The white woman next to me leans over conspiratorially and points at Firefly. "Her hair is that cute stage now, but just wait until she gets older. Then you have to deal with all the straighteners. Actually, it's the bill for the straightener that's the problem!"
She laughs. I take one step sideways.
Two girls make their way toward us from across the room. They look like they are in junior high, maybe early high school. Earlier someone told me they were sisters. One is fair, her long blonde hair hanging in a long diagonal across her forehead. The other has light brown skin, her overly processed hair awkwardly pushed across her face in an approximation of her sister's.
After they reach us, the mother nudges the dark-haired girl. "I was telling her that the little girl's hair is cute now like yours was, but just wait until she gets older and it all goes crazy," she chuckles.
Her daughter winces.
My daughter's hair reaches out to touch the sky. Tended gently, it fluffs into a soft halo around her face. Caress each strand and tiny, perfect corkscrews appear beneath your fingertips. It is beautiful.
I'm lurking at an online discussion group made up of white adoptive mothers of black children. The central topic is their children's hair, the care and styling of. A lot of them seem to know what they're talking about. They field questions from newbies, swap techniques for braiding and styling. I pick up some good recommendations.
They devote enormous amounts of time to researching products, elaborate styles, and methods. When their daughters enjoy their hair, they are proud. They are thrilled to find books and dolls that reflect their daughters' features. It is the group's unofficial mantra that by sending them out with perfect hair they will instill in them a sense of racial pride. It will make it okay to be a brown face in a house of white. The hours spent on their hair are a show of their love.
Some admit that their children live in areas in which they almost never see another black person outside their household. One mother shares a story on her blog of her son's first day living as a young black man in America, a twelve-year old West African boy plopped into an almost exclusively white rural community. He got a "fun surprise," she says, when a police officer friend of hers "playfully" handcuffed him and put him in the back of his squad car. She finds this hilarious. The commenters do, too.
When one mother says she's troubled that people often touch her child's hair without permission and wonders if she's being oversensitive, only one or two recognize the violation the touching is. Most brush off any racial overtones. Many say the hair petting is a compliment. "I don't see why we need to drag race into everything," another poster snits.
It's as if people plucked out "learn to care for your adopted child's hair"--the one thing that perhaps felt safe, felt like something they could take hold of and learn and master--and made it out to be the secret key to transracial parenting. No historical, sociological, or relational context. I can't help but think that they're missing the point.
My son's hair lies smooth and flat around his head, save for the interminable cowlick at the crown. When it's time for a haircut the front pieces sneak down to tickle his eyebrows, the sides creep out over the tops of his ears. It shines like gold seen through the hazy filter of a dream. It is beautiful.
No stranger has ever, that I recall, struck up a conversation about my son's hair outside of a salon.
In the time Firefly has been in our family, only a few (mostly white) strangers have ever mentioned her race. Dozens and dozens (almost always white) strangers have commented on her hair. Frankly, her hair is quite ordinary amongst the curly-haired babies of the world. I imagine most of them exclaim, "Look at her hair!" when what they want to say is "Look, she's not white!"
People write essays judging famous white adoptive parents' ability to raise black children because their hair isn't neatly braided in public. Other people write essays telling them to shut up already.
I read and take mental notes, but it's already feeling like familiar territory. I know I'm being watched, too.
And I'm watching.
We're at a museum in Big City when I spot a white woman with two teenage African-American girls. They look like a family. The girls' hair is lovely, done up in way that has the air of casual simplicity but actually takes quite a bit of skill to pull off.
The mother notices us. I see her eyes travel the familiar path strangers take: Firefly's face, to me, to Todd and Puppy, back to Firefly. Her eyes go one step further, lingering for a moment on Firefly's hair in its twists. She gives me the upward chin nod of recognition.
During that same day while we are still in Big City, two more white mothers of black daughters stop to ask me questions about Firefly's hair.
In the mornings Firefly sits in her high chair and eats her breakfast while I prepare her hair for the day. She ignores me unless I take too long, in which case she shakes her head vigorously to thwart my efforts. It's just another part of our morning routine, like putting on clothes or searching for our shoes. There is nothing exotic about it.