December 03, 2009

Let's (Not) Talk About Hair

We are at a Christmas activity night for children. Puppy busies himself making a card while Firefly runs in circles nearby.

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 watchedtoo.

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.


Anonymous said...

This is beautiful and so, so true. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As a multi-racial child, with a bi-racial (adopted) child and multi-racial nephews - hair is an often talked about subject! Mainly it's because me and my siblings (all full genetic siblings) have such a wide variation in our hair and how we have to take care of it. Mine is dark and straight and will not bleach at all. My sister's is dark and spiral curled and bleaches in no time flat. My brother's is dark and wavy and won't bleach (and now he's balding which is fun to talk about.) My husband is welsh/irish and has dark red hair so he gets picked on a lot. ;)

My oldest child has straight black hair and the youngest two have brown wavy hair. My youngest has the most peculiar spiral cowlicks on the front and back of his noggin. My nephew was born with a little fro, then it relaxed into soft curls, and now it's as straight as mine.

We just have one rule - keep it healthy or I'm gonna shave it off. After that, hair is just another outlet for creativity!

Jen said...

Thank you for this post. I have never commented but lurk often and enjoy your blog very much. As a fellow white mom of an African-American daughter (who is almost the same age as Firefly actually), I have had so many of the same sentiments you express here (especially regarding the online discussion group - wow). While I know we're being watched, my ultimate goal is just to care for my daughter's hair and teach her to love her beautiful curls. The difficult part is walking the fine line between those two. Thanks again for saying this so beautifully.

Leigh said...

Did you see Oprah yesterday??

Meg Weber Jeske said...

Beautifully said, Heather. Thanks for writing this.

Deb said...

I love what Cynthia said, hair is just another outlet for creativity. I've realized that is why I like to do my daughter's hair in styles so often.
I have caught myself watching a lot lately. I've been watching older women to see what their hair is like as well. To see what styles last through the years.

Beautiful post.

mayhem said...

"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.

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

OH MY GOD!! These are so SO horrifying.

I'm trying not to judge because I know I have a lot to learn too, but... Okay, I'm judging.

I'm an adoptive mom. said...

Enjoyed this entry ALOT!

Heather said...

@mayhem - A few entries later the police car woman was complaining that her newly adopted children weren't grateful enough compared to her bio children.

I try to leave a lot of room for differences in parenting approaches, because goodness knows there's enough people could critique in my life. But some things are a clear, "Oh, hell no."

Barely Sane said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said, but I'll add some food for thought:

My daughter has blonde hair and at one time, had the cute curls, which a great many people (strangers) commented on and touched.... and my daughter and I are the same race.

Anonymous said...

Re: the police car woman

Here's the thing that bugs me about some parents. (I know I've said that my kids are ungrateful, so I'll raise my hand as hypocrite.) If they wanted someone to be grateful to them, they should have gotten a dog!

Adoption is not a service to society or a civic duty. It's not about endowing gifts on the unfortunate. I believe all potential adoptive parents should have to take (and pass) the IMPACT training for foster parents. There's an excellent section on how the child feels moving into a new home - anger, fear, shame, guilt, anxiety, etc... and not a single part of them is saying "oh, thank you Jesus for delivering me to this lady's front door."

The parent/child relationship should never be about debt. That just reinforces the thought in the child's (and the parent's) mind that they are property and can be assigned a value.

luna said...

This is fascinating heather. I think you ought to consider publishing it.

Marta said...

this is lovely. really really nice.

we've had a slight twist on the hair touching phenomenon: we are two white moms, with a white daughter (bio daughter of my partner), and a black son. we live i a mixed-but-majority black neighborhood, and my kids go to a predominantly black school. my daughter is the only white kid in her seventh grade (about 45 kids). she has very long, straight, brown hair -- and kids want to touch it all the time!

Lavonne said...

beautiful post! since T is a boy i know the hair care will be slightly easier. but i too am doing the research and just spent a bunch of money on products! so far the hair touching hasn't been out of control, only friends and family. once strangers start to reach out and touch i know i'll feel differently.

Jess said...

It's really not only adopted children, though. I think that people who are white are just so amazed at how beautiful AA hair can look...because we all KNOW that it HAS to be difficult, but it's so beautiful at the same time. My cousin is married to an AA man and they talked about hair at the shower, both my cousin and her inlaws (who are all black) brought it up time and again. Perhaps, it seemed to's even part of AA culture/pride/whatever, at least in this family, to be able to "master" your hair. It was kind of a big joke with my cousin, how she would be really proving herself. kind of goes both ways, I think.

For my part, I just think that AA children are beautiful...we see VERY FEW AA children here and I think that makes the ones I do see seem extra beautiful! I have an internet friend who has adopted an AA child (she's white) and her hair is just always SO fabulous. I've commented a few times on it, but only the same way as I'd complement another child's lovely feature.

Snickollet said...

This is a beautiful, thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Great post.
I have a couple of thoughts based on being white in Africa. Twice, during our time in West Africa, I ended up with African foster daughters for a couple of weeks.
It seems to me that African women show their love and care for their daughters by making sure their hair is done. It was considered like letting your daughter go to church in faded dirty clothes to let her go with her hair all sloppy and braids coming undone. I'm NOT an expert and am speaking as an outsider, just telling what I observed. I saw moms taking great pride in their daughter's hair.
Also, part of the reason people want to touch your daughter's hair is because it's unusual. We're used to that on the other end of things. Kids, esp in the villages, were ALWAYS touching my kids' hair. Especially Abel, who has straight strawberry-blonde hair. It's not always a bad thing; it can be a healthy curiousity and an introduction to something different.
I am cringing about the police car though. AUGH AUGH AUGH!

