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?


12 Responses to Hair

  1. Lisa V says:

    I totally see this.

    When I take the kids somewhere (a plane, a museum, etc.) where I know they may need extra forgiviness from the adults around them, I am extra careful with their clothes and grooming. It’s harder to be pissed off by a cute kid.

    I am sure a child of color probably attracts that extra attention every day. It’s bullshit, but it’s true.

  2. Julie says:

    I one hundred percent understand and agree with what the author you mentioned said. I KNOW that I spend more money than needed on product and buy J name brand, new clothing so that everyone will see how special I know he is and so that they will understand how valuable I think he is. I’ve thought about it, and yes, it’s messed up, but it’s what I think we have to do.

    If I hadn’t adopted a black child, we’d be store brand and garage sale all the way.

  3. Ah, as the daughter of a teen mom, I totally get what you are talking about. I can remember the stress my mother put into making sure my hair was perfectly parted and smoothly restrained in very tidy pony tails. ALWAYS. She also was sure that our clothing was always immaculately ironed and spotless. I can remember watching her ironing very sharp creases into my jeans when I was about 8, then she ironed my SOCKS.

    She was always very aware that there was judgement on her and tried to make sure we were as close to perfectly presented as possible.

    I know it isn’t the same as transracial adoption, but your mention of teen moms sent me down memory lane.

  4. dawn says:

    We don’t spend more money on Madison’s clothes/hair (for one the Carol’s Daughter just doesn’t work as well as Soft & Precious for her and for two I’m cheap as hell and thrift for name brands so I am snobby about labels — alas — but won’t pay more than three dollars for a dress) but I do spend more TIME on her.

  5. Alison says:

    I love this post . . it makes perfect sense. I never thought about hair being so ‘representative’ of other things. I struggle finding the right balance of product in my own hair – my daughter’s hair (comparitively) is a piece of cake.

    Oxy clean spray = saves clothes I thought I’d have to toss.

  6. FosterMommy says:

    Thank you for reminding me to read BKR’s book. I knew she must have something about transracial adoption at this point, but I forgot to go look.

    Having a boy, we know that we get off a little easier with hair than with a girl (though fostermama would love to have hair to braid). Our friends with a boy, however, got crap for cutting his hair at 8 months old. Apparently it’s a *thing* that you can’t cut a black boy’s hair until he’s one year old. But that’s not a battle I need to fight. Squeak’s hair will not be cut until he’s 1. If ever. We hope to be able to dredlock his hair…now that will provide for hours of fun conversation from various strangers, I’m sure.

    Oh, I’m sounding snarky. Well, I guess I’m snarky about most cultural “norms”, but I certainly do pay attention to how random black strangers might view my son and my relationship with him.

  7. joanna says:

    I think we’re in the same boat..

  8. MichelleL says:

    Ack! I guess I should be glad my daughter’s hair is still so short (she lost all her baby hair and it is just coming in). We bought product for baby’s hair but have yet to use it again while the new stuff grows in. Right now some lotion with shea butter seems to be working best . . .

    AND we dress her in consignment shop clothes (the cost of those designer duds for one or two month or less is just too much) — but compared to lots of kids around here she looks positively “together.” I haven’t had criticism from anyone (other than assumption that she’s a boy if she’s not fully decked out in pink — might be related to the hair issue, too).

    In any case, I do want you to know I sympathize and hang in there — you’ll find the right stuff to use and all will be well. I second the vote for Oxy clean . . .

  9. hmmmm….interesting.

    The reason I have always made hair a priority is that my AA friends drilled it into my head that it was part of their culture. Also, there are so many negative messages to African Americans about their hair (many of which have been unfortunately absorbed by some in the AA community) that I want to innoculate my daughters with the message that their hair is beautiful – JUST LIKE IT IS. Even so, recently when I took my middle daughter to have her hair trimmed for the first time since coming home from Haiti and they flat ironed it first in order to get the ends even, she immediately exclaimed upon seeing it that she wanted her hair that way “every day’.

    One book that was great for me is “It’s All Good Hair” which is actually a hair “how to” book. Some of my AA friends have borrowed it from me!


  10. Sue says:

    I was gently confronted, well not even confronted, just suggested to, by an Indian stylist about oiling my daughter’s scalp, which I had not previously been doing and her hair was starting to thin out from dry scalp. A week after beginning to oil her scalp, I took her back to the stylist to show her the improvement (and it was significant). I really needed the follow up because I so do not one to be one of those people either! I was very grateful for the input. Some people are going to think these things but not say anything, and I far prefer a gentle admonishment to realizing years later that it was often thought but never said or that my daughter somehow bore the brunt of my ignorance.

    But really, what makes us those people is not listening, being defensive, not re-evaluating and changing patterns. You don’t seem to be one of those people and I hope like hell I am not!

    Regarding clothes: it’s a fine line, as with hair. We know our kids are judged above and beyond the “norm,” in either direction, too well dressed or not well dressed enough, And that changes according to setting and class and it is something we will have to teach them without pushing them too far toward rebellion and I have no idea how I will do that. For instance, my daughter loves girlie, suggestive clothing and she is only in kindergarten. I don’t want to shame her, but I don’t want her to get herself shamed either.

  11. DS-L says:

    I can totally get it — I dress my daughter in her absolute finest when we are going to see my MIL because MIL had such issues with our adopting her. I want her to know she is beautiful, valued etc etc etc. In reality, in every day life, she is the grubbiest of my 3 kids — I can’t keep her in clean clothes or god forbid pony tails as she is too busy rolling in the mud (literally) in teh back yard!!

  12. shannon says:

    I don’t leave the back gate for the parking lot unless Nat’s hair is perfectly, freshly done, and her socks match her clothes and her clothes are clean and neat. Some days, I do her hair and/or change her clothes twice or more to make sure she is perfect if there’s the slightest chance a Black mother will see her with me.

    We love Carol’s Daughter hair milk. It works better, smells better than anything else and is notably NOT flamable, which I noticed a cheaper brand was, to my alarm.

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