“Race is a mirage, but one that we do well to see…” — Ibram X. Kendi
“Would you adopt a child of a different race than your own?”
When the social worker asked me that question a little over 15 years ago, I replied almost glibly. “Of course. Who wouldn’t?” She pointed out that 95% of prospective parents want a child who looks like them. I felt very superior in rejecting that notion. What would race have to do with my ability to love?
I see now how much my answer was all about me.
Adoption isn’t like ordering from a menu at a hospital — check off your choices and someone brings your order later on a tray. You can’t really say, “I want a green-eyed redhead of roughly seven pounds.” But the truth of the matter was that whenever I pictured my child, I pictured a girl of mixed heritage. Girl, because my closest friends are female, and mixed because I am. As the son of a Cuban immigrant and a Yankee farm girl, I had learned code-switching at an early age and knew what it was like to navigate differing perceptions of my identity. I thought this would make me a natural at shepherding a mixed kid through life.
The universe granted my wish, a healthy daughter. But while I was of mixed ethnicity, she was of mixed race of African-American descent. And there began my education.
Though it’s true that I have helped my daughter process some facets of the mixed-identity experience over the years, it is even truer how obviously naïve I was to think that being mixed-ethnicity and mixed-race are interchangeable, to imagine that all mixed kids share the same trajectory.
Our fates have been sorted on the galling basis of visuals. When America sees me, it sees white skin. When it sees her, it sees black hair. For that distinction, American favors me and endangers her.
. . .
When Lily’s baby curls were first asserting themselves, I was inaugurated into black culture by women of color who approached me to offer suggestions about hair care. Lily had so little hair at the time that, if it was styled at all, it was simply divided into two micro-puffs sprouting from either side of the top of her head. The problem was the part, which seemed neat enough to my tired new-dad eyes, but not to these women.
One, a dentist eating out with her family in a Mexican restaurant, offered to come to our home and teach us. The other, sitting across from me on the bus, told me that a metal-tipped rat-tail comb would neaten up the part and warned me against “white folk shampoo.”
I felt a bit shamed (did the part really require an intervention?) and a little defensive at first. I wasn’t “white folk” — was I?
I had learned the word Spic in elementary school when someone used it to describe my brother and me. In high school, I fended off jokes about Scarface and cocaine. When I was a young teacher, two different principals called me Juan Valdez and asked about my coffee and mules. The speakers were always, always white people; I did not really think of myself as one of them. I gratefully nestled under the “person of color” umbrella. And when I adopted, I did not for a second think I was a white dad adopting a black girl; I thought of myself as a mixed dad adopting a mixed kid.
But the two women offering hair care tips knew what their American eyes could see before them. How I saw myself was not the point. They were watching out for her. And I knew it.
Getting Lily’s hair right was my job as her dad, and I doubled down on it. YouTube is full of women and girls of all ages doing black hair care tutorials; they introduced me to a world of products and techniques that had never before mattered to me. I learned that my daughter’s 4c hair is going to shrink about a zillion times faster than someone else’s 3b curls. As she got older, I grew adept at doing cornrows, discovering by trial and error that that too many beads could be a literal headache.
Doing Lily’s hair became a part of my life that I loved: moments when my always-on-the-move girl sat snuggled between my knees, content to let me tend to her. The tactile connection felt as dear to me as the infant hours when she was strapped to my chest in a baby bjorn. Sometimes she liked the results better than others — woe unto the dad who screws up a cornrow pattern that she will have to wear to school — but it was precious. It was us time.
She was 11 when she asked for box braids, the first hairstyle I knew was beyond me. We went to a Haitian-owned hair salon with good reviews on the black hair care boards. The owner was very welcoming — until it was time to get started. She told me I could leave, and the implication was not “could” but “should.” She promised she’d call me in four or five hours. All at once, hair time was someone else’s time. I had to let go because it wasn’t about me.
Lily loved her braids. As a girl whose hair seemed to only get curlier, not longer, she reveled in the chance to flip her hair. She enjoyed having a hairstyle worn by her black role models — and, maybe just as much, one her white classmates couldn’t wear. It was, as they say, a “crowning glory.”
