What a Group of Black Moms Taught Me About My Daughter’s Hair

Photo: Sean De Burca/Getty Images

When the call came asking if we’d take another foster daughter, I said yes right away. My partner and I had just finished fostering her cousin, another baby girl, who was reunified with her mom after nine months. A week later our former foster daughter’s mom asked if we might foster her niece, a new baby girl who was also going into foster care. We didn’t ask about her race, and I can’t remember now if we had any guesses or assumptions about what it would be.

When she arrived two days later, the first thing I noticed was her incredible full head of curls. At eight weeks old, she was tiny and wide-eyed and had so much hair. She was black, and since I’m a white woman, I had no idea how to care for and eventually style that hair.

A few months later, a woman I knew only from a Facebook group for foster parents with progressive values added me to a different Facebook group that changed everything. The group, Not Just Hair: The Intersection of Hair/Skincare and Transracial Adoption, led me on a hair journey from knowing exactly nothing to being a mom with a huge caddy of hair supplies and a hair-time routine. More than that, Not Just Hair taught me to sit and listen to black women, and to learn from them, instead of just assuming that whatever I was doing was probably fine, that my good intentions were good enough. In the two years before the group was archived I got a taste of how much I didn’t know about hair, and so much else.

The group was heavy on hair care, but true to its name there was, indeed, lots more. The admins, who were women of color, patiently taught more than 6,000 members not to dress our kids in clothes with monkeys, alligators, raccoons, or watermelons on them, long before H&M got in trouble for it. They gave advice on where to go on vacation if you want to sit on a beach with a diverse crowd (Cape Henlopen, Delaware), how to keep your child from getting ashy skin (start with shea butter twice a day), and what to say when strangers reach out to touch your child’s hair (a very sharp “Don’t touch his hair” should do the trick; the key is to teach your kids to say it from a young age).

My first few months in Not Just Hair, I lurked. My foster daughter was so little I couldn’t imagine really doing her hair in any intentional way. I noticed people getting into heated discussions about hair for babies and toddlers and rolled my eyes. Who would spend any time on intricate hairstyles for a child likely to get baby food all over those intricate styles in minutes? But after a few months, I noticed the hair at the nape of my daughter’s neck (I learned from the group that this area is called “the kitchen” because it’s hot) would get matted quickly. Plus, her curls were often in her face.

I figured I’d see if I could manage some basic hairstyles while she was buckled into her high chair, Super Why playing on the computer. I consulted the threads in Not Just Hair that had made me roll my eyes, and did my best. Results were not very impressive, but when I took her out on days when I had styled her hair, I noticed that black women fawned over her, and praised me. “Look at you!” her day-care teacher said when I managed four neat braids.

Renita MarFe was one of the original admins of Not Just Hair, which was created in 2014. From the start, she recommended products, gave out homemade styling cream recipes, and suggested styles that would be appropriate for hair of different textures and lengths. MarFe, who has two adult children, got involved in the transracial adoption community when her longtime white friends became foster parents and fostered a black child. MarFe stepped in to give hair advice to the parents, and eventually joined some online communities on the issue.

Much of what MarFe could tell people was not hard to find by Googling or asking a black friend, but MarFe and other admins of the group found that many white parents didn’t have any black friends to ask, didn’t live near any people of color, and didn’t necessarily think this was a problem. Without a patient hand to hold, some parents never look for the information they need, or even realize it exists. Worse, they may find information that validates biases about hair, like that it “isn’t that important” or “shouldn’t be a big deal.” Not Just Hair set out to remedy these problems.

In one of the first long threads on Not Just Hair, in January 2015, a handful of black and white women talked through the paradox of not wanting to teach their kids to be conformist or pass on racist ideas about what kind of hair is respectable, but wanting, at the same time, to protect kids from the racism they could experience if they didn’t adhere to standards of done hair. The conversation was thoughtful, respectful, and dug deep into the intersection of race, class, and respectability politics.

Over the next nearly three years, there would be many more conversations like this in Not Just Hair. As the members grew into the thousands, it became a lively place with several new threads every day, each gathering dozens and sometimes hundreds of comments. There were tutorials, product reviews and demos, and recommendations for everything from a braider in Belgium, Pittsburgh, or Utah, to black dermatologists, and barrettes that won’t fall out.

But like all big Facebook groups, Not Just Hair could also be toxic. Some parents came to the group to learn from the black admins, but others were not excited to learn that the colorful yarn they had been using on their child’s hair was not culturally appropriate for a little girl, or that leaving a black child’s hair loose all day would lead to matted and sometimes broken hair. Members could be blunt with their commentary, and while admins were often gentle in their feedback, white moms were taken to task for sending their kids out with “free hair” (the group’s term for an uncombed Afro), or dressing their child in a shirt with a big watermelon on it. These parental moves violated the basic tenets of the group, either by failing to care for their child’s hair or dressing them in racist symbols.

As a result, there was a constant stream of people publicly leaving the group, posting something passive-aggressive or just plain nasty on the way out (of course there’s a term for this, too: “flouncing”). At times there were four or five flounces a week. Each flounce post could garner dozens of comments mocking the poster for her white fragility.

Renita MarFe and another former admin, Nikki Pride, identified these pile-ons as some of the worst things about a group they loved. MarFe said, “If someone came in unknowing or hadn’t learned yet, sometimes they would get piled up on. We ran away a few people that way.” Pride noted, “You had those who felt the need to prove their ‘wokeness,’ and it ended up being an exercise of ‘I’m the best ally.’” Both MarFe and Pride were diplomatic about this, but both felt the flouncing and the resulting comments were big problems that made the group sometimes feel like a well-meaning but nasty mob.

In discussing Not Just Hair’s downfall, MarFe and Pride identified the lack of admins as the biggest problem. There was so much going on, and not enough people with expertise to weigh in. The group felt it was really important that all the admins be women of color, but that made it hard to recruit admins from within, when the members were almost entirely white women. And becoming an admin wasn’t exactly an easy sell: Help us try to teach white women — many of whom are not ready to listen, and downright indignant if not openly rude — how to care for their own children. There’s no pay, and it will take up a lot of time.

Many of the admins were also foster or adoptive parents with kids of their own to tend to, and eventually they became too overwhelmed. At the end of November 2017, the admins chose to archive the group.

Since the group closed I keep thinking about the paradox the group left us with: the white women in the group really needed the information and guidance of the people of color who were leading the group, but those people were exhausted by the white people, on top of dealing with the everyday stresses of racism. Of course it makes sense that they would be exhausted, and want to take a step back.

What’s true in Not Just Hair is true about so much anti-racism work that needs to be done. It’s sometimes possible for white people to learn what they need to learn by Googling, but it’s better if it comes from a person of color that they have a relationship with, and have come to know. But that puts the onus on the people of color, who are already carrying an undue burden.

Just when I started to wonder if I’d ever find another community like Not Just Hair, I found a new group, another spinoff from the transracial adoption mothership. It’s not quite four months old, but so far not a single flounce, not one monkey on a shirt. Just patient women of color ensuring that children like my daughter get culturally appropriate, well-cared-for hair and black women they can look up to. It’s lovely, and I’m worried before long it will fall apart, too.

What a Group of Black Moms Taught Me About My Child’s Hair