New Year, New Haircut, New  President – and the Racial Mirror That Was

January. A new year. Everyone is all excited about kicking goodbye the dumpster fire year of 2016. But are we actually excited to welcome 2017? It is now the month and year that we will inaugurate … that guy. I can’t seem to remember his name.

No matter what your political leanings are, you can certainly understand that any mother of a Black boy will be saddened to see President Obama leave the Oval Office. My son has had a racial mirror in the President of the United States of America for his entire life. I absolutely cannot stress to you how important that has been for our family, and probably for millions of other families. I am overcome with emotion.

(When he was born, his grandma took one look at him and said, “My little Obama!”)

wp-1483411314734.jpgToday was haircut day for my oldest son. For certain sensory reasons, it’s not easy for him. He says he is not ready for a barbershop, so, as always, my husband was cutting our son’s hair in the upstairs bathroom. I thought my twins were playing in their room, but as I reached the top of the stairs, I saw Twin A perched on the toilet lid, holding my oldest’s hand. He was offering his hand of comfort to his distressed brother. No one asked him to do that. A fat little four-year-old white hand holding the shaky brown hand of his six-year-old brother. My heart melted.

The steady hand of his brother calmed my son, and the rest of the haircut went smoothly. They sat like that for about ten minutes, no one saying a word as the clippers buzzed.

There is a now-iconic image of a five-year-old Black boy touching President Obama’s hair in the Oval Office. Have you seen it? President Obama, the leader of the free world, is leaning over to let the boy touch his hair.

Photo credit: Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

I don’t know if the significance of this image can truly cross the racial parenting divide. I am no expert in Black hair, not by any means, but as the mother of a little boy who looks like the one in the picture, I weep every time I see it.

(I was thinking of printing that photo, to hang in our home, but what if I cry every time I walk by it? Hmmm.)

“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.

Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” He lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.

“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.

“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.

“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.*

Even if you are staunchly anti-Obama, can you see how important this image is to us? Can you walk with me for a moment and feel this? More importantly, can you walk with my son, who sees only white faces in his very own home? Can you imagine what it’s like to be him – or any other Black boy in America whose ancestors were probably slaves – and know that the most powerful man in the world has hair that feels exactly like his?

For eight years we’ve been able to hold up that mirror to our boys: The President of the United States of America looks like you.

And now, in this new year that is supposed to be new and fresh and better, we get to hold up … a man who… not only doesn’t look like our boys, but … nevermind. I can’t.

It was not just hair. It was hope.

 

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*Source: Calmes, Jackie. “When a Boy Found a Familiar Feel in a Pat of the Head of State.New York Times. 23 May 2012. Accessed via Web 2 January 2017.

And the Washington Post says it better than I can: Photo Speaks Volumes About Obama and Race.

 

 

White Mom, Black Hair

My son was born with straight hair. It turned curly, and then kinky. He had dreadlocks by the time he was five months old and a full-fledged afro by eight months. However, I didn’t want to cut it until he was a year old. I heard it was a bad luck to cut it before a year old, although the child abuse he endured when we tried to tame his dreadlocks was worse than bad luck. Some people snip a curl for the baby book, but I snipped a dread.

His hair didn’t get longer –it just got bigger. What we greasy white people don’t understand is that black hair needs moisture put in, not washed out. I took to washing it only once every two weeks or so, but moisturizing it every day. And I tried to keep it combed out every day. I don’t know if I did the right thing, because there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. (From him or me?) I created in him a phobia of head-touching that continues to this day.

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What I quickly realized is that there seems to be no consensus among the African-American community about what hair-care products are best. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, since there is no consensus among white people either. Was it racist to have assumed that all black people would have had the same opinion about hair care products? Everyone’s hair  and opinions are different, no matter what your skin tone or kinky-ness level. Why did I think there would be an all-agreed-upon product guide or something? People would recommend all sorts of products to me, and lots of them were heavy-laden with chemicals. That was also a surprise to me. (Please watch Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair!) After many months and dollars, I finally settled on shea butter for his hair. I tried everything- even olive oil and coconut oil. Shea butter was my personal winner: it works, it’s natural,  and it doesn’t smear all over my furniture. (And, perhaps most importantly of all, it is  one of the few smells that doesn’t trigger a migraine in his momma.)

My husband finally cut R’s afro on his first birthday. It was a shock to our son – and to us. He looked like a little boy! I continued to rarely wash – and constantly condition – but at least I didn’t have to torture him with comb-outs anymore.

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Hair isn’t just about the physical aspects. Emotion and belonging and tradition are weaved into hair too- and especially black hair. It isn’t just about the hair itself. Black hair is just a catch-all for all the things that I don’t know.

I am no expert here. I only know what I have read. One thing I have read in my adoption books and magazines is that black sons adopted by white parents wish that their parents had kept their hair shorter. White parents have a tendency to think that afros are cute on a black boy, and some children later express that they wished their hair had been kept closely-cropped so they would have fit in better with other black children.

This hair-length issue is a perfect example of things that may affect a black child that we white parents would never think about. Similarly, the literature encourages us to make an effort to take our child to a black barbershop. These are little suggestions, but they encourage me to consider things outside my typical line of vision. (However, I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere near a black barbershop until my son gets over his hair-touching phobia!)

My husband cuts R’s hair every weekend now. He is trying to learn how to do the edges from youtube videos – to make his haircut look more professional. By cutting his hair every week, we hope to desensitize that poor head of his. Also, we hope that by not letting it get long, the clippers won’t get stuck. See, we have no idea what we are doing! I am embarrassed to say that the clippers have gotten stuck in his curls before. What kind of clippers do black barbers use? Do they use attachments? What are we doing?!

And, if R had been a girl, this blog post would have been long enough to have needed its obalck wn blog website.

 

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Are any of you considering trans-racial adoption? What are your concerns? What have you learned about hair during your trans-racial adoptions? I’d love to know I’m not the only one who is learning and growing!

This article was originally published on Beyond Infertility, a website about how parenting after infertility is different. I am a regular contributor to their website.  You can find the original article here.