by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman
One of the first things I learned when my husband and I, both white people, began to explore adopting a child of African descent is that there would be a major curve for us to get educated about caring for a texture of hair unfamiliar to us. At the time, I thought the hair care was just about getting the hang of it — learning to use the right comb, learning to make a straight part, learning to make braids that aren’t lumpy. But as it turns out there’s whole other curve, which is figuring out what Madison’s hair means and what her hair says about us, about her, and about her place in the African American community and what messages we send her as we care for it.
White parents of black kids seem to be having a tough time of it. I see it all the time at our grocery or library — brown-skinned little girls holding the hands of white mamas and with hair that is dry and frizzy, pulled into a tight ponytail. Or wearing a halo of blurry fuzz that bears little resemblance to the wild, but well-defined curls of Corbin Bleu. I understand that we white mothers are often working at a disadvantage but it’s the state of our children’s hair that’s suffering for our ignorance. I have heard more than one black woman say, “If I see a biracial child whose hair is a mess, I know it’s her mother who’s white.”
The product, Soft & Beautiful Just For Me Texture Softener, is intended as an alternative to hair pressing or relaxing. It launched last spring as an extension of A-C’s larger Soft & Beautiful brand of relaxers and related products for children from 4 to 11 years old. …Just For Me Texture Softener, in this initial marketing phase, is going after parents of girls from multiethnic or biracial backgrounds–specifically, “white moms who have black daughters, blood related or adopted–which is an underserved market,” said a public relations rep for Soft & Beautiful at A-C’s agency M Strategies, Dallas, Texas.
“If your mom is struggling to comb your hair–which is even more likely if she doesn’t have the same hair and doesn’t know how to deal with it–that imparts a negative feeling for the child and the mom also needs a boost of confidence,” she said.
–source: MediaPost Publications
There are three questions I had after reading this. The first, who knew we were a market? Second, is the answer to our struggle with our kids’ hair to “soften” with chemicals? And the third, is the way to market those chemicals is to make it a self-esteem issue?
On the Texture Softener site, the company promotes their “Advice for Moms” section with a pop-up right at the front. This part of the site details the ways our children’s hair is tied to their feelings of self-worth, cautioning, “Your daughter’s hair is unmistakably linked to her self-image and self-esteem. If she feels her hair is a problem, she will also think there is a problem with her image. If she believes her hair is beautiful, she will believe she is beautiful. Your little girl will take her cues from you, her mother. Be careful not to inadvertently pass on negative feelings through the frustrations of everyday grooming.” The solution? Change the texture of your daughter’s hair to make it easier to style. In other words, the problem is not with white parents who aren’t learning to manage their children’s hair — the problem is with the texture of that hair and so the solution is to change it.
Now I know that relaxing a child’s hair (although the company hastens to explain that this is a texture softener and is an alternative to harsh relaxers) is controversial in the black community and not just in the white moms with black kids community. I’m remembering a conversation I once read on the Nappturality forums when a member said that she thought it was ironic that so many white moms with black kids came to the forum to learn to do their children’s hair “right” but that too many black mothers did it wrong, i.e., not naturally. Yeah, pretty ironic and it underlines, I believe, that we white moms are making decisions without really getting the nuances of the cultural conversation. (My bias is for natural hair but I understand that I have a limited understanding of why many black woman do not choose to do natural hair.)
As my blogging friend Liana wrote on my entry about this topic, “The fact of the matter is that MOST black women do not do their hair naturally. When was the last time you saw a newscaster with natural hair? They are all permed. … When I dared suggest that I might let my kid’s hair loc, [my mother] lambasted me most furiously and made it clear that she would cut them out when I was asleep. This hair thing in the black community is powerful. I often liken it to white women’s issue with weight. Hair is our neurosis, but we come by it honestly.”
So then maybe a texture softener is a reasonable answer for some white moms who are struggling with their children’s hair and can’t figure out how to keep it healthy and style it attractively. If mom is cussing and fussing trying to drag a comb through it, what kind of message does that send? Especially if mom is white and her hair is kink-free. As Liana points out, “I think that what is different is that with a black mother, the kid sees that the mother is going through the same drama with her hair as does the child. In white households this is NOT the case. (And please don’t tell me about bad perms, frizziness and such, because this is not the same). The white mother’s hair is done much easier and the kid begins to long for hair like the mom and perceives her own hair as bad.”
That gave me a lot to think about. While my own feelings about caring for my daughter’s curls are unchanged, was I being too harsh on the company for rejecting their campaign outright?
I don’t think so. I think there’s a difference between a black woman softening the texture of her black child’s hair and a white woman making that same choice. My daughter does not have a black role model living in her house. In our family, white is the default. I think I need to work harder to help her see that she is OK just as she is — that her skin and hair are beautiful. If black children in black families are struggling to understand that Black is Beautiful, how much harder it is for my daughter with a white mother, whom she loves and wants to emulate? Shannon, a fellow white mom of a black daughter, talks about the importance of “direct socialization” in their family to counteract the messages her daughter gets everywhere else.
The Texture Softener people may have figured out that the best way to market to our “under-served” market is to tie their products in with self-esteem and with direct socialization (“Proactively talk about loving your daughter’s hair”). But I strongly disagree with their campaign: telling my daughter that I love her hair while I’m putting chemicals on it to fundamentally change it is a mixed message I don’t want to send. She is not beautiful DESPITE her curls; she is beautiful in part because of them. She is a whole package of perfection just as she is. Should she choose to change her hair when she’s older and cognizant of the broader social impact of her decisions, so be it; I will support her. But as long as I’m calling the shots, we’ll stick with daily conditioner, a wide-toothed comb and lots of clips to adore her. Those chemicals can just stay on the grocery shelf.
What do you all think?
Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.