Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Those aren't curls, Mom" revisited

Transracial parenting is a very humbling experience. You are continually learning how much you don't know. And sometimes you unwittingly demonstrate your ignorance to your child's teacher, say, or all of the readers of your blog. Ahem.

In the wake of my conversation with J.'s teacher, I found myself wondering if she might have meant that his hair was .... well, you know, that n-word: nappy. I'm going to talk about this word throughout this post, because it seems unavoidable--I have to call a spade a spade. However, I know the word can have negative connotations, especially when used by a white person, and I apologize if I cause offense.

Once this thought--that J.'s hair might be "nappy"--I realized that I had only a very hazy notion of what that word meant, and that I had no idea what the difference was--if there even was a difference--between curly hair and nappy hair.

So a good friend and I embarked on some research. And the more I read, the more, erm, humbled, I felt.

Here are some of the definitions I came across:

And here is how I described J.'s hair in my prior post:

  • tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs

Ahem. You'll note the similarities between their language and mine. It turns out that J.'s hair is the definition of nappy.

I had no idea.

See, on the playgrounds I grew up on, nappy was not a good thing. I didn't have a good sense of what it meant, but I knew that it had something to do with being messy and unkempt and maybe even a bit dirty. And it turns out that I'm not alone in having negative associations. My Webster's defines nappy as "kinky: said esp. of the hair of blacks and used derogatorily or contemptuously." Urban dictionary includes this definition: "one of African desent who has tightly coiled unkept hair; one with locks of hair that is tightly curled that is unwashed and uncombed" and this definition: "a black persons hair that is not kept up with, or dirty," as well as a host of other "definitions" that are truly ugly (please do yourself a favor and trust me on this--it's a site you should skip). Because J.'s hair is lovely, and clean, and neither messy or unkempt, I thought that his hair couldn't possibly be nappy. How I learn.

So, is there any difference between nappy and curly? I asked my friend. We researched some more. My friend concluded "It seems like, if a black person has curly or kinky hair, it is nappy by definition." That jived with what I saw, too: that the choice of one word over the other seems to have everything to do with the color of the person who owns the hair in question. On at least one black haircare site, curly is clearly distinguished from nappy with questions like "how do I make my nappy hair curly?"

But at the same time, I see plenty of evidence on the web that the word nappy is being reclaimed. And I'm so glad. I'm glad, too, that natural hair seems to be making a return, and I'm so struck by how powerfully validating the decision to go natural seems to be for so many black women.

What difference does it make to me to know J.'s hair is nappy rather than curly? Not much. Except that I feel (a little) less like Clueless White Mom. I love his hair. Call it curly, I'll love it. Call it nappy, I'll love it. Can a rose by any other name smell as sweet? You betcha.


  1. Can I really be the first to post? Yea! I love this post, but maybe its because I'm another Clueless White Mom. Whoops. I had no idea that those "tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs" were "nappy" until my now husband (then boyfriend) saw the pictures of the children I worked with in Africa and said, "Whew! Look at those 'naps'! Man, white people do not know how to care for a black child's hair!" I just didn't know.

    I also recently read a book written by a white adoptive mother of a black daughter and she basically said that if a white mother just lets her black child's hair go (wash and comb) it looks messy and unacceptable to other Black people. Awww. I felt so sad. That is basically my baby's hair. Washed and combed and moisturized with Blended Cuties...but still I just pretty much let it do what it does. I think its beautiful! Sniff.

  2. Sarah,
    Thanks so much for joining us. Could you share the title of the book you mentioned? I'd love to learn more.

    I'm right there with you--washed and combed and moisturized is the look we do in our house.

    Maybe you'll join us today on the podcast? It sounds like you'd have something to say!

  3. I tried to listen in to the podcast but my computer konked (sp? conked?) halfway through!

    The book is called Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption by Barbara Katz Rothman. I loved the book, I really related to many things she said. But I still love my son's curly and puffy hair. My husband is more resistant to cutting it than I am, actually. He doesn't even like combing it because he remembers how painful it was to have his hair combed when he was a kid.

    Are you having another podcast sometime soon?

