even imagine another black woman chastising me—loudly, publicly—about the state of my child’s hair. Dr. Bailey is a fictional character, but her counterparts exist in real-life. They may tsk-tsk about my child’s fuzzy head behind my back—and this has happened at least once that I’m aware of—but I certainly wouldn’t feel obligated to give an accounting for my child’s appearance.

I am a student of my children’s hair, and I can wash, condition, detangle, braid, twist, and make ponytails with the best of them. But things happen, we’re busy, and my personal standard for my kids’ hair is “neat enough.” I know that I can’t “do nothing” to my children’s hair, or there will be hell to pay when I finally get around to detangling it. I do enough such that my girls feel good about their appearance—and my foremothers’ ghosts don’t haunt me. This is not the traditional black mama hair standard, but it’s what has evolved in our family life based on our priorities and how we choose to spend our time.

The above provides some context for my thoughts on the subject. But I would not have said all of that to Dr. Bailey. I would have told Dr. Bailey to mind her business. In my experience, Dr. Shepherd hit the nail on the head: a white person is far more likely to gawk at a white parent-black child pairing than to gawk at a black child’s less-than-perfect hairdo. Methinks Dr. Bailey was voicing her displeasure—and hers alone—at the state of Zola’s hair. And she wouldn’t be the first black woman to concern herself with someone else’s child’s hair, unsolicited.

In addition to Dr. Bailey and Barbara Katz Rothman’s neighbor, there are the countless strangers, store clerks, colleagues, relatives, and friends who don’t hesitate to size up a little black girl’s hair—and make judgments about her mother in the process. And big black girls aren’t spared either. See gossip queen Wendy Williams’ alleged sniping about actress Viola Davis at the Oscars last month. Williams (allegedly) referred to Davis’s short, natural hair style as not “glamorous” or “formal” enough for the occasion.

None of this surprises me. It’s how I was raised. It’s what I’ve had to unlearn. Neither should it surprise any parent of a black child. We must be students of our children’s hair so that other people don’t come along and have the power to make them hate it. We must understand that, yes, they are our children, but they do not exist in a vacuum. We must understand that Angela Davis’s iconic ‘fro wasn’t just cool; it was the embodiment of her revolutionary politics and her middle finger to white beauty standards. We must teach our children to love their hair—and the first step is recognizing that it’s not just hair.

When Americans spend over 80% of their personal grooming dollars—that’s more than $8 billion–on hair care products, it’s naïve at best to say, “It’s just hair.” Even deeper is African-Americans’ unique hair-story –“good” vs. “bad” hair, trend-setting hair, and hair as political statements. When Madam C.J. Walker died at age 51 she was the wealthiest black woman in America and the first entrepreneurial female American millionaire, all from the development and marketing of a popular line of beauty and hair care products for black women. This was in 1919.

It’s not just hair.

Read more in It’s Not Just Hair.

MLJ Adoptions is a Non-Profit, Hague-Accredited adoption service provider located in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Isles. We are passionate about serving children in need.