. . .
My daughter was in her first year of competitive cheer at the time and she was thrilled that her team made it to nationals, to be held at Disney’s ESPN Center. Until her coaches told her she had to cut her braids.
The idea was that the braids were too long for regulation and the whole team would be penalized if she wore them on the mat. Lily was beside herself — but she didn’t want to refuse because she’d worked so hard to make it to nationals and, come on, what kid doesn’t want to go to Disney? She’d already had the experience of being kicked out of an indoor soccer game for having beads at the end of cornrows; the referee would not budge, even if she wore a head covering, no matter how loudly the parents protested. She was 9 when that happened and it had cemented for her, for us, that taking a stand meant losing the chance to play.
What I should have done is told the coaches there was no way in hell she would trim the braids. But she didn’t want me to do that, fearing that her coaches or teammates would be mad or, even worse, that she wouldn’t be allowed to compete, which would doom the whole team’s chances at nationals. When she said that I should go ahead and cut six inches off the braids, it was awful: she cried the whole time and then cried herself to sleep. I couldn’t sleep at all, busy berating myself: Why on earth had I so easily given in to this senseless demand? Who was I protecting by leaving the burden of the decision on an 11-year-old?
By the time of the competition, Lily’s joy and excitement had returned. But you can imagine her complicated feelings when an all-black squad took the floor, every one of them wearing braids as long as the ones I had cut. The difference? Their coaches were black.
When I told Lily’s coaches how terrible this experience was for us, they were not only apologetic but honest: they really didn’t know anything about black hair; they’d never had a cheerleader with box braids; they had never noticed that girls had been allowed to compete with full braids before. They weren’t bad people; they were white people who didn’t know. In her four years cheering, they never again asked her to compromise for white beauty standards.
In middle school, my daughter surrounded herself with kids of color. Between black friends and YouTube, she learned how to do her own hair in natural styles, settling on an afro-puff style that she liked, and saving box braids for a once-a-year treat. Wearing her hair natural was a matter of pride. By then, father-daughter hair time was a thing of the past, like Polly Pockets or Nickelodeon, and my only role was to be a supplier of an ever-changing array of oils and creams (but never, ever white folk shampoo).
This remained true until the COVID-19 spring. A month into social distancing, she asked me if we could do box braids. And by “we” she meant me. The prospect scared me. Knowing how seriously hair can affect her mood (and how often a teenager finds fault with a middle-aged parent), the pressure was on. Add the role of hair in black culture and the stakes felt pretty high. But how could I say no? After more than a few YouTube tutorials, I agreed.
My workstation was a bit comical. Not having expected to be doing this, I was short on banana combs for sectioning the hair and resorted to grabbing chip clips off bags of Plátanos and Takis. Our rattail comb with the metal end was inexplicably missing, so I snagged a metal skewer from my drawer of random cooking implements. With anime on the TV to keep her occupied, I settled in.
I started at noon, expecting it to take a long time, maybe seven or eight hours for a novice. But I’d underestimated how steep my learning curve would be. I wrestled with each grip, where synthetic and natural hair met, yielding braids not tight to the scalp. And I realized too late that I’d forgotten to stretch the hair, so that the blunt ends were impossible to taper nicely. Re-braiding the first rows as result was a chore, but there was no choice. If it came easy, it wouldn’t be a crowning glory, right?
In the hours that followed, I had a lot of time to think. About the women who do this all the time. Not just the paid professionals but the parents doing it for love. About how what I saw as a monumental task was unremarkable aside from the fact that it was new to me. And, unlike the white woman who claimed she invented the sleeping bonnet, I knew that any progress I made was only possible because of all the black women doing it better.
Even as my back and shoulders started to ache and my hands cramped, I leaned into the task. I started to find a groove, tightening the grip, and borrowing strands for more elegant tapering. Midnight came and went. It was 1 am before we were sealing the ends, almost too tired for either of us to exult. I knew she was happy to have braids again, but I was thoroughly humbled. The whiteness of my life experience had been a greater limitation than I imagined.