  4. OK, yes, his hair may be nappy and still be clean. Nappy, as long as I've been black, has never meant dirty. Even so, nappy, to this day, is not a word to be used in general conversation unless you REALLY know what you're talking about. People, in polite conversation, talk about varying states of "nappiness" in terms of texture such as "coarse" to "fine".

    Nappy has to do with texture or general state of the hair as to how well you can get a comb though it. Or if you're not trying to get a comb through it (in the case of an afro, you may just want an afro pick for shaping) then nappy may be exactly what you need.

    Child, African American hair care is no joke. And as for your friend who just washed her daughter's hair and let it hang - yes, that would definitely be a sign of unkempt hair for other black folks and definitely a mom who had not taken the time to learn to do her daughter's hair properly. It does have a certain beauty in I'm sure, but that's not going to stop black folks looking at her cross-eyed.

    Sweetie, take him to an African-American barber shop. Period. I don't how much advice you're getting on this matter, solicited or unsolicited, but if you have any questions - please feel free to email me.


    deblitemail [@] yahoo [dot] com

  5. Great post. @Sarah - I think the "messy" response from black people comes from something much deeper. We've learned over several centuries that our natural hair is bad. Hearing some talk about it sounds like they feel so shameful about it - that it's something to hide. And seeing a white parent not "style" the hair is interpreted as double rejection/shaming. Not only did they not want to take the time to learn how to comb the child's hair outside their own cultural understanding, but that they didn't want to "touch" it. As in yuck.

    It doesn't mean it's true for everyone, but some people do feel that our hair is gross. It does hurt when I get into conversations with people that go on and on about how difficult black hair is and they couldn't imagine having to deal with it because it's soooooo hard (plus they whisper that they've heard we don't wash our hair often which makes it even more icky). Perhaps they feel they're being honest? Dunno.

  6. Bell Hooks book "Happy to be Nappy" is a fabulous salute to nappy hair, especially in "girlpies." It became one of our favorite board books as my little one grew up. It has been a nice bit of education and celcbration for this now somewhat less clueless white mom.

  7. Kandeezie,
    You said: "And seeing a white parent not "style" the hair is interpreted as double rejection/shaming. Not only did they not want to take the time to learn how to comb the child's hair outside their own cultural understanding, but that they didn't want to "touch" it. As in yuck."

    I find this SO helpful. This would never have occurred to me, and I can see how very hurtful that message is (even if completely unintended). This is such tremendously complex territory to navigate.

    For the record, I also tire of the "black hair is SO hard to style" business. I don't think it's true, for one thing, and I think it's insensitive for white parents to talk like that, especially with black friends. I imagine it would help alot if the white parent owned the problem--as in, "I'm learning this stuff later in my life and it turns out it takes some practice and skill and I don't feel confident about my abilities yet" (which is REALLY what's going on) rather than locating the problem in the hair. As for the not washing thing, I don't even know where to start... The assumption is that what's good/socially acceptable for most white hair (frequent washing)is also best for black hair... But again, why the need to SHARE this sort of thought? Ugh.

    @ ThatDeborahGirl,
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. You're right that nappy is a very loaded word, and trust me, I'm not advocating that white parents casually throw it around in conversation. I do think that we have to understand that the word exists, and that it has multiple meanings and implications. That's why I felt I had to use it here, although I didn't really want to.

    And I appreciate you offering advice. I just want to clarify that the wash-and-go that Sarah and I are talking about IS styled. We're not talking frizzy, fuzzy, just-got-out-of-bed look--I never let him go out of the house like that. I moisten his hair with a mixture of water and olive oil, and then work a leave-in conditioner through the hair. The end result is a headful of tight shiny curls, no frizz, no fuzz. I have gotten very positive responses to his hair from some black people; I have gotten less positive responses from others. I get that most black boys (at least where we live) don't wear their hair like that, and when he's old enough to care what his peers think and notice that their hair is different, we'll do something more "conventional."

