Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: What's the mother of a black child to do?

So, I'm all het up about a slight to black, natural hair. What else is new? But I swear, I would stop writing these posts if people would quit demonizing black hair and disseminating incorrect information about it.

What's got me steamed this time? I was reviewing a transracial adoption site, in hopes of having a new resource to share with readers of Anti-Racist Parent. I will not be linking to said site here, so as not to spread bad info. But under a section on hair, the site "informed" that black, natural hair tends to be drier than white hair and requires added moisture (Okay...that is often true--not always, but often). Then the writer offers that, despite the need for moisture, black hair shouldn't be washed often, as too much water can be drying. Wait...what? Now, one might generally assume that water and moisture are damn near synonymous. Apparently, though, on black people, water is not....wet. Also, if you feed a black woman after midnight, she turns into a gremlin. Okay. That last bit isn't true. But neither is the first bit, which feeds the notion of black, natural hair as some mysterious, unknown quantity, defying even the natural laws of liquids. To its credit, the site suggests that parents of black children take care to instill an appreciation for black physical features and that they avoid straightening hair with chemicals. But it also tells parents that they must use products specially formulated for black hair. Also not true.

Black hair does not require special care. It simply requires care, like anyone else's hair. Black hair care only seems special or unusual if you a) start with the assumption that what works for white hair is what is normal and right for all--the baseline against which all other regimens must be judged; or, b) care for black hair with an eye toward making it embody the qualities of non-black hair, rather than its own qualities.

It occurred to me that it must be challenging to be a non-black parent searching for good information to care for the hair of a child with African ancestry. The misinformation is rampant. This is another example, then, of why it is important for non-black parents of black children to have other black people in their lives. Someone who actually has a head of coily or kinky locks would surely be the source of accurate information about black hair. Yes?

Maybe not. Barely a day after the aforementioned brush with nappy ignorance, a frustrated reader e-mailed me. The white mom of a black child, she had visited an international adoption blog run by a black woman, who in a current post was castigating white parents for [dred] locking their children's hair. (I'll be giving no link love to this blog either.) The sight of a locked child with a white mom drives this blogger to distraction. After, I'm sure, surveying the some 40 million black people in America, the blogger asserted that NO black parent would EVER lock a child's hair unless that parent also wears locs. See, straightening is a right of passage and, I quote:

Little Black girls love to swing their pigtails as equally as their white counterparts. Getting your hair pressed for Easter Sunday is a rites of passage of sorts. Hair envy is common, even on small girls. Little Black girls were not very happy to have their hair braided up because although it saved you from the torture of getting your hair "did", it ultimately took away the free feeling of having your hair down.

Little black girls love to swing their hair, because even at a young age, females in this society learn to buy into the prevailing Eurocentric beauty standard that long, straight, swinging hair is prized and beautiful, while nappy, coily, curly, twisted, braided and cornrowed hair is not. Hair envy isn't exactly what we should be abetting in young girls. We should praise parents who encourage black girls (ALL girls) to love the skin they're in and who find hairstyles adaptable to their natural hair--be it long and straight, short and kinky, or anything in between. Instead, this blogger complains about parents making "permanent" decisions about their children's hair, as if those kiddie perms that are so popular are not permanent, too.

I don't know how many more times I need to learn this lesson: Being black is no predictor of one's level of natural hair knowledge. I had hoped that my generation of black women would be the last forced to learn about our hair as adults, unlearning years of misinformation and wives tales. If the parenting resources I've stumbled upon in the last week are any indication, I'm out of luck.
Image courtesy of DouaLiege on Flickr


M and M said...

YOURS is exactly the response I have been looking for! Thank you so much. I've been a "lurker" on these conversations about locs on a number of different places, including the blog of the original poster. I've been aggravated to no end. However, as a white woman with a black son, I felt it was my obligation to listen to the conversation with interest and the intent to learn from the cultural experts. You are making sense to me, and as a regular reader of your blog, I trusted you would. Thank you.

Julia said...

I owe you an email on the aftermath of that conversation you mention...there's a longer story. But thanks so much for this post, which is a breath of fresh air for sure. (And I love the photo--what's the mother of that black child to do? Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate...)

I just wanted to offer an alternative reading of the "hair needs moisture but not water" thing: this is actually an idea touted pretty frequently in fashion mags etc to white women regarding skin--that skin needs moisture but washing with water dries it out. Sounds like a total contradiction but my experience suggests they might be on to something.... I don't by any means want to be an apologist for this blogger--I don't even know who the blogger is--but that particular comment may not have been as much of a "black hair is a strange alien entity that requires mysterious treatment" as you interpreted.

That said, I get that your reaction has more to do with a larger problem that these smaller incidents represent.

motherissues said...

Thanks, Tami. I'm white, but I style my partner's hair (now in locs) and will be responsible for hair care for our future children because I have more patience and experience. Still, I feel so awkward trying to get into these blog conversations when I'm not black and not parenting. And yet I'm appalled every time I read an adoptive blog where parents recommend using a re.laxer on a BABY or talk about how difficult it is to deal with this strange biracial hair that hangs in loose corkscrew curls and how no one white has hair like that.

My partner and I both have our natural hair and my straight-wavy, thick, coarse stuff is no more normal or appropriate than her soft wooly cloud where her hair hasn't locked yet. We both need to keep our hair appropriately clean and moisturized and it's pretty obvious when we're not getting the job done. Healthy hair is healthy to the eye and to the touch. I don't see how this can be as hard as people make it out to be, though bad advice is part of the problem.

(I have to say, you might be on to something about the gremlin stuff from my experience. Although it might be more that if you wake a white woman up after midnight, she's going to glare when you go on and on about what you were just watching on tv.)

