Monday, April 27, 2009

"Those aren't curls, Mom" and other paradoxes

From reading other adoptive parents' experiences, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone gave me unsolicited advice about J.'s hair. What I wasn't prepared for was how much it would hurt.

J.'s hair grows in tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs against his head. I love those corkscrew curls. I love the way they look. I love the way they feel. I know, though, that not many black boys around here wear their hair like that. When he's a little older, it will matter if he doesn't look like the other kids. That is, it will matter to him, and it will matter to his peers. At that point, I'll take him to a barber and have it cropped close. But right now, it only matters--if it matters at all--to adults. But that may be the rub.

This morning, one my son's daycare teachers told me that he needed to have his hair cut short. "Real short," she said. I like this teacher, but she can be pretty forceful, pretty authoritative. So I avoided. "Oh, but I love his curls," I said, running my hand over J.'s head. Her response caught me completely off-guard: "Those aren't curls, mom," she said. She might as well have added "you dummy," because that was clearly her meaning. There are the words, and then there is the message those words carry. The message was this: "you don't know ANYTHING about ANYTHING, and you especially don't know how to care for your child's hair."

Talking about hair is one of the veiled ways that we talk about transracial adoption. White people do it. Black people do it. And so this comment hurt, alot, because it wasn't really about hair. It was my parenting that was being called into question. And, at a deeper level, my "right" as a white woman to parent a black child.

It seems to me that hair is often the measure that black adults use to evaluate white parents of black children. We white adoptive parents know that, and we know that the reasons behind that have to do with concern for our children's well-being, a concern that we share. So we do a lot of studying up to try to get it right. But getting it right turns out to be awfully tricky. Just when I think I've learned everything I can learn, I overhear something that addles me anew. What does it mean, for example, that "those aren't curls"? They sure look like curls to me. But the disdain in that teacher's voice when she said "those aren't curls" suggests to me that she thinks they are something else, something not very nice, unkempt perhaps or unseemly. Something that should be cut off. But what?

Once that confusion lodges in my brain, the paranoia isn't far behind, and with it, the shame. All of my fears that I am, in the end, too ignorant, too sheltered--too white--to adequately parent my child accompanying the fear of being exposed. In my paranoia, I begin to believe that there's some secret that only the black community knows about why something that looks like a curl isn't a curl. And then I begn to believe that everyone knows this but me and has been judging me for letting J. go around with his curls that aren't curls. After all, my paranoid mind concludes, the teacher is probably only saying out loud what everyone else is thinking. About how I don't get it. About how J. will suffer in the future because I don't get it. The shame is like walking around all day with a big long dirty piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

I know all these thoughts are irrational. And I know enough about the politics of black hair to know that there are as many opinions out there as there are people. And that transracial parenting is often about trying to be comfortable in a catch-22 that you didn't create and can't fix.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all of this is that I've never wanted to do anything but value and appreciate my son's hair. Just as it is.

And I have. And yet.... And yet....


  1. Julia, I am in the same boat. My son has the same hair (the small, tight, corkscrew curls) and I LOVE them! He is only 10 months, but I let them grow, grow, grow! As you said, maybe one day, when it matters to him, I will have it cut low but until then I am in LOVE with his hair and I tell him daily how awesome his hair is. It is so hard to forget what others say, especially in an area we are all so sensitive to as moms like our parenting skills, but if you love his hair and he loves his hair... I say keep it going! Some people are not afraid to share their opinions and I would guess that is what this is... just one lady's opinion.

  2. Thanks, Shelli. It's always tricky when you feel like your ability to parent a child is being called into question, and that's how this hair conversation felt to me. I sent him off to school this morning with his curls intact, although with a bit more conditioner than usual... :)

  3. ah Julia, I hear you. Hair. What's interesting is that the hair conversations are often focused on girl's hair. I appreciate the comment about J's hair since I'm trying to figure out just when the curls, not curls, need a trim, on my boy's head. I count on my HS students to tell me how it is -they do that readily. So far they say, "you're doing a pretty good job Ms. W." Pretty good....I'm always going to be wondering, like you, if I'm doing good enough.

  4. Julia, keep growing you little one's hair! Cindy Crawford's little boy has blond locks down to his shoulders and no one questions that. I don't have kids, but my girlfriends have the cutest little boys that have h.u.g.e. curly/kinky afros. I love it. Baby chic! And I wear an afro, experiment with new stuff all the time and I have the hook up on the BEST products in the universe if you want to talk about it. Go Julia!

  5. My son was 17 months when we finally cut his hair. Some people thought it was cute, some thought it was too long. Some felt we should braid it but when I tried it looked very girly and people thought that was even weirder. In the end we cut it because combing it was such a tantrumfest but now that I look at photos of right before that point: it was very uneven and I wish we had shaped it up a bit somehow. I guess we felt it was all or nothing at the time. He hate hate hated the barber, we do it at home now cause it was toooooo traumatic. for ME. ha ha.

  6. Julia, I'm coming to this discussion late because I just found you through Anti-Racist Parent. Your son is an absolute cutie pie! I am kind of ticked off on your behalf by the daycare teacher - because it is really none of her business. If she's trying to give you advice, she's going about it the wrong way. Your son is just a toddler, right? My understanding is that in the "black community" (whatever and wherever that is!), it's conventional wisdom that you never cut a child's hair before he is a year old, and many people wait until their children are two years before they give them their first haircut.

    I say this because I trimmed my oldest one's hair before she was a year old (she had some bald spots around the sides and I wanted to even it out) and I took a lot of crap for it! Note: I am multiracial (black/white/native american) with white skin and I married a very dark-skinned African-American man. Our oldest is golden brown with very "tightly coiled" hair. I have often been asked if she is adopted, and I find there is also an assumption that as a "white mom" I won't know how to do her hair and/or that I must be taking her over to my mother-in-law's to do her hair. As if!

  7. Lisa,
    Thanks for visiting, and thanks for your support. I completely empathize with your frustrations--the assumptions are hard, no question about it.