Being Adopted Into A White Family Cost Me My Black Hair Identity

Kelsey Rickards, 25, from Liverpool, is a personal assistant at Sample Beauty. Having recently appeared on BBC podcast, The Sista Collective, she tells Refinery29 the incredible story of how she rediscovered her black hair identity after being adopted into a white family as a baby.
"I was born on 22nd January 1994 in Zimbabwe and shortly after my birth, I was adopted into a white family. My birth mother is white Bulgarian and she has told me two different stories about what my father looks like. Apparently he’s Zimbabwean with a chance of being native Australian. Either way, I got my tight curly hair from him!
My adoptive family were well-off in Africa. We had a pool, a maid and I went to a private school, but when we moved to Liverpool when I was 6 years old, it was evident that we were quite a lot poorer. Our status wasn't the only thing that was different. My hair was, too. Back in Zimbabwe, I spent time around African women and children with the same short, curly hair as mine, but in the UK, I felt like an outcast. My first school memory is crying in the reception because everyone looked pretty and I felt abnormal. I remember feeling so separate from the other girls with my hair cropped so close to my head.
Courtesy of Kelsey Rickards
Part of the reason why my hair was cut short is because I was a naughty child and I didn’t like sitting still, so it was easy for my parents. But it's mainly because they didn’t know how to handle my textured curls. My aunty gave my mum suggestions for black hair styles and products but we couldn’t really afford them.

All I wanted was to have long hair to flick around like in the shampoo ads, so I used to put a towel over my head and pretend that I had lush, long lengths.

There is a five-year gap between me and my sister, who is also adopted, but is white. I never looked at her hair and thought, It’s not fair, but I always wondered why my parents grew her hair and not mine. Growing up, she was able to wear pretty accessories and style her hair in different ways. I was never jealous of her, but I was jealous of other girls in my class. Plaits, ponytails, different coloured bobbles; they wore their hair in lovely, fashionable ways but I couldn’t do anything with mine. All I wanted was to have long hair to flick around like in the shampoo adverts, so I used to put a towel over my head and pretend that it was actually lush, long lengths. I used to think, Imagine one day when you have long hair. This is what it will be like.
I felt marginalised for my hair and experienced racism for the first time in primary school. One girl told me that I couldn’t go on a school trip because I’m coloured. I didn’t think anyone liked me and they thought I looked like a boy. I distinctly remember being chased around the playground by kids five years older than me, who used to call me Michael Jackson, 'microphone head' and so many other horrible names. One day I wore trousers and a teacher asked me if I was a boy or a girl in front of the whole class because my hair was so short. I was mortified. It got so bad that I would be anxious about going to the toilet in a shopping centre, for example, because I thought people would ask, "Why is a boy going into the ladies?" Of course, I know I’m a girl, but my hair made me feel so boyish. I was so young but I was experiencing such a huge identity crisis.
Soon after, my mum said I was old enough to look after my hair and I was left to my own devices. I didn’t know braids were an option, especially growing up in such a white area of Liverpool, but I was allowed to straighten my hair and put extensions in. In a school of 1,500 kids, only about 10 weren’t white. You didn’t see curly hair or braids so I just wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. I remember the first time I went into school with straight hair, people were like, "Oh my god, is that Kelsey?" It was like a moment in a film when the main character blossoms and stops being the ugly duckling. She walks through the school in slow motion, dead sassy and they all gasp, "Wow!" Everyone said it looked amazing and the bullying stopped, but that’s when people got jealous. I looked like them now; I was more attractive and that triggered different aspects of bullying aside from my hair. I started to get a bit more attention from boys and some girls used to call me a 'slag' or point out that my hair wasn’t real. I still wasn’t good enough to fit in. I still wasn’t the same and that was so hard.
Courtesy of Kelsey Rickards
I discovered my true black hair identity when I met my first boyfriend in year 10. He was mixed race and his mum and sister had tight, textured curly hair similar to mine. I saw products in their bathroom and started to use those, which gave me the courage to go curly in school, and it was actually okay. I finally learned what shampoo to use and my boyfriend's mum would always slip me a few products, but I only really found out what was good for my hair at 21! I learned that I shouldn’t shampoo it as much as I had been and that sulphate-free shampoo was better for black hair as it doesn’t strip hair of natural oils or weigh it down. I remember feeling so shocked at how amazing my hair could be.
It was when I met my second boyfriend that I finally learned to understand and truly love my mixed hair. He helped me start my hair page on Instagram and hair brands would send me products suited to my hair. At that point, I asked my parents why they didn’t try with my hair when I was younger, and it was always a money excuse. Once, my dad told me that he didn’t see the problem and that it’s "just hair". But it isn’t just hair. It’s my black hair identity and I felt as though I had been robbed of it all these years. I moved out for a week after that! My boyfriend has a better way with words than me and explained to them that more than ever my hair identity is a big thing. Now they finally understand. However, my grandparents don’t. Sometimes they tell me I look like I’ve been dragged through a bush, that my hair looks like a bird's nest or they tell me to brush my hair to make it look neater, but they don’t understand that you can’t brush curly hair! I simply roll my eyes at it because I know it doesn’t work like that. This is my hair and it’s never going to change.

Instagram has been an integral part of discovering my black hair identity. So many people have gone through the same experiences as I have.

Instagram has also been an integral part of discovering my hair identity and so many people have gone through the same experiences as I have. That was mind-blowing to me because I thought I was the only person who had gone through this. The power of social media allowed me to realise that I’m not the only one. Hair may seem superficial to other people, but to me, and the women who contact me, it isn’t. Eventually, I want to do hair tutorials but I actually do my hair in the bath, so I’d have to figure out a way of doing it that's more camera-friendly! It’s only in the past four years that I've realised how great my hair could look, and I always think, Who knew my hair could do this? I try and get myself out there more now and I love to show people that, yes, I had a tough childhood but it’s not like that for me anymore. I actually want to go into schools to educate young girls about natural hair. I want to tell them that it’s okay to have curly, textured hair and that it’s beautiful. I want to start workshops with parents, too, to teach them which products and methods to use to take care of curly hair.
My advice to anyone struggling with their hair in 2019, whether that's parents or young girls, would be to accept that this is who you are, this is your hair and it's important to learn how to embrace it, because things will get better. I'm proof of that. I'd also really recommend getting braids if you're finding curly hair tough. It gives hair that long hair quality that I so wanted when I was younger but without losing curls or the hair identity within you. They last for ages if you look after them properly.
While it still shocks me that people are often taken aback by curly hair in this day and age, I live safe in the knowledge that I am now at peace with mine."

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