White Ladies, Black Babies: How I Got Schooled on Baby's Skin and Haircare

I recently discovered I didn't know the first thing about my baby's skincare. What else don't I know?
Publish date:
April 12, 2012
hair, race, family drama, skin, fostering

Tuesday, I brought the baby in to the office. Wednesday morning, as I settled into my desk, a co-worker stuck her head in my office with a hesitant, "...Hey..."

"So one of your colleagues," she continued, "mentioned that you might be worried about the bumps on the baby's face..."

She then proceeded to school me on the care of my foster baby's skin, punctuating her tutorial with a story about her biracial friend whose hair looked "crazy" until she went to college due to her white mother's ignorance of how to style black hair.

I felt a little busted, a little embarassed, but mostly super, super grateful.

The hair, at least, I was on top of. Helena's response to a baby picture, after "Ouch, my ovaries!" was this: "Do you have 'black friends' that can school you on that beautiful head of hair?"

Which, yes, I do, but there is something sensitive and vaguely weird about reaching out to someone for race-specific information ... "Hey, you're black, can you tell me how to xxx?"

Also, none of them have babies, so asking them how to take care of a black baby's hair seems a little like expecting all black people to know about basketball. (Which is wrong, despite the fact that I will never stop believing all black women can sing really well.)

At the same time, I already get a surprising (to me) amount of dirty looks with this baby strapped to my chest, and I don't want to add people sideyeing because they're thinking "Damn, that white lady fucked up that beautiful black baby's hair."

So I asked Helena to help, as well as sending out an SOS email to Bassey (has a son, with hair) and Patrice (natural hair expertise). After taking their suggestions, you'll be happy to know that Little Man is fully moisturized with soft, manageable hair for the first time since we got him. Seriously, I felt horrible once I realized what a mess he'd been all week.

There's a learning curve with any new baby, not just one of a different race. But cultural diferences aren't as easy to suss out as say, feeding schedules, or anything else you can look up in Dr. Spock. I'm only realizing now how many parenting resources presume white babies, and I'm not hooked up with alternatives yet. And yes, that last bit is something I probably should have noticed before.

Some people have said to us, "Wow, you must be a dream come true for the foster agency," meaning, I worry, that we are educated and a little more than financially comfortable and, maybe, just a tad under their words, that we are white? But I don't think any of those things make for better parenting. And in the case of a black baby, (and so far all of the foster children we have met are black, as well as all of the foster parents and all of the home finders and case workers), I think it is in fact a disadvantage that we are white.

Walking down the street the next day, we passed a police car and my partner said out loud, "That's the police. They're here to help you."

Hmm. Is that what you teach young black men about the police, I wondered? I felt there was probably more information there, information that couldn't come from me even if I knew exactly what it was.

And that's the crux of the race-matching philosophy when it comes to parents and children -- that culture cannot be taught, only lived. If this placement ends up being long-term, it will be my responsibility to try to expose the child to people who are better suited to help him develop an ethnic identity.

When a child of a different race joins your family, even temporarily, you want to make sure to honor his identity. In foster training, they likened this to a baby triangle joining a family of squares. Instead of trying to saw your triangle's sides down and whittle him into a square, you want to create a new triangle-square hybrid. (In the example, they drew the triangle on top of the square, making a little house.)

But since he's not old enough to talk, and has been in care since birth, he can't fill us in on the triangle stuff. And I know that I am ignorant about it, and my ignorance makes me scared to reach out. White ladies with black babies is, after all, a sensitive subject. (Although the other option would have been to check a little box that says "WHITE KIDS ONLY PLZ" on our paperwork, and that doesn't seem any better.) So thank God for angels like Helena and my co-worker, who offered their help before I had to ask.

I guess I'm just trying to open up a dialogue here, and announce myself open to feedback. Nobody has to be a cultural ambassador for my foster baby. But I'm taking suggestions.