More Than Just Hair: Understanding The Significance Of African American Haircare

Admins of the popular Facebook group "Not Just Hair" talk haircare, hygiene, black culture, and transracial adoption.

Maya Brown-Zimmerman September 09, 2016
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When you adopt a child of a different ethnicity than you, there is a lot to learn about their culture. When you adopt a black child, one of the things you need to learn about is caring for their hair. That includes understanding the cultural significance of haircare and hairstyling.

Today I’m interviewing Nikki Elaine and Asa Malika Barishman of the Facebook group Not Just Hair: The Intersection of Hair/Skincare and Transracial Adoption. They are two of the moderators of the group and spend quite a bit of time helping educate white adoptive parents about black hair and culture.

Let’s start with the basics. What are some considerations in regards to black hair that white parents should be aware of?

Nikki: When taking on the task of providing the best haircare for your child of color, realizing that your standards of care and the cultural standards of care for your black child(ren) may be completely different. Just because they are different, however, does not make them any less important. In African American culture, haircare is especially important. It’s an area where black women, men, and children can feel a sense of unity and a sense of pride whether they choose to be natural or relaxed.

Making every effort to become proficient in black haircare and appropriateness regarding haircare, and more specifically in the care of your child, will encourage a healthy self-image and will also help to solidify their place in their cultural community. Learning proper haircare is passed down through generations, and is another reason why learning about black haircare is important for all WAPs (white adoptive parents) of black children. Not only are you learning for her, you’re learning for her children and her children after that.

We talk in the group about LOC and LCO a lot. Can you explain what this is?

Nikki: The LOC and LCO method are techniques of adding moisture to the hair. The letters represent products L(liquid/leave in), O(Oil), C(Cream) and the “C” and the “O” are interchangeable depending on the individual needs of your child.

Black haircare is about more than just having healthy hair. Can you talk about some of the history for women in particular?

Nikki: Black haircare has always been about more than just style. In Africa, there are tribes that pride themselves on intricate works of art with braids and plaits. In the United States there are many reasons that proper, neat, haircare on black women has been a desire of many, but perhaps the most pressing reason has to do with systemic racism and bias that’s been a part of the background of America for years. Black women are commonly stereotyped as “welfare queens,” which means that they’re uneducated and lazy women with unkempt hair, more children than they can count, and a disregard for cleanliness. There is also a stereotype that labels black women as loud, obnoxious, intolerable women, and the “picture” of this stereotype usually includes a black woman with bright, unnaturally colored hair that makes people scream out “ratchet” or “ghetto.”

All of these things are worth considering when choosing to style or not style and when choosing which kind of style. Society has decided that black women can be figured out simply by their hairstyle, and many black women fight against these stereotypes daily. Black men also tend to choose styles based on the stereotypes and biases that society holds. For instance, locs (or dreadlocks to some) are seen as dangerous in certain areas. I certainly don’t mean that the locs themselves are dangerous, I mean that the connotations that comes with a man wearing locs can be negative and therefore make others see them as dangerous.  It’s unfair, and seems like children shouldn’t be held to society’s twisted views, but often times, it’s a means of survival.

Asa: Our hair is our crown. Our soul and pride, dignity. It is more than hair: it’s who we are. Also, it’s part of our state of hygiene. Unfortunately it has also been used against us too. i.e. cutting off as punishment for being uppity back in the day or determine whether you could pass for white or had Native American blood. If you had money your hair was taken care of. We spare no expense on our hair. And by expense I mean it is that serious that even poor folks have their kids’ laid on Sunday whether it was done themselves or not.

What is important about styling hair?

Nikki: Styling hair is so important, for many reasons. Styling hair is essential to maintaining moisture and growing and maintaining a healthy head of hair. “Free” hair is damaging if done too often, and while many enjoy their child’s curls in their natural state, there’s a real need to do protective styling to help with moisture retention and overall heath of the hair.

It’s important to help your black children fit in with their same-race peers in their area to keep their “othering” to a minimum. It will already be obvious that they are adopted simply because of the differences in the color of their family. Keeping a close eye on the styles of their same race peers in your area is especially helpful in encouraging your child to be an integral and accepted part of their culture.

Black barbershops and black hair salons are great places to foster relationships with other black men and women and provide professional mirrors for your children. It’s also a place where white adoptive parents can become part of the minority and sit back and digest a world that their children belong to but they (the parents) don’t.

White adoptive parents are held to a high standard when it comes to haircare, and it should be seen as a serious and important job. I have known many WAPs who have been stopped and given suggestions on haircare for their child and I’ve known many who have gotten upset when they received the unsolicited advice. The thing that most fail to remember is that while the black culture is not a monolith, it is a community that cares. When they offer advice, always try to assume that they’re just welcoming you into the world of haircare.

Asa: It is so important for WAPs to have their kids culturally appropriate. Ultimately they have to fit into their community not the white community. Having hair done is necessary as hygiene but also a time when traditions are passed, stories told . . . at salons or barber shops or parent and child.

Tell us about Not Just Hair: how it started and what people can expect from the group:

Nikki: Not Just Hair is a group that was formed by some amazing women with the mission of helping WAPs provide the best care for their children’s hair and skin care and all the nuances that surround that and transracial adoption. The group will speak on all things from the basics of hair and skin care to the more weighted topics of stereotypes, implicit bias, and blatant and systemic racism. I was added to the group as admin a few months after it was formed, and I’m now a very active admin. I love using my knowledge that I learned from my mother and other women of my black community to help others. It makes me so happy to see that adoptees are not losing out on all the wealth of knowledge and community that the haircare scene offers.

Asa: It’s a good group; I’m proud of the conversations that we have taking place. This group has always been about more than hair. We saw a need to have these conversations. Jeni and I were admins in another group that didn’t want to touch the topic and its layers, so we did. We are so happy to have Lauren and Nikki working with us as a team.

What are some of your other favorite resources?

Nikki: My favorite resources are the tangible ones. My mom, my aunt, my cousins, my friends. Blogs, videos, and groups are great, but there’s no better resource than black women themselves.

Asa: Real life friends of color.

Not Just Hair is not just a group to talk about black hair and culture. Any transracial adoptive families are welcome! Come in with an open mind and be prepared for some good conversation and to learn a lot.

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Maya Brown-Zimmerman

Maya Brown-Zimmerman is a mother of three, both biologically and through adoption. She has been blogging since before it was cool, and is passionate about everything from open and ethical adoption to special needs advocacy and patient-physician communication. In her spare time (ha!) she's on the board of directors for a medical nonprofit and enjoys medical and crime dramas. You can read more from her on her blog, Musings of a Marfan Mom.


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