. . .
She was still wearing her braids when we celebrated her 15th birthday, five days after the murder of George Floyd. To observe social distancing, she wanted to do a reverse car parade; instead of people driving by our house, we drove past the homes of her friends around Boston area. Wearing a dress, heels, and a tiara as a nod to the quinceañera tradition, and riding in a car festooned with ribbons and signs, she brought treats and balloons to her besties. Their joy in seeing each other after isolation — even standing a few feet apart — was electric.
But there was no forgetting what was happening outside the birthday bubble. Between stops, she’d scroll through footage of protests or memes comparing the treatment of George Floyd to Dylan Roof. And then she’d wobble out of the car on crazy-tall heels to deliver another cupcake.
Every friend was a kid of color, most of them black. Seeing them enjoy each other so much in the full sunlight of a perfect day was almost physically painful to me in its beauty. I kept thinking: Breonna Taylor had a 15th birthday too. I kept imagining her mother’s photo albums, full of happy images that gave no hint of what was to come. I looked at these kids I love, kids who do not have my skin, who have not had my privilege, and I was petrified:
I didn’t say any of that. I just smiled and smiled and kept snapping photos. Sunlight rests on dark skin differently than on light skin; it awakens blues and browns and coppers until the word gleam takes on new meaning. They glowed like stars.
24 hours later some were rinsing tear gas from their eyes.
. . .
I got a text from one of Lily’s coaches that week. She wanted to apologize. She was unsure whether it was appropriate to reach out and she told me I didn’t need to answer, but she felt compelled to write: “I admit I didn’t see how much of a problem my actions were. And I know that I still have a long way to go and that I have been quiet way too long.”
I cried. She didn’t have to text. She had spent the years after the braid incident making my daughter’s life better, and she has been part of my daughter’s happiest moments ever. She could easily have called it good enough. Instead, she said what needed to be said. And she didn’t stop there or claim to be done with learning and growing. She offered to be there for Lily in the future.
She did what every non-black person in America should be doing right now.
. . .
I’ve seen a lot of people owning their failures, the ways they have manifested racism, and the lack of understanding that made it possible. Last night, I texted a friend, who was confronting a past hurtful action of her own, to say what I think of as the grace and the charge of these difficult weeks for so many of us.
The grace: You don’t know until you know.
The charge: Once you know, act like you know.
What does that mean for me? I’ve been thinking about my rosy vision of being the mixed dad paving the way for his mixed kid and how that compares to the facts of our American experience, which make me a white dad and her a black kid. Life demands that I acknowledge the ways the same colorism which has long benefited me threatens her. I have to face the fact that this country will not love my child the way I do. (Black parents have known this all along.) And that’s the easy stuff to face. Some things are harder to admit.
When I glibly told that adoption agency that race didn’t matter, I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. It hurts to say it, but being so cavalier was just about the whitest attitude possible. What I meant as an affirmation of my openness and lovingness was, instead, a display of privilege. In any other context, if someone said to me, “I don’t see color,” I would be quick to explain why that line doesn’t make sense. I would point out the impossibility of unseeing, of resisting every message of racial categorization that America continually sends. Yet that’s exactly what I did.
I’m not suggesting that non-black parents should never adopt black kids. And I really do believe that the universe (ascribe to that what you will) intended my daughter to be my daughter. But my rose-colored glasses are off; it’s clearer to me that there is no removing race from the equation — or from any equation in America. Non-black Americans need to use this moment to take a good look at our choices in just about every facet of our lives and ask hard questions:
How does that which benefits me harm others?
What do I owe others who do not enjoy the same benefits?
What am I doing to close the gap?
. . .
Two months after they went in, my daughter’s braids came out. She is wearing her hair up again, which refocuses her features, making her cheeks stand out. The dimples — one always present, the second needing to be earned — are on display, just as they were the first day I met her. When I became her dad, I could see only the baby I wanted to bring home, not the history she would carry. Not the future we’re in.
But now I see.
Now I see.
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.
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