In the African-American community, the significance of hair cannot be underestimated, a source of either self-esteem or self-doubt. So for white parents of black children, making sure their youngsters are well-coiffed is as much a priority as good nutrition and potty training.
This reality came into focus recently at a sold-out workshop, “Caring for Afro-textured Hair and Skin,” at the Cradle, an Evanston-based adoption agency.
“People are judged by the way they look,” said Julien Drouet, a white father of Lily, 3, and 10-month-old Victor, whom he adopted with his partner, Brandon Walt. “I don’t agree, but if we want to help our kids, we need to know how to do this.”
Drouet was up early on a recent Saturday morning to immerse himself in the merits of braids versus twists, rake versus rattail combs and relaxers versus going natural. The class, believed to be the only one in the Chicago area, is about more than good grooming. It illuminates the crumbling of one of society’s last barriers and the gradual acceptance of transracial families into America’s melting pot, experts say.
Not so long ago, such adoptions—-whether the kids came from the U.S. or overseas—-were rare. In 2005, only 5 percent of Cradle placements were across racial lines—-and not a single child came from Ethiopia. In 2010, 20 percent of the agency’s adoptions matched black children and white parents, while Ethiopia now ranks second only to China as the largest sending country to the U.S. Other agencies throughout Illinois have seen similar increases.
“It’s becoming more common,” said Joan Jaeger, a spokeswoman for the Cradle, which opened in 1923. “And Angelina Jolie didn’t hurt either.”
For the first class, the parents brought their youngsters, which quickly turned chaotic. So now, the instructors demonstrate on their own daughters, Kira Okeke-Banks, 9, and Ajhalie Jean-Baptiste, 7, while participants follow on a foam mannequin heads.
Another visual aid is the 38-page resource guide. The list of “dos and don’ts” include: “Make yourself unavailable for one to three hours,” “Provide toys, snacks or a favorite movie,” and “Do not make any plans until your commitment to your child’s hair is complete.”
“I always knew I was going to have a family … and this was how I was going to do it,” said the Arlington Heights mother, who adopted by choice, not infertility.
Even so, hair never entered the equation. “When I have to brush it, she cries … then I cry.”
Take John Wright, 32, a single attorney, furiously taking notes as if he were back in law school.
The Evanston resident adopted 2-year-old Jonah last year “because I always wanted to be a Dad,” he said.
Initially, his family was cool to his decision; transracial families are rare in his native South Dakota. But recently, Wright’s father wrote Jonah’s birth mom a letter expressing gratitude for his African-American grandson and will eagerly show off photos to anyone.