Methods: Eleven semi-structured interviews were conducted with female adolescents (ages 13-17) who identified as African American and were under the guardianship of the child welfare system. Purposive sampling was used and participants were recruited through outreach to caseworkers. Participants included those placed in relative and non-relative care, and with caregivers who identified as African American and non-African American. Interviews addressed the following: identity, ethnicity, hair, socialization, and foster care. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and principles of grounded theory, including open-coding and thematic analysis, were used for data analysis. In addition, the colorist-historical trauma framework was used to explore how colorism surfaces in relationship to hair.
Results: Participants reported that hair is important as an extension of who they are and how they view themselves as African Americans. Four major themes emerged: 1) perceptions of hair and identity as an African American female adolescents; 2) hair care experiences/support and perspectives; 3) societal influences on self-awareness; and 4) influence of the foster care system. The analyses suggest that the way in which hair care matters can differ based on connection to culture, understanding of what it means to be an African American female, and exposure to outside influences such as media and other people’s perspectives. Additionally, colorism was evident in participant narratives, suggesting it is also a factor to consider when discussing psychosocial and emotional well-being of African American children in foster care. For example, one participant explicitly addressed colorism by noting: “... they say light skin is prettier. I said, I guess you can say that, call it how you see it. I could care less... they will be like, you are too dark and I’m light. I am, ok, that’s fine. They think light skins have better hair, because they are light. You know how light skins have long hair. I was like no, some light skins have no hair and dark skins have better hair, I think, than light skins.”
Conclusions and Implications: Participants provide recommendations for how the child welfare system could increase awareness of the cultural significance of hair and hair care practices in order to validate and support the needs of African American children in care. They highlight the need for improvement in child welfare policies and practices that are culturally responsive.