Lori Tharps and Baby


This is just embarrassing, so I’m just going to say it: I suck at doing my daughter’s hair. This confession may seem mundane to some, but it feels like a major failure to me for two reasons. One, I’m black. And just like having an inherent ability to sing, dance and play basketball, all black people are supposed to be born with the gift of hairstyling. Well, I missed out on that gift and my poor children have to suffer for it. But there’s more.

If I were just an anonymous black woman with poor hairstyling skills, that’d be kind of sad, mostly for my kids, but my profile in the world of black hair is slightly elevated because I co-wrote a book called, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and I’m supposed to be a Black hair expert. And I am, if you define “expert” as someone who knows everything about the history, culture, economics and politics of hair, but couldn’t plant a cornrow or wield a flat iron to save her life.

When I first co-wrote Hair Story back in 2001, I was pregnant with my first child. On our book tour, people wanted to know how I planned to style my unborn baby’s hair. Knowing already that it was a boy, I sidestepped that question figuring his hair wouldn’t require styling. Three years later, I had another baby boy and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I’d dodged a bullet with hair issues for my kids. By then I’d committed to wearing dreadlocks because I didn’t even want to deal with my own hair on a daily basis.

But then, 10 years later, in a bizarre coincidence, Hair Story was re-released and I had another a baby—a girl this time. And she was born with a full head of hair! And this is the part where I mention that my husband is Spanish. So, added to my hairstyling angst is the fact that none of my children have hair like mine. In fact, none of my children have hair like anybody.

Each child got a unique set of curls. In one household we have the full spectrum of kinky, curly, wavy and straight. And my daughter seems to have all of the above on her two-year-old head. In other words, it’s a complete hybrid of her mother’s kinks and her father’s lankiness, where the curls sit at the front of her head and the lankiness falls down her back.

I’ve tried two simple braids but they slip out before she slips out of my lap. I’ve tried a basic pony tail, but those bouncy curls that frame her face refuse to lay down, giving her the appearance of having a lion’s mane. Many days I just comb her hair and put a hat on her—thank you polar vortex for giving me an excuse to keep the hats on—figuring she’s cute enough to pull messy hair off.

But my laissez-faire hairstyling attitude isn’t going over well with the rest of the world. Every black female member in my family over age 50 has commented on my daughter’s hair. My mom has 10 sisters so this is a significant number of comments. One aunt recently offered to send me money so I could take babygirl to a professional stylist, assuming there must be financial reasons keeping me from my parental duties. Another aunt sent me a package of barrettes in the mail with the words “hint hint” scrawled in the card.

But the most embarrassing incident occurred when I took my daughter to daycare for the first time. Imagine my surprise when babygirl came home that day and her hair was pulled back into a beautiful, smooth, braided style. This happened every day. I’d take her in with a messy ponytail and she’d come home looking like she’d spent the day at the salon.

When I finally got up the nerve to ask which one of the many caregivers had been braiding my daughter’s hair, and the one White girl who worked there stepped forward, I admit I was stunned and yes, ashamed. How is it that the White girl with the long, straight ponytail could work babygirl’s curly, schizophrenic hair into these beautiful styles and I couldn’t? I was too embarrassed to ask her, although I did thank her at least. But I couldn’t help wondering if all of the women at the daycare were questioning my mothering skills and God knows what else, every day I brought babygirl in with “that hair.”

So, White women raising black children, whose hair may not look all shiny and fluffy all the time. I get it. I feel you. I cannot express how aggravating and annoying and shameful it is to feel like you are neglecting some key part of your daughter’s upbringing by letting them out of the house with disheveled hair. I will never look at that brown child with the white mom and make assumptions again. It’s hard being a monoracial mom of a multiracial child when it comes to hair. There’s a serious learning curve if you’re White or Black. There are new products to try, new techniques to learn and if you’re like me, you have to train yourself to care about styling hair in the first place.

Remember, I’m the chick with dreadlocks. Or at least I was until a few weeks ago. I figured, if I have to learn how to style babygirl’s hair, I might as well learn how to style my own as well. We’re going to figure this out together. But in the meantime, I’ll probably just get us some matching hats.

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This post originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission.

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  1. I love this article. I don’t know why…it just made me really happy. Probably the positivity of it, the in-the-trenches mothering I’m-there-with-you feel to it. Not all of us are born with an innate drive to try out tons of hairstyles on our dolls as a child. I love this mom’s call to hold back the judgment of other moms. Thanks for this.

  2. Well at least you were appreciative and accepting of the criticism and vowed to do better. I have offered advice to white women with black kids insight about their disheveled hair and all they did was get an attitude. Kudos to u for vowing to do better. I love that.

