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....