It's Not Just Hair


It should come as no surprise that when race, parenting (always a touchy subject), and hair intersect, as is the case with some transracial adoptions, a child’s hair becomes a conversation piece. But I’ve observed a certain shock, defensiveness or shame in the face of this reality. I sense that these parents (usually mothers) aren’t just or even primarily taken aback by the hubris of complete strangers; they are mostly shocked by the fact that hair matters. For their children’s sake, though, I gently suggest that they not be shocked. I gently suggest that they read Barbara Katz Rothman on the subject:

“In the doing of hair, one does race. Race is constructed, celebrated, despaired of, enjoyed, feared. Hair is a test to be passed or failed, a trial to be endured, an intimate moment to be shared. In memoirs of those raised within the African-American community and those raised by white people, hair and the doing of hair emerges as a focal point for the discussion and for the experience of race…White people—especially but not exclusively those of us raising black children—need to know these stories, need to know the politics and history of hair…

“It’s only hair when white kids from Liverpool let it get shaggy…when white kids in New York spike it with gel…[but with the advent of the Afro when] Black people (and now I do want that capitalized, now I am talking about a cultural, political movement) refused to straighten their hair, it wasn’t ‘only hair.’ It was about refusing to bring your body into line with a white standard.”

Closer to home, a white mom’s messy ponytail on a quick run to the grocery store doesn’t register. But a little black girl’s messy ponytail or a little black boy’s matted and misshapen Afro is a sign of poor grooming, made all the more noticeable when the child is black or biracial and the parent is white. Which means I generally get a pass when I have my fuzzy-headed black kid out in public; a white parent might not.

Rothman made the case for what she called “community-appropriate standards” of hair care for black children. At first, like many white mothers of black children she loved the "wild curls," but eventually (with her neighbor’s help) she tamed those curls and made sure her daughter’s hair looked like the other black girls’ hair in the kindergarten class: “The cornrows, the beads, the head of ‘little balls,’ the star-shaped parts . . . the zigzag rows."

Later on in Weaving a Family, Rothman quotes a white mother who feels that the racial composition of her family is irrelevant and who is just "a little bit tired of being held up as a poster child for race relations." When I reviewed Weaving a Family, I described it as “armor for when that mother’s black child gets just a little bit tired of going out to battle unarmed.” We are raising our children to change the world, yes, but also to be capable and thriving in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Rothman writes:

"If we want to conquer the racial divisions of America, we should not be asking little children to lead us. You don’t send children places; you have to take them by the hand. If your child is going to grow up without the privileges of whiteness, you’d best learn what those are."

Of course, it’s easy for me to nod my head at what Rothman is saying. I’m writing from the perspective of a black woman who grew up in a predominantly black community and who knows first-hand that it is indeed a privilege, one I didn’t have, to think hair is just hair. I’ve been in the black hair salon when the harried white adoptive mom or biological mom of a black or biracial child came in for a consultation. And I’ve been there to hear the tut-tuts and see the eye rolling after that mom left: “They don’t know what to do with our hair.” I’ve read Nappy Hair and I Love My Hair to my children, desperate for the self-acceptance messages to stick. I’ve also had to consider for myself which of the “community-appropriate” hair care standards my children and I would embrace, and which we would leave aside. My youngest child’s Afro puff –cornrow combination and my oldest child’s dreadlocks aren’t embraced by everyone in The Community.

I couldn’t in good conscience, let my child go out in public with her hair completely uncared for and expect her to shrug off stares and possible ridicule by chalking it up to a failure of imagination on the part of others. This is a question of good grooming. Sure, my child’s hair is not anyone’s business. But while I am raising independent thinkers, I’m not raising my kids to live on the margins of society. Any parent who makes the effort to groom their own hair should be willing to do the same for their child, even if it requires time and a pretty steep learning curve. Failure to do so suggests…well, laziness, but worse, a sort of othering or exoticism of the child—those “wild” curls Barbara Katz Rothman learned to get over—and that’s not a win for any child.

I don’t know if Dr. Shepherd or his wife ever “did” their baby’s hair to Dr. Bailey’s liking. My hope is that they would do Zola’s hair—and nurture the rest of her–such that she never feels as though she has mistakes growing out of her scalp.

If you have more questions feel free to join us for Afro-Caribbean Hair & Skin Care – April 29th 4-6pm via skype.

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.