    • Please don’t stop offering advice! I am a white mother of a half Haitian 4 year old girl and all the advice offered is welcome! I stop women of color in beauty isles at the store and pepper them with questions, and while most are eager to share advice, my Lucy’s hair has not been tamed yet;) I think it is her particular mix of black, and stubborn, stringy, strawy, weird hair she got from me that demands particular love and skill beyond me.

    • Sorry, but unless the advice is asked for, it can come across as rude and condescending…of course I don’t know your tone or how you come across but just bear that in mind…were these White women friend’s of yours?

      • Exactly! Also I have to add someone shouldn’t assume that just because a childs hair is little messy that means her mother doesn’t know how to do her hair. Perhaps there is a reason the childs hair was messy, maybe the mother did comb it out and the kids took it out and wanted to play with it and the mother didn’t have time to fix it?

        Also there seems to be a double standard for for mothers of mixed/black children. Not to to long ago I saw an article about one of the white celebrity mothers that had adopted a black child (Sandra Bullock maybe?). The article and comments couldn’t stop talking about the childs hair and how messy it was. Then I saw a picture of Halle Berry and it was either her son or daughter. The hair was very similar to the white celebrity parent. The hair was in a sort of wash and go afro style. The comments on that picture, however were very different most said it was cute or adorable.

  3. I’m a Black woman married to an African man and I can’t do my 2 daughters'(or my) hair well(neither could my mother). I wish we could all agree that hair does not make a woman. But alas I know this will never be so thank God for sisters-in-law and nieces and a circle that will take on that task for me. Having others do it is ok…..

  4. This was a great article. Very funny. I’m having the exact same crisis—I’m black (Jamaican decent) and my husband is Panamanian. My daughters is not like either of ours. Her ponytail holder just slide right off. Think her wild curls are cute. But then we get the side eye from black moms on the train and I feel the shame. I rock a wash and go EVERYDAY because I am incapable.

    We’re gonna have to invest in hats! Good luck to you and your cutie pie.

  5. I love you so much for writing this. I am a white mama with a biracial 19-month-old, and I’m feeling the pressure! I wrote about it here: http://www.myojos.net/2014/02/big-hair.html. I want my daughter to grow up loving her hair in it’s natural state – kinky, shiny, gorgeous – and not feel like she needs to straighten or slather it with chemicals to make it “acceptable.” But wow, it’s hard. It’s hard to get her to sit still while I comb it out every night, to deal with the tantrums and tears because she doesn’t want her hair done. It’s hard when the African American ladies at daycare pull out my sub-standard pony tail and do her up in fancy braids before sending her home (I thanked one of them profusely and asked her how I could learn to braid like that; she said “Youtube!”). There is the perception that all black mamas have their daughter’s hair mastered, and all white mamas of brown babies are in way over their heads. Thank you so much for breaking down this barrier, for crossing over into the gray area where most of us live. I appreciate the solidarity.

  6. Lori Tharps, I am SO feelings you on this, and thank you Denene as always for bringing it. I feel this article on so many levels. I love what Lori writes and follow her on Twitter. I’m glad that we are able to write and talk about these things openly and honestly. I, too, write about this topic. Here at Babble http://www.babble.com/kid/african-american-hair-kids-styling/ and in a piece called Hair Trajectory in the spring edition of The Los Angeles Review. I hope my daughter will read it one day. Thank you My Brown Baby for keeping us connected in the special way that you do. You are appreciated!

  7. As a multiracial kid, I totally feel you! My hair is wavy, has a torsion twist (ie kinky)– however, since I’m blonde, most hair stylists treat it like European hair, and that doesn’t end well. I had to figure out a lot of haircare on my own, since my mom is Scottish and my dad deals with his hair by cutting it short (as do my aunts).
    Personally, the website Black Girl Long Hair have been the best guide for figuring out my hair and picking products to try. Thank goodness for YouTube!

  8. Hey Denene, This is beautiful. A reminder of why write and how telling true stories can change things. Thank you for your bravery and honesty. It’s hard to be so raw. It’s gorgeous. Truly. I just found you here, linked via Facebook and I am really glad I did. I have hair like your daughter’s, I’m white. We assume it’s the sicilian roots. Because sicilians are from everywhere. I’ve NEVER known what to do with it. I was telling my husband that I think it’s time to do locs. He thinks white people with locs sometimes look like real torn-up. And frankly, i don’t disagree. I just don’t know what to do with it anymore. We currently live in a semi-tropical environment and it’s just not happening. And we have a son, who takes all my time. And that’s okay but i’m tired of looking torn up and I think some well-thought-out locs are the thing. And besides we’re trying to figure out what to do with his hair (he’s black and white). We don’t even have a daughter yet.

