Hair, or How Not to Be a “Karen” SLP – Part 5

Image courtesy of OrnaW on

Let’s Talk About Hair

The texture and color of your hair are genetic. The health of your hair has to do with your medical status, any medications you take, your diet, the environment, and how you care for it.

What you “do” with your hair depends on your culture, your gender/gender identity, and your personal preferences.

Why am I bringing up hair in a post about how to be more culturally responsive? Because different cultures think about hair differently. And, you may be making “Karen” mistakes without even knowing it. Here’s the TL; DR spoiler alert: A school-age client and her family recently underwent a investigation by CPS because of the client’s hair braids. The “Karen” teacher reported the child and the family to CPS because of a mark left on her neck by the beads in the girl’s hair braids.

Let me just say up front that because of the texture of my hair and my genetic heredity, I’m really out of my wheelhouse here. My hair is a result of my western European and Native American roots. It’s a courser texture, rather thick, and does what it wants. That means it parts where it wants on my head everyday. It hangs straight no matter what’s done to it – no matter how much product, no matter how it’s dried, no matter how hard someone else tries to get it to curl with a curling iron. Some days, with enough patience, the ends will curl under. Sometimes, for an hour or two, maybe. Because of the softness of my hair, it’s a challenge to get barrettes, clips, etc. to stay in after I start moving around. My hair will even escape a 3-strand braid by the end of the day. And those escaped strands hang down stick straight even after being in a braid for hours. It’s used to being washed every day – a side effect of having been a competitive swimmer growing up. If I don’t wash my hair every 24 hours, it starts to look like I put Crisco in it beginning at the roots.

Most Asian, Native American, Caucasian, or Hispanic/Latino people “do” something with their hair every day. Some people wash their hair every day. Some people wash their hair 2-4 times a week. Some people wash their hair once a week. The scalp tends to be oilier which means the hair needs to be washed more often because the hair also becomes oilier. For many people, the hair on the head tends to be relatively straight and hang downward. There are many people who have curly hair. But, the curly hair tends to form relatively loose coils. As it gets longer, it tends straighten to hang downward as well due to the weight of the hair.

Many mainstream culture women tend to add some “curl” or “wave” to their hair to give it “volume.” This can be accomplished with rollers, curling irons, flat irons, and styling products. (Fun fact – I own none of these things – I’ve learned to not waste the money. I own only a hair dryer and a roller and flat brush.)

Many people of African decent have hair that is very different. Because of its texture Black hair tends to be brittle, fragile and breaks easily. The scalp tends to be much, much drier. Hair on the head tends to be much curlier than the hair of people from other ethnic backgrounds. The curls may have an “S” or “Z” shape to them when stretched out. The hair of many people of African decent is not as shiny because of the shape of the hair cuticles. It has nothing to with the health of the individual’s hair or how they care for it. As the hair grows out, it does not necessarily grow or hang downward. The hair may grow in all directions. It can be “typed” based on the tightness of the curls in the strand. The curlier the hair, the more coarse it may look.

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Ironically, the curlier the hair, the finer the texture and the more brittle it will be. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that people with Black hair wash their hair only every week or two. They recommend the use of conditioner and hot oil treatments, using heat protecting styling products before using heated ceramic combs and irons once a week, making sure that braids, cornrows, or weaves aren’t too tight, and using caution when using chemical relaxers. In addition to being damaging to the skin and hair, there is a link between chemical hair relaxers and cancers of the female reproductive organs.

Many people of African decent braid or relax their hair to give it “weight” and help it hang downward. The beads and elastic bands at the end of the braids help give shorter hair more “weight.” It takes a lot of time to place the braids, cornrows, or weaves or to undergo chemical relaxation. In the Black community, this time is important in forming and strengthening family and community bonds. (Braiding/styling hair also serves the same social purposes in Native American cultures). Because of the time and effort involved in styling Black hair and in the history of White people demeaning Black adults as “boy” or “girl”, it is considered offensive to touch the top of a Black child’s head like many White people tend to do with their own children without permission. It also is considered offensive to touch the hair of many Native Americans without permission because of beliefs about the connection with the Creator, ancestors, and/or thoughts.

Again, the TL;DR version: If you’re mainstream culture, just don’t touch the hair of your clients from CLD backgrounds unless they ask you to touch their hair.

So, now to the story and the reason for this post. One of my clients is an elementary school-age girl who is Black. She has amazing natural hair and I’m honestly jealous of all the things she and her family can do with it. I’ve seen her with ponytails, braids and beads, and extensions. She and her mom usually change her hairstyle every week or two. My client attends full-day a special education class at a local charter school. She’s verbal, very savvy, “people smart,” and at that stage where you definitely have to, “trust, but verify” what she says. For example, on the day this episode happened (a Thursday with school the next day), she told me, “My teacher said I don’t have to go to school tomorrow.” (Sure, kiddo…) That morning, my client had gotten in a disagreement with her mom about which shoes she was going to wear to school with her AFOs (ankle-foot orthotics that require a shoe size at least a size larger than the child’s foot). She was mad because her mom said no to the shoes she wanted to wear. I can just see her stomping off to class while pouting about it! She apparently related part of the story to the teacher – and then embellished. She told her teacher that her mom “spanked” her. When the teacher noticed a red mark about half an inch long right where the girls hair braids and beads fell along her neck, the girl told her teacher her mother burned her with a curling iron. Here’s the thing – neither of those things happened before she went to school that day. The girl then told the principal a different story and the CPS case worker a third story. But, apparently, the mark on her neck from the beads at the end of her hair braids was enough for CPS to begin an investigation.

Nothing came of the CPS investigation because nothing had happened. However, the teacher’s decision to call CPS has broken the trust between the teacher and the family. The family is exploring other options for school for the next school year. The CPS call has changed how the mom styles her daughter’s hair. The girl also now uses a sleeping cap every night so that no beads or braids in her hair will leave marks on her neck.

If you’re a mainstream culture SLP, how often have you had to change your hairstyle and/or the way you sleep so a “Karen” won’t call CPS on you?

The issue of hair discrimination is so prevalent in the Black community there is legislation in Congress to make it illegal to discriminate against anyone’s texture or style of hair (the CROWN Act). It passed the House of Representatives during the 117th Congress, but failed to reach the floor for a vote in the Senate. Because we’re now in the 118th Congress, the bill will have to be passed in the House again before being sent to the Senate. Personally, I’m not hopeful that we’ll see the bill passed in the House during the 118th Congress.

In the meantime, if you’re a mainstream culture SLP there is one very simple thing you can do for your clients who are racially and ethnically different from you. If you don’t want to be a “Karen” SLP, stay out of your clients’ hair – literally!

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your thoughts, questions, and comments about the post.

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