I remember receiving my first call as a foster parent nearly six years ago. It was a sibling duo: a 3-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. Were we interested? We were. “They’re black though. Can you handle the hair?” the caseworker asked us. “Of course! No problem. I’ll just ask a black friend.” I responded without another thought. “The one-year-old’s still young. I haven’t seen her, but she likely won’t have much hair yet. Hopefully it won’t be too hard.” Hard? Hair? Psh… We hung up the phone and I forgot about the entire conversation. I was so sure it would be easy.
My foster daughter Mariyah (who would later become my forever daughter) arrived with her hair freshly parted into four sections and neatly twisted. Because I was used to my white woman hair which needed to be styled everyday, I took the twists out while getting Mariyah ready for bed that night. Her hair, which had made those 4 neat little twists, exploded into a giant, soft, gorgeous Afro.
The next morning I tried to remake the twists, but they looked horrible. The day before her hair had felt soft. It now felt dry. The twists I made wouldn’t lie flat, either. One stood straight up. Another stood straight out. Mariyah’s brother, James, came over and tried holding a twist down into place. He smiled confidently at having fixed the problem. But when he took his hand away, the twist sprung back up. He looked at me, shook his head as if there was no hope, and went back to his toys. Suddenly I understood the caseworker’s hesitation.
Mariyah’s hair began to look worse and worse over the next few days. The caseworker stopped by for a visit. “What are you doing about that hair? Have you thought about taking her to the shop? Did you ask your black friend?”
Oh yes, right. My black friend.
I actually hadn’t left the house or talked to anyone since the children had been placed with us. I was still completely overwhelmed by everything. After the caseworker left, I sent my friend an email. I got an automated “away from desk” response about her being on a trip. I considered contacting other friends, who I wasn’t as close to, but was too afraid of judgement to ask for help.
I ended up piling the kids into the car and heading to the mall since the caseworker had recommended a store called Carole’s Daughters. There was a black employee working when we walked in. My mind was racing. Did I ask for help? Was I going to seem like the dumb white woman? How should I word this? Should I say black or African American? Was asking for hair help going to somehow come off as racist? Was I being entirely too ridiculous?
“Uhhh I’m looking for haircare stuff for her.” I pointed at Mariyah sitting in the stroller. “Do you have any suggestions? She’s 12 months. I don’t really know what to buy.”
“Oh my gosh that is a lot of hair for a 1-year-old!” she exclaimed. She spent the next half hour kindly walking me around the store, telling me about different products, running off a list of what I needed, how often I needed it, and why. She recommended a few brushes and combs I could pick up at CVS and even drew a picture to help me identify them.
Occasionally, at visitation with her birth family, Mariyah’s mom would braid her hair. It looked gorgeous. She would often talk about wishing she could take Mariyah to have her hair done at the hair salon, which I thought was silly since she did it so well herself. I looked at her braids and hoped that eventually I would be that good.
I spent the next two years slowly learning to braid and twist. And when I say slowly, I mean that sloths move faster then I did. But I was learning. The first time a black woman passed me on the street and commented, “Oh my gosh those twists are cute!” I beamed with pride for the entire day. Eventually, Mariyah’s birth mother moved away, and hair was left completely up to me. I considered taking Mariyah to the have her hair braided at a shop but thought that might be a cop-out and that it was important for me to keep learning to do her hair myself.
One day, while the kids’ caseworker was visiting, she looked at Mariyah’s hair and said “If she was my daughter and it was a Saturday, I’d be at the hair shop.” I took it as an insult, and wondered why I would waste a Saturday at the hair shop if I could do her hair myself. I repeated the comment to a friend a few days later. My friend laughed and filled me in “It’s not an insult. We LIKE having our hair done. Sitting in the hair shop is fun. It’s a great place to talk and meet people. Plus, it’s about pride. Natural hair is gorgeous and you need to instill that pride in her!”
After that, I began to switch off between doing Mariyah’s hair myself and taking her to have it braided. By doing her hair myself, I am able to teach her how to take care of it. At home, we have the time to learn to detangle and condition so that when she grows up, she’ll be able to do it herself. But my friend was right, too. The hair salon is fun! It reinforces the ways we are teaching Mariyah to care for her hair. Plus, we get to meet other families of color. Having my daughter see girls and women with beautiful hair just like hers is priceless. I finally understand the value of both.