    I just followed another link from your FB page to the Time article, which was eloquent. And I saw you have a book… and the topic has been all I’ve been able to think or write about since becoming a mother two years ago. I cannot wait to buy and read.

    Sorry, I’m gushing. Thanks for being you, for sharing your journey, for being real. Take care.

  9. Thank you, this is great! I am a white mom to three girls- one white, one black and one hispanic. Hair is a big issue around here. Lucky for us, i found an amazing woman who does braiding and we have been with her for almost eight years. I keep my girls’ hair healthy, she keeps it looking good. I know it’s really important, and i also really know my limits. It takes a village!

  10. I’m a white mom with a Haitian/American daughter who has the tightest, kinkiest hair. It was brutally miserable to comb it out every day and get it long enough to braid. Not to speak of the fact that I don’t braid very well. So, we cut her hair quite short when she was about 2 and kept it that way until she was about 4.5 years old when she started wanting “long hair”. We decided on Sisterlocks as an option and we LOVE them! She’s had them in for almost 4 months now (she turned 5 in January). No tears, no products (and let me tell you products for Black women’s hair has some just Godawful stuff in it that should never touch a human being’s scalp). And they are just adorable. They are only about 2-3 inches long now, but sooner or later they are going to be long enough that she can put them in a pony tail, or braid them. Did I mention I LOVE them?? (BTW, I have no financial or any other interest in Sisterlocks, I’m just a happy customer.)

  11. I am a white mom raising 7 beautiful children. 4 are my amazing blessings and 3 are my beautiful black foster children. I was excited to style my foster daughters hair for the first time. I wondered if I could do it. I had always styled my own 3 daughters hair and was up for the challenge. My first time tackling her hair I decided I would do cornrows all starting from her hair line to a pony tail in the middle. Her hair is super thick, tight curls and on the shorter side. I did it! It took forever and my hands were sore, but I did it, and it was cute! Lol. I got several complements and some were from her own family. I actually thought their granny was going to fall over in her disbelief. 😉 I have done her hair several times since then but raising 7 kids takes up a lot of my time and to be honest, I really love this other hair style… I simply leave her hair down after washing and cornrow the very front from left to right and put it in a small pony to the side with a matching bow and I absolutely love it.
    My eyes teared up when you said it was the white girl doing your daughter’s hair. Thanks for this article.

  12. I’m an Irish-American woman married to a Jamaican-American man and our twin girlies look exactly like him (super-curly black hair) and nothing like me — both girls are currently rocking beaded braids, thanks to their babysitter’s awesome hair braiding skills. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it.

    (It probably helps that my MIL has no hair-skills either — my SILs all sported cute, Lupita-ish crops as little girls and I have the photos to prove it 🙂

  13. Love this post! I’m a white mom of 3 black and white girls and they all have different hair. I try to get them to love their hair, but it’s difficult especially if you have someone like my sil that is constantly talking about their hair and asking if she can straighten their hair, seriously?! My oldest is only 6 and she keeps asking why I wouldn’t let her straighten it, very frustrating.

    Then there’s the advice which can also be a pain at times. I constantly get advice from black women. The most popular advice is to use grease…uh no. I don’t use grease or really any of that other nasty stuff. I use coconut oil, Shea butter, and some other all natural oils. Anyone that’s interested on YouTube there’s “girls love your curls” I love her videos.

  14. Love the post. I’m sure a lot can relate to this. Thank you for sharing your experience. Definitely learned from this article. Keep it up!

  15. Mixed people are not Black i.e. insulting coloured yes i.e. two colours some have black hair others don’t. The problem is many products out there, have too much alcohol, and are too heavy to use on the scalp, what you use on your hair isn’t what you use on the scalp.

  16. I’m a soon to be mother of a biracial baby…help…I already have other children from a previous marriage and they all have fine hair (can’t do ANYTHING with) any advice is appreciated

    • Hi Tabitha 🙂 I’m white and I have 3 mixed girls. Theres a blog called Braids, Beads and beyond she has LOTS of advice and information about doing hair and product reviews you might want to try. I just use coconut oil and my own mix I make for hair and it can also be used on skin. There is also a channel on Youtube “Girls love your curls” (I love her channel and her skits she is very funny). I got the basics for making my own mix from her channel and it works GREAT. You can make it how she does or adjust the ingredients to yours and your kids needs. Anyways I hope you get this and that it helps. 😀

      One more thing whatever you do PLEASE don’t give in to any pressure you might get to straighten or relax their hair. There are so many children that have been burned by the chemicals or flat iron and have their hair fall out. I get a lot of pressure from my SIL to straighten my kids hair but I’m determined to keep their hair natural.:)

      • Good for you! Don’t destroy their hair to please society’s image of beauty. We are re-writing what beautiful hair means one child at a time.

