Shorn Dignity: The Value of Hair

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We white adoptive parents of Ethiopian children have, I believe, a responsibility to care for our children’s hair in a way that honors not just the hair texture but the heritage of the child.

Among the punishments that Larry and Carri Williams meted out was shaving the head of their adopted daughter Hana. Testimony in the ongoing assault-murder trial suggested that   Hana’s head was shaved at least twice, maybe 3 times.

The reasons given were lice, a fungal infection, and punishment.

My 4 kids (2 boys, 2 girls) all had lice in elementary school, as did their friends. Lice are unpleasant and inconvenient, and relatively common, whether one’s children are black, white, or other. There is no reason to shave a young girl’s head, and I know of no one who has ever done so. Commercial and natural products abound for treatment of lice.

As to the fungal infection–maybe a patch of hair would have to be removed, but the notion of shaving all the head seems unnecessary, and indeed punitive.

This brings us to the testimony of one of the Williams’ biological children, who said that her parents had shaved Hana’s hair because Hana had clipped the grass too short, or had failed to rinse the shampoo out of her hair completely.

In any case, their action was punitive, disproportionate, and cruel. Shaving Hana’s hair as a punishment stole from Hana her dignity and her beauty. It was a cruelty that she would be constantly reminded of when she looked in the mirror, or when others looked at her.

Long hair and braiding are the norms of an Ethiopian girl’s life (and that’s true of black girls in America too). It’s a social norm, generally a mother-daughter ritual, especially when the child is young.

I’ve seen in the court documents and elsewhere that Hana loved to braid her hair. I’ve no doubt that is true. I also know that braiding one’s own hair is possible, but that having someone else braid it is easier, and is a part of black culture.

Hair is a huge part of identity, beauty, history, and heritage.

In the case of adopting older children, understanding this reality may be especially important. Adoption agencies need to emphasize the importance and techniques of caring for black children’s hair. This should be a serious part of the adoptive parent preparation process.

Knowing how to braid or cornrow, knowing good strategies for scalp treatment, knowing what caps to use at night: these aren’t intuitive, and we white adoptive parents may need to learn new skills when adopting black children.

A whole cottage industry has evolved around hair care, some especially geared to adoptive parents. Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care is one example.

The best resources of course are people who live where the children are being raised. For Hana, this would have been women from the Ethiopian community, who could have braided Hana’s hair and shown Carri and her daughters how to braid as well. It’s another, aching part of the tragedy that this never happened.

I’d argue that we adoptive moms need to care for our children’s hair the same way it would have been cared for in their family/culture of origin, by their first mothers. We need to ask how to do it, and to embrace that knowledge not as a chore or burden, but as a gift.

2 thoughts on “Shorn Dignity: The Value of Hair

  1. Hair care is an enormous amount of work. I’m not sure that we would be as persistent about the cultural norms that our child was born into if we had more than one child. That said, one of the reasons we stuck at one child was that it’s important for the child’s ability to integrate into her hyphen-American community for her to look like what she is (my child is not Ethiopian, but similar expectations apply). How could they fail Hana in this most intimate way? It pales in comparison to her death and other forms of physical abuse, but it’s glaring.

  2. I agree totally. While Hana was having to ‘integrate’ into American society – the parents also had a need to ‘integrate’ into her world – by helping her understand her history, about her country – and to keep alive some of her culture – like her hair. NO child should he having their hair cut for punishment !! It’s ‘cruel and unusual’ for a start … and totallly wrong in any normal person’s eyes. If these parents didn’t do with their own children – WHY – I ask were they doing it to Hana ?? This wasn’t ‘just’ punishment – this was vindictiveness.. and maybe even a racial attack.

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