    Frankly, it would be easier just to take him to the barber tomorrow and have his hair clipped close--I know that no one could feel uncomfortable about that choice. But he has had a very traumatic young life, and I know that the clippers will totally freak him out, and that is why I've made the decision to hold off for the moment. He has been through SO much in the past year and a half, and I try to limit his stress to the necessary stresses, like shots. And if I sound like a completely over-the-top overprotective mom, that's because I am, there's no hope for it. (It makes my husband roll his eyes, too.)

  8. I just wanted to come back and say that there are so many textures of hair, and because of beauty ideals, it's easier for some to straighten their hair than others (that's the desired look). It doesn't mean the world isn't full of curly hair non-black people. Black hair is seen as difficult because everyone is trying to see it through straight-haired lenses. AND they're always (nearly always) trying to straighten it. Of course that's difficult!!!! Imagine straight haired people trying to curl their hair like mine. That would take days!!

    But a willingness to learn something new, with curly hair lenses, makes you see how easy it truly is. I have had to rediscover my own hair and I can't tell you the amount of times I will curse out loud thinking of how for so long I was convinced my hair was too difficult. HA! I love it soooo much now, mostly because I'm not trying to squeeze it into something it is not.

    [@ThatDeborahGirl - I certainly did not learn how to do my hair from black hairdressers. All they knew how to do was straighten it. So no, taking the boy to a black barber won't necessarily solve anything. Plus, it just passes the responsibility back when getting to know the hair might make it easier in the end.]

  9. I am so glad that I read this discussion! Honestly, the different perspectives are really key for me.

    I have broached the subject about taking my son to a black barber with my husband and he doesn't think J is ready. He's pretty young to have to sit still for a clipper and my husband still feels like he wants J's hair to grow. J's hair is definately a combination of hair types, some curlier than others, enough so that my husband and his parents aren't really sure what to do with it either. At any rate, the wet, comb, and condition look is working alright for now, but I'm feeling a powerful need to get his hair trimmed soon because its getting uneven in length. Is 15 months too young to go to a black barber?

  10. I was just talking about this very subject with hubby last night. As witnessed on internet forums and blogs, I have noticed that many black moms involved with Ethiopian adoption (because I am a white mom of Ethiopian children this is what I read) advocate natural hair, as in no fuss, no big deal, no lavish expensive products, no big styles and baubles, keep it simple, leave it alone outside of detangling and moisturizing (ie, keep it healthy for sure), but let baby/toddler hair alone, allow it freedom from constraint and keep it growing,
    etc . . . (although there is less strong talk about boy hair and boys make up my family); like if you do *too much*, you are crossing a line.

    This seems to be opposite of what others in the black community are often heard advocating (like the black authors of many books I've read on transracial parenting or what the above commenter seems to be saying about the feel of the black community in general (and what I see & hear in my community)); that is, baby girl better be seen in public with very styled hair that expresses smart syling skills and devotion to hair on the part of the parent. The key word here is "style" as in braids, twists, etc--not free and natural--to do otherwise is disrespectful to the child, the child's hair, and the balck community in general.

    I wonder what cultural levels this difference of opinion springs from?

    So you can see why us white parents often feel like we can't seem to get it right in regards to hair. And for many of us the bottom line is we want to do right by our children: we desire acceptance--personal and our children's--within the black community and we got the message: hair is very important.

    FYI, I do not allow people to use the word nappy with me. I just smile and say that you may say "kinky", but nappy is not always a nice word (although if they say nappy with a curled up lip, I do not offer them anything but scorn).

    In any event, my sons have beautiful hair and that is no lie; one's is very thick and curly, the other 2 thinner and coarse. Somedays they are filthy with grass and dirt as little boys should be. But they are clean, well-dressed, shiny, and strinkingly handsome in public because nobody is going to look at my sons and think poorly of their hair, skin and demeanor because I haven't done my job as a caring mother.

    Thanks for the insight everyone!

  11. My son is almost 2 years old. We haven't taken him to a black barbershop yet. Each day I use a moisturizing spray on his hair, finger comb and then finger twist his curls with Blended Cutie Down and Out. Although most little black boys his age have very short hair, I think his curls are too gorgeous to cut for now. It's interesting to read everyone's comments on hair!

  12. Thoughts:

    Sarah and Julia:

    Combing kinky hair without conditioning it first, can lead to breakage and unevenness.

