Black Child, White Foster Home

          What I remember most about foster care is the complete loss of autonomy and identity. I was once placed in this foster home in the outskirts of Riverside County, miles away from the urban environment I knew in Los Angeles. The school, city, and family were all White and had seemingly never interacted with a Black child before.

“You have to wash your hair every day,” my new foster mom told me as she did the customary run through the list of rules before I even had a chance to put my bags down. She looked tentatively at my braids; long, thick, rebellious strands that fell down to the middle of my back.

“Everyday!?” I asked. Even at 11 I knew that was a mortal sin. If you are Black, you don’t simply “wash your hair every day.” In fact, the Great Hair Washing happened once a week, at most, but more commonly every few weeks. It took great preparation. Time must be set aside in one’s day. The air was always thick with the smell of haircare products and tears. Afterwards, inevitably, you sat between the legs of aunties and older cousins while they blow-dried, pressed, and braided for hours.

          Most symbolic of this nostalgic ritual is the designated container in which all the various haircare products are kept. “Go get your balls and barrettes,” I can fondly remember hearing growing up. An old bread tin or Tupperware container, this was a well-known staple item in black homes. Even now I can remember the familiar hair and grease scent that always overtook me upon opening.

In a moment’s time these memories flashed in my mind as I sat across from my designated caretaker of the month. “Yes, every day,” she said. “We are a spiritual family, and cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Horrified, she glanced at her husband and took a deep breath. I guess I was already presenting a challenge. I just sat there. Without an identity or any ounce of autonomy, I longed for the smell of that bread tin. Maybe then I would remember who I was supposed to be.

In foster care, every decision is made for you. As you are moved from house to house, culture to culture, who you are seems to not matter to anyone anymore. What you eat, where you go to school, who you sleep next to, and what God you must worship, is all arbitrarily decided for you. Your own individuality, who you were before the child welfare label system assigned a case number to you, is of no concern to your new family. Their goal is to assimilate you as seamlessly as possible into their family routine. To break you. To make you one of them. And as a child you can only assume that who you were must not have been good enough.

Black child, White home, Black hair. I emancipated from the foster care system at 18 with both my hair and me being broken by the entire experience. Both took years to repair. Both will need lifelong maintenance. Now in my 30s, I unapologetically wear my hair in long brown locs that fall at the same spot on my back as my rebellious braids once did. My hair remains a symbol of my autonomy and individuality. With my foster care experience long behind me, both my tresses and I are well on our way to a healthy recovery.