Lady C said...

Tami, motherissues has it right. Patience is the key to taking care of black hair.

When I was younger, "moisture" to the hair meant not having a dry scalp and hair with split ends. That meant Dixie Peach or Vaseline Petroleum Jelly was used once a week between washings.

As far as perms go, I don't understand putting perms on little girls' delicate scalps. I never had a perm that I liked. When I used to get my hair permed, I would always have to have it washed out before the process was complete.

I just love little girls in braids, and I don't mean tight, tight braids. I mean just loosely done braids.

I believe our choices doom our little girls to a life of heartache when it comes to their hair.

Robbin said...


If taking out of context, I am certain that anything can misconstrued.

Thanks for referencing my post, if not linking it with love.


Tami said...


I don't think I took your post out of context. I read the entire thing and your subsequent post. Because you were kind enough to visit my blog, I will link to it here: so other folks can read it, too.

I fundamentally disagree with your posts. That's okay. That's the great thing about the Web. I, too, have a brother, who has been stopped for "fitting the profile." I am not naive about the prejudices black children face. But I don't think the answer is acquiescing to bigotry. The more black people embrace their God-given characteristics, the less "otherized" our physicality will be, IMHO.

ShannonC said...

Tami, Thank you for this. I commented on Robbin's post as well. And although I disagreed (or was at least skeptical) about a few of her arguments... I still try to learn from them. As a PAP, I sooo appreciate learning from those with experience so different than my own.

What I've learned so far... (and I completely understand how naive this is) is the critical importance that my children have strong personal identity found in their heart! not in their hair... or their clothes.. or their mother... or anything else for that matter. I haven't quite figured out the tactics to use... and I'm pretty sure by age 12 all efforts will prove fruitless.. but hey... it's the struggle that makes it worthwhile, no?

Thanks for posting this, as much as I'm sure you didn't want to.

Color Online said...

I can't believe, wait, yes I can believe the ignorance out there. And like you, I need to stop being surprised at black women's rejection of their own natural hair too.

I'm new to your blog. Not long though. I'll likely become a permanent fixture.

I invite you to check us out, too.
Please stop by Color Online and check out newest feature, Shades of Love.

Claudia said...

Love, love, love the picture on this post!

(For some reason, I can't seem to pull up ARP to leave a comment on this post there. Is it just me?)

motherissues said...

I didn't think of this until I read the post Robbin linked to, but I really, REALLY hope white American parents are raising their transracially adopted kids to expect racist behavior from law enforcement. I'm not saying this to condone racism or to accuse everyone in law enforcement, but part of parenting a black boy is getting him prepared to stay calm and have a plan in place if he's ever confronted by the police, right? I can't imagine for a young man locs would make that much difference or that being clean-cut and looking sharp would be any way to escape profiling.

I don't say this to criticize Robbin's brother for the choice he made to cut off his locs or his rationale. I'm just talking about realism for adoptive parents.

Tami said...

Not just you, Claudia. New Demographic is having server issues, so ARP, Racialicious and Race in the Workplace are effected. Carmen has folks working on it and hopefully we'll be up and running soon.

Cindy said...

OK, thanks for the morning giggles. :) Sometimes I can't find up with all the crazy talk flying out there and then feel like everybody wants to stuff me into the know-nothing, cares-for-nothing-black white mom box. If that makes no sense, let's just say I liked your post. :)

And, FYI, in regards to your ending, this Euro-originated mom is constantly telling my children's African nanny how to take care of my African sons' hair--and I mean constantly. (But I love her anyway!)

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised at the misinformation going around about black hair, because a lot of black people don't know how to care for natural black hair. I've just had to be patient and experiment, because I refuse to be a slave to the pressing comb, a relaxer, or a bunch of gunk piled into my hair.

Sassy J said...

Great post, Tami. One of my interest since I was a teenager was adopting. I am Black and prefer a black child, but whenever I come across transracial adoption/fostering information, I'm always perturbed about the "hair" issue.

The comment about little black girls liking their ponytails to swing made me giggle. I have waist-length locs and when I put them up in a ponytail, I love to feel them swing, too!

Anonymous said...

This was interesting article. I personally have been getting my hair permed since I was eight. My mother and I decided it (after she sat me done and explained it to me) because my hair was just reallllyy thick I would always be in tears after getting it done and she would be sore, so it was a pretty easy decision even at 8. Also, because I have dry hair I DON"T wash my hair every day. Because, though you would think moisture and water go together when it come to hair (and often skin) it doesn't. Hair stays moist from the oils on your scalp so washing it daily if you have dry hair(which black hair often is) is what can dry it out. So I didn't really find a problem with a blog having that info...but again this was an interesting read.

Tami said...


Thanks for reading. I have to push back a bit. It is perfectly okay for any woman to perm her hair. There is; however, no reason that black hair HAS to be permed to make it easier to care for--even if it is thick and long.

I had thick, long hair as a child and my mom made the same decision yours did--to perm it. But folks are beginning to realize that's not a necessary step. One thing that makes natural hair easier to comb is to remember that highly-textured hair really shouldn't be manipulated unless it is wet and well-conditioned. Combing through dry hair will often be painful.

Also, I have to disagree about water not adding moisture. There is nothing wrong with wetting black hair every day. It is the manipulation needed to then straighten it (if that is what you choose to do) that is most damaging--not the addition of water.

Every woman should feel free to make the hair choices she wants. I object when those choices are explained based on the shortcomings and/or difficulty of having black hair.

Anonymous said...

I've heard arguments about not washing hair every day, but the problem is the shampoo, not the water!


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