    Not combing it regularly can lead to tangles...and attempting to comb out tangles on hair that has only water on it is painful and can make a child associate hair combing as a negative experience, or think somethings wrong with their hair for it to hurt or be damaged, uneven, and not looking as nice as the Black children's hair whose parents know how to care for it so its healthy and not damaged and tangled.

    That is why learning how to care for your child's hair in a different way than how you'd care for your own straighter hair is helpful.

    Kinky hair snaps in a half when its combed dry or with just water. Conditioner provides slippage and lets the comb get through it easier. Plus regular combing reduces tangles.

    A Black hairdresser doesnt do the same thing a Black barber straightening happens more often in Black hairdressers, yes ...but my son goes to a Black barber for his haircuts, there is no hair straightening involved in his haircare. We chose to clip it because my son didn't like having his hair combed after it was washed and conditioned.

    He has a very sensitive scalp just like me, and it hurt him to have it combed, no matter how gentle I was with it. I conceded to his wanting a big boy haircut, and figured if he changes his mind when he's older, we can return to more hair when he's willing to sit through the gentle hair combings again or does not have as sensitive a scalp as an older boy.

    And he is 3 and gets comments on his haircuts, he looks handsome.

    His haircuts were better from a Black barber than a White hair salon because his hair was cut more evenly and cut in a way that shows off his beautiful kinky hair and he was lined up properly.

  13. As a white kid attending a majority black elementary school more than 30 years ago, I noticed that the girls often bragged at recess about how much time their moms had spent styling the girls' hair. It was significant source of pride and bragging rights to be able to claim that one's mom had spent several hours braiding one's hair. Even though I couldn't relate, I was impressed and moved by this - the state of a girl's hair in many ways was a signal of the strength of her mother's love for her.

  14. Is there a way I may e-mail the owner of this blog?

  15. Anonymous--I'll add a link on the sidebar, but yes--you may email me at

  16. Actually, I do condition his hair. I wet it with detangling conditioner from Blended Cuties and water and then comb it through and sometimes I add Down and Out from Blended Cuties. However, I have noticed that other Black boys his age do not have their hair combed and styled (even when their mothers are Black), their hair seems to be clean but mostly going free. Also, I wouldn't describe my son's hair as "kinky" really. It is a variety of types, ranging from curly (the same way my dad's hair is curly) to puffy but without spiral curls to thicker hair that could be described as "kinky." He is biracial, so although his hair is not straight like mine, it is not the same texture as my husband's or anyone in his family...except his Latino/Black cousin, who just does a wash and comb.

  17. I am interested in how to "finger curl" hair. I love my twins curly locks, especially after it is conditioned. (they are 18 months) But after one nap, their hair can look matted or frizzy. Any advice. I want to keep their hair as natural as possible, but I am learning that comes with lots of "product"

  18. Wow! I am amazed at all the comments to the original post. After reading everyone, I had to add my 2 cents. I am glad that people recognized that curly hair is attributed to those of lighter skin and nappy attributed to those of darker skin. I am African American and I always refer to my hair as tightly curled. I stopped straightening my hair many moons ago. Most African Americans are brain washed to believe that straight hair is the best hair to have and buy in large most will tell you tightly curled or coiled hair is unacceptable. I don't know how people still accept that train of thought in 2009. It's the hair your born with, how can that be unacceptable? Tightly curled hair is not a birth defect like a mole that needs to be removed but that's how it's approached. I applaud any parent that has a child with tightly coiled hair who makes the concious decision not straighten thier child's coils. I have two children one with loose curly hair and one with tightly curled hair. I don't want my daughter with tightly curled hair to feel different from her sister. They both have curly hair and they will be taught to love it and embrace it. I am leading by example, no straight hair for me!

  19. Oh as a white kid in the Midwest, I longed to have my hair braided every day in a different way like my bestfriend who was African-American. I would whine and whine to my mom about why my hair couldn't be like hers. I really think that first kid crush on a friend who had a great hair style with different colored barrettes and bands everyday opened my eyes to the diverse range of beauty in our culture.