  17. How bad is it, that I LOL’d (literally) when I read it was a White daycare worker who did your daughter’s hair 🙂

    My daughter has mixed hair and I am mainly concerned with her hair being clean and groomed- we do either pigtails or a pony with a braid. The most frustrating thing for me is trying out the new fangled products and spending so much dern money.

    After all is said and done, coconut oil and water with a wide toothed comb was working just as well as the $10 bottles of stuff that I keep trying.

  18. I’d like to encourage us to use positive words around and about our children’s hair. ‘Schizophrenic’ is not positive. It may elicit a giggle, but it’s still reflective of the negativity attached to multi textured hair. Her hair doesn’t lie down flat because it’s not supposed to. Why fight it? Moisturize it. Try a style that works for her hair type. Don’t try to make it comply with society’s definition of ‘tame’ and ‘neat’. Don’t view her hair as a battleground to be conquered. It’s not. It’s just hair. It sounds as if most of you have found your groove, even those who have found someone to do their child’s hair. Congrats. Let’s help these children to love their hair and not see it as something to fix. It’s fine just the way it is.

  19. I love this so much. I’m mixed race – half Native American, half white – and while I have the long, dark hair, I’m CRAP at styling it. Now I have daughters, and I can’t do anything with theirs either. I keep trying, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what to do!

  20. I have a child who is not multiracial. She has gorgeous natural hair that I haven’t a clue what to do with. I have learned maybe two styles since having her… 7 years ago. I also wear my hair natural and I’m pretty sure my daughter has a healthy love for her hair but I think it would be even more beneficial to her if she could see all the many things it can do. I’m working on it but it isn’t easy.

  21. I just adopted two of my foster children who are black. I love them more than anything but I am a white woman who grew up in the midwest. I lived on a farm so I couldn’t care less how my hair looked growing up. A ponytail and ball cap worked for me. Recently I got into styling my hair but now I have to learn a whole new way to do hair for my new daughter. My son is easy… he loves to get a fade and I have learned to do it! Thank you for this article! I get the ‘looks’ all the time and this made me feel less alone in the world of multi-racial families.

  22. Oh my goodness, I’m soooo glad to read this article by another black woman. I don’t have any kids just yet myself. But I used to fret and wig out(no pun intended) over doing my potential future daughter’s hair one day. I mean my mom, aunt and older female cousin and grandmothers were like these dynamos at knowing how to braid and do stuff to their hair. And even mine growing up. But the older I got the more I craved longer hair to just throw up in a pony tail and get it out of the way. I wasn’t a fan of all the hot combing, braiding, and such when I first had to learn how to do it. And I still to this day HONESTLY don’t know how to do any of it successfully as I too have the two different grades of hair going on. Longer and a bit more manageable on top and easier to take a curl. But underneath and in the back is totally the kinkmaster kitchen for sure lol. So from the bottom of my heart I say thank you so much for this article. Definitely makes me feel less alone in the hair struggle.

    P.S. Only way I’ve found of getting over any hair fears for any potential kids I have one day is doing as much research and practice as I can. Even more so, because I recently lost my mom this year. And no longer have her go to guidance to fall back on. So I say, take it one day at a time, and go with the basics. Like setting up routine days to wash the hair, when to oil and moisturize it. And when it comes to hairstyles never hurts to get the kids involved with picking something out and learning together how to make it work. As I said before, I don’t have kids of my own just yet. But I’m finding the experimentation from what I learned from the old school ways of my mom to what I’m learning presently is really keeping things interesting to say the least.

  23. I just loved this article! As the first commenter said so eloquently, you captured the essence of “in-the-trenches mothering I’m-there-with-you feel”. I am a white woman who is actually just struggling with the simple task of styling my white daughter’s hair! LOL. This article popped up in my attempt to find answers. Thank you for brightening my evening.

  24. I babysat for a coworker of mine one evening when I was in my early 20’s. She was black and her daughters were black and I was white. I had never had any experience with black hair.
    After the girls’ baths, for some reason I thought I should comb their hair. Their mother had already put their hair in adorable little braids but that didn’t stop me. I guess I saw it as one of my babysitting duties.
    Within 3 minutes I was in over my head. I had NO CLUE what I was doing and started to panic. But I persisted. I had to get these girls’ hair back into something that somehow represented what their mother had done.
    Forty-five minutes later I’d done something that kind of looked like braids and when the girls went to bed I breathed a sigh of relief.
    Now, 30 years later, having just listened to an article on NPR on black hair, I’m wondering how long the mother had to work to get her girls’ hair back to its original style.

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