December 07, 2009

Digging Into the Comments

Firefly must have not been pleased that I wrote about her hair, because she pitched a ginormous hissy fit Saturday morning midway through post-bath hair time. Which is why she spent the day wandering around the house with only the front right side of her hair braided. I pick my battles, people. By Sunday morning she had gotten over it, so there you go.

I wrote that post in the middle of the night, hence the wandering train of thought. I almost didn't publish it because I didn't like that there was no organizing point. But it has been interesting to see how different readers interpret it. Lots of chewy things came up in the comments that I want to talk about. It's too much for one post, so I'll jump in and see how far I get.

For the record, I think hair is important in transracial adoption. Full stop. Being proficient in caring for Firefly's hair--and communicating to her how beautiful we think it is--is a definite piece of what Todd and I see as our transracial parenting responsibilities.

Listen to John Raible, an adult transracial adoptee, give his perspective on the importance of hair care (the camp he refers to is PACT Family Camp):
I’ve watched African American girls come to camp their first time with “jacked up” hair (and damaged self-esteem). After spending an intimate session at the Hair Clinic, these same girls emerge feeling beautiful, with a freshly conditioned scalp and gorgeous new braids. I liken the state of black children’s hair to the proverbial canary in the coalmine, by which I mean that many of us who are transracial adoptees survey the children’s hair to get a sense of where the parents’ heads are at—quite literally—in terms of their attention to African American cultural values and their commitment to instilling racial pride in their children. There’s an in-joke among black and biracial transracial adoptees that we can tell who was raised by white parents just by looking at the hair. It excites me no end to witness head after head of lovingly cared for hair among the young campers. I particularly love to chat with little girls about who braids their hair, and watch as they beam with pride, “My mommy (or daddy) did it.”
Because my own hair (no texture, no curl) is different from my daughter's (textured, tightly curled), I've spent a good deal of time learning about curly hair care. She's not even two yet, so it's not like we're getting super fancy with styles. Not to mention for the good part of her first year she had some truly unfortunate patchy baldness going on. But her hair is healthy and attended to. We make sure it's presentable when we're out. We've gotten good feedback about it from people who know what they're talking about. I wouldn't say I'm proud of those facts; pride doesn't seem like the right response to something as elemental as being able to take care of your child's hair. It would be like being proud that I dress them appropriately; it's a matter of basic parenting. But I am pretty confident we're at least on the right track at this point in practical hair matters, even as we're still learning.

Because my cultural and social experience of hair is different from what my daughter's is and will be, I've also spent time learning more about that. That, to me, is a much more complex and meaty topic than figuring out a basic hair care routine. It's also a much more delicate issue to approach as a white woman. I'm not about to pretend to understand the many interlocking factors that might be involved in an individual black woman's decision about relaxers vs. natural hair, for example. That's not a conversation I can insert myself into. But it's important that I learn about the kinds of conversations that go on. Because I need to to understand the cultural backdrop to the choices we're making for Firefly's hair right now, and what I might be communicating to her and others with those choices.

Look back at the quote up above: the writer isn't encouraged by the parents who are good at hair care simply for the sake of the kids having well-maintained hair. It's because he sees those efforts as indicators of the parents' "attention to African American cultural values and their commitment to instilling racial pride in their children." Those are huge tasks. Neither is possible through hair care alone.

Ask little Firefly, "Who has pretty hair?" and she throws her hands on top of her head and squeals. When I carry her to the mirror to coo over her beautiful face and latest 'do after hair time, she grins and claps at her reflection. That is worth something, even at her young age. But it isn't enough.

I could become an expert in all things black hair, surround her with positive images in books and artwork, learn how to do intricate styles to near-professional quality, and send Firefly out of the house every day for the next dozen years perfectly coiffed.  But if she is never connected to an African-American community, if she has no African-American peers or mentors, if home isn't a place where racism is recognized and discussed, then what good will all that great hair have done? A good portion of transracial parenting happens outside the walls of our home: the social networks we create, the places we choose to live, the ways we help our children process and understand the things that happen to them as they move through life. And those things are a hell of a lot harder to tackle than finding a good leave-in conditioner. When I listen to transracial adoptees' stories, I hear talk about hair, but I also hear a whole lot more about feelings of isolation and a need for safe spaces to explore racial identity. That's why the disconnect I saw among some of the white parents in that particular online discussion group was so striking to me. How do you pat yourself on the back for the hours you've devoted to perfecting cornrows (and talking about them online), but not take time to learn more about the realities of racism in your country?

Next: public comments, hair touching, the styling paradox


luna said...

another excellent post.

Jess said...

I really enjoy these posts.

I think that it's important for ALL kids to feel well cared for and look their best in order to have the best start for good self esteem. Not that it's the most important, but that it IS important.

And you should be proud of it....lots of people CAN'T dress or do their (same race even) kid's hair or dress them appropriately. :(

E said...

So interesting that pretty, looking in the mirror and basing values (self esteem) in looks have are encouraged.
My experiences (I raised a son, 30 years ago, not adopted) so my perspective is very different.
Not criticizing, just noting.

Heather said...

@E - If I were raising a white daughter, I wouldn't be doing it. And it does feel give me pause at times, particularly as a feminist who tries to raise her children within those values. But direct praise is one of the only means we have of countering the constant indirect socialization that will tell her that her specific features (like her hair and skin) aren't beautiful and that her appearance is "other" than "normal." Not countering that message simply isn't an option to me.

We praise other things, of course, and are teaching our kids that their worth (and others') is not based on looks. But we also see letting Firefly know how much we love her African-American features as a crucial part of building her self-esteem as she grows into a biracial woman in America.

cynthia said...

I haven't been online much, but just read the other post. I love it and I love the prose-y way you wrote it, too.

L said...

I am not African American but I am an adoptee with very thick, very curly hair that was very different from my adoptive mother's straight fine hair. My hair was one of our biggest issues of contention for most of my childhood. She simply did not know what to do with it and complained and even cried about my unruly, curls.
I distinctly remember her openly crying once because the cutesy little pink plastic barrettes she had purchased would not clasp into my thick hair.
And don't even get me started on the brushing. My mom didn't know the first thing about brushing, washing or caring for curly hair and she just didn't think it was her place to try.
I don't know if she intended this but her issues with my hair made me extremely self conscious as a little girl. It made me feel like I was letting her down by not being the good straight haired girl she wanted.
It shouldn't be that way. It's just hair, right?
All I'm saying is that people need to be careful about this stuff. My mom is a nice person but man did she give me a hard time about my hair.
I love my curls now but it took me a long time to get there.

The McNulty Family said...

GREAT post by a great mom!


Rebeccah said...

I love this post, and I think your approach is just right (and this is from someone who spent half of college drowning myself in feminist and ethnic studies). The unspoken messages from the media culture machine can have enormous impact. Best to start counterbalancing those messages with positive healthy messages as early as possible.

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