I’m a little mortified. I did Roo’s hair this morning with his fancy hair product, and scrunched it so it was all cute and curly. And then he fell asleep in the car and woke up with what my Dad describes as “hair akimbo.”
NSG took him into the grocery store, and a black woman approached her and, not unkindly, told her he needed product in his hair.
We’re both embarassed. We’re trying. Clearly we’re still learning.
When we started on the path to transracial adoption, knowing that we would most likely adopt a black or biracial black/white child, we talked to a number of our black friends about it. The question we asked – only of those with whom we have real trust, obviously – was: if you had one piece of advice for white parents adopting a black child, what would it be? The answer, unfailingly, was HAIR.
When Roo was about 2 months old we emailed a picture of him to a bunch of friends. Our friend J., who is black, called us immediately and said: we have to talk. His hair, which we had perceived as baby bedhead, was unacceptable. If she saw us on the street and didn’t know us, she would think we knew nothing about parenting a black child because we didn’t even know how to do his hair.
We were glad she called us out – better a friend than a stranger – and got to work. We’re getting there, and the stuff we put in his hair now is much more expensive than anything either of us has ever put in our own hair (but it has lemongrass in it so I can’t stop smelling his yummy head). Today was bad, even though the woman in the grocery store was nice. I really, really don’t want to be those parents.
I’m in the middle of reading Barbara Katz Rothman’s Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption. One of the things she talks about is how, in the context of a consumer culture, we show value through the kind of money we spend on our children. This goes for pretty much all U.S. parents, regardless of social status – a new outfit for a holiday, karate classes, and so on.
But she makes the case that the way we spend money on our kids is even more loaded when we’re white parents with black children, and again on another level with children who are adopted – since, for a million reasons, we have a cultural perspective that black children are less valuable than white children, and that parents who adopt must be doing so out of generosity and compassion because these children were “unwanted.”
It’s fucked up, right? But I don’t think she’s so off-base. She says that one of the main ways that white parents of black children, and to a lesser extent any adoptive parent, shows the world how much their child really is valued, is through material things like fancy hair products. She has two white children who she gave birth to, and one black child who she adopted. She talks about how her own mother never, ever got on her case about her white children’s appearance, no matter how messy or raggedy they looked, but never let it pass without comment when her adopted daughter was anything less than perfectly groomed because she was scared to death that anyone would ever think the adopted daughter was a charity case. (She doesn’t get into it, but I would think this would also be the case for parents who aren’t automatically seen as being “fit” – like teen moms).
I get what she’s saying. I don’t dress Roo in the morning with the idea that people shouldn’t see him as a charity case, obviously. But of course there’s something reflective on your parenting when your child is neat and clean and in unstained clothing (how the hell does anyone keep their baby’s clothing unstained, by the way?), and then there are all these other layers of being such a conspicuous family.
What do you think?