Lisa said...

I love this post. My daughter's hair is so beautiful, but I can't help but note how many people notice it. The most annoying comment, for me, is when someone says "Where did you get those beautiful curls?" Because I'm not quite sure what to say to that. "From her male progenitor." "It just sprouted out of the top of her head." Seriously, what do you say to perfect strangers when they ask that?

Anonymous said...

@ Lisa

Whenever people ask where I got my kids, where they got their looks, etc... I always say "Wal-Mart. You can buy anything at Wal-Mart."

My daughter when asked how she got so smart or so cute says "God did it." :D

Rachael said...

thank you for this post... It is good to hear from parents in a similar situation. I have been trying to learn about caring for my daughter's hair. She is biracial, and has the most beautiful, curly, light brown hair. It is a very different texture from any hair that I am used to, but that makes it all the more lovely to us.
We have dealt with people touching and commenting on our daughter's hair a lot. Sometimes, people reach out and touch it without even thinking about it...just as they are talking to us, etc. I think it is just out of curiousity, but I haven't quite figured out how to deal with it yet.... thanks again for your insightful post.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes...what about the HAIR? I think it is so (sadly) simple--people are just afraid of something different. So, many "white" moms are freaked. I can, on the flip side, understand that obviously cared for hair signals pride and all sorts of messages about culture. As a hopeful prospective "white" mom (what a description!) of a brown kid, I really look forward to any and all care and styling of hair. But if said kid balks and hates the whole idea, well then, I hope people look at us and see a happy kid with a happy, loving mom...period.

Lori said...

And of course, what did I say when I saw Firefly but "you do such a terrific job with her hair." Sorry to be so obtuse.

Perhaps it's a girl thing though. We used to get comments all the time on my white daughter's long hair. She had a ton of hair from birth and thus was always a topic of conversation.

Linda said...

What a lovely post! Do you mind if I send it along to a few friends?

@Cynthia-what great responses! I'm so using them in the future!

Anonymous said...

Is it a (safe) topic because hair is "fixable" unlike skin color?

Heather said...

@marta - Puppy gets his hair touched by a couple of the little kids at the African-American church we attend. Firefly is fascinated by a super-blond toddler friend of ours and goes for her hair a lot. And I've experienced it myself with kids in some of my overseas travelling. I think that stuff is normal for kids under a certain age. It's just how they explore the world, you know? Not sure where the age cutoff is, but at some point the touching sets off my rudeness meter. I'd have a hard time with seventh graders doing it without asking first! :)

Heather said...

@Rachael - If I see a random adult start to go for Firefly's hair, sometimes I'll casually put my own hand on her head before they can get there. Or if I'm holding her I might turn her away slightly. I don't want to make people too uncomfortable (unless they're being rude), but I do want her to know that she has the right not to be touched, and that we will assert that right for her until she's old enough to do it herself.

Heather said...

@Lori - Don't be silly! Compliments from friends can mean a lot. Totally different.

@Flicka - Share away!

Rebeccah said...

I love this post.
And Firefly's hair and what you're doing with it.
And my son's hair ... which I finally bought some product for this weekend.
And a strange man touched Squeaker's hair this weekend without asking first and I thought "oh dear lord, here we go ..."

DrSpouse said...

When I lived in East/Central Africa, people would sometimes touch (or ask to touch) my hair.

But as someone who has lived in a culture as a minority, and who has also read bits and pieces of "how to be a white parent of a black/mixed-ethnicity child", I see the complete obsession with hair (and skin, as well). Although occasionally when living overseas people would catch themselves and say "oh yeah, you don't use that product do you" or "ooh, I can't braid your hair very well, can I?" it was SO minor in the list of Cultural Differences We Can Talk About. It's very important to women (and to some extent, kids and men) where I was living, but not as This IS what makes us Different.

Our Growing Family said...

I LOVED this post! I am a white mom to a little boy with the most gorgeous chocolate skin! He is now 15 months old and my husband and I spent HOURS traveling around our city, literally making 11 stops, to find him a black barber. Some of our family members thought we were CRAZY for this, but we want him to feel proud of his hair and proud of his culture. He now sports one tight hair cut with a crisp tape line and looks so grown up. I know his hair looks cute, but I really do get tired of everyone rubbing his little head all of the time. And I think your right, it is code for, "i noticed your white and he is black." Btw, after trying a ton of various hair lotions (grease), we finally caved and agreed that pink lotion is the best (even though I am not a huge fan of the smell... but the new scent is much better.)

Erin McCoy said...

I always love your blog.. you are so thought-inspiring!!

while i've had a few white people comment on their hair (so far (it's only been 6 weeks with our 3 year old and 1 year old!!) it's always been very nice and i havne't even thought about that actually probably a lot of them do me (wow, you're white and they're black)... i just think they do have pretty hair and that they were just saying pretty hair haha)

But i've also had tons of black people come up and tell me that "she has good hair, or good job on the style.. or that the baby's gonna have good hair since she still doesn't have any and is already 1...." it's sorta funny... not offensive but funny

however, what does cause a problem is when so much fuss is made over the girls while were out and my bio/white daughter feels totally left out... less special.. etc etc.... come on people! think about what you're doing! She's already asked me if I think the girls are pretty than her :(

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