Touching Hair And Other Microaggressions White Adults Need To Stop Doing To Kids Of Color

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Ali Cummins Photography

For almost 11 years, I’ve been mothering children of color. Being in a multiracial family has been an eye-opening and interesting experience. Unfortunately, there are too many times when white adults violate my black children through microaggressions.

For those who aren’t familiar, racial microaggressions are “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

Here are the most common racial microaggressions my kids face from white strangers.

1. Touching their hair.

Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse

Just last week, we were attending our oldest daughter’s dance recital, when a white woman spotted my second daughter’s hair. She had just had it braided in cornrows with cotton-candy blue woven in. The woman exclaimed, “I love your hair!” and before my daughter had finished saying thank you, the woman reached out and ran her fingers through my daughter’s braids. I looked the woman in her eyes and firmly told her, “Don’t touch.” She drew her hand away, her eyes wide, and immediately apologized.

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There are so many reasons why strangers shouldn’t touch children in the first place. However, a white person who touches a black child’s hair in the name of curiosity or admiration is engaging their white privilege. White privilege, essentially, is the rights white people have or believe they have because of their race. White privilege conveys, I can do what I want, when I want, because I am white.

It boils down to this. Black children are not pets. They don’t exist to entertain or satisfy curiosity.

2. Repeatedly mispronouncing and misspelling their names.

One day after school, my daughter arrived home upset. After dishing out snacks to all the kids, I asked my daughter what was wrong. She confessed that one of her teachers, whom she had been a student of for almost three years, kept mispronouncing her name.

I encouraged my daughter to correct the teacher, and she stated that she had, many times. I was appalled. First, my daughter’s name is pronounced exactly like it is spelled. Furthermore, even if it wasn’t, it’s insulting for a white teacher to repeatedly mispronounce a student of color’s name. After all, a person’s name is essential to who they are.

Unfortunately, this is all too common. Many of our friends of color face name mispronunciation and misspelling on a daily basis. White people will either continue to say or spell the name incorrectly, stop using the person’s name, or call them by an “easier” nickname.

In the case of my daughter, I contacted her principal, who is a woman of color, and explained the situation. She promised me she would handle it. I’m guessing she did, because for the remaining months of that school year, the teacher finally got my daughter’s name right.

If an adult gets the six versions of Aiden correct, then they have the capacity to get Tamika and DeAndre correct, too.

3. Claiming that all people of the same race look alike.

Courtesy of Ali Cummins Photography

Last summer, my family was vacationing in Alabama when a woman approached me on the beach. She smiled and asked me about my triplets. I asked her what she was talking about, and she gestured toward my three oldest children who were building a sand castle.

My kids have three different skin tones, very different features and body types, and they are three different heights. Each of my kids is two years apart in age. But to this woman, they were three black kids who must be triplets.

Two years ago, one of my children was in a classroom that only had one other black girl in the group. My daughter would tell me that daily the teacher mixed up the two girls, calling them by each other’s names and handing them each other’s papers.

The girls look nothing alike, with different skin tones, facial features, hair styles, and heights. Likewise, their names couldn’t have been more different. My daughter and the other student corrected the teacher, every day, to no avail. For nine solid months, their identities were mixed up.

Time and time again, my black friends tell me that white people claim that all people of color “look alike” and are “hard to tell apart.” It’s dehumanizing and insulting.

4. Interrogating them.

Oftentimes when we’re out running errands, a white person will stop us and compliment my oldest two girls on their hair. My girls automatically thank them, but too often, that’s when the stranger decides to start an interrogation.

“Wow! Did you have to sit still for a long time?” the stranger asks. My girls will answer honestly that it takes about two to three hours to get their hair braided. The stranger will grow wide-eyed and reply something like, “Oh my gosh! That’s such a long time. I could never sit still that long! How in the world do you sit for hours?” They’ll ask, “How often do you wash your hair?” or “Does it hurt to get your hair braided, because it looks really tight?”

These encounters can be embarrassing for my kids. Not because they aren’t proud of their hair or aren’t racially confident, but because when adults they don’t know demand answers from them, rapid-fire style, it’s uncomfortable.

A simple kind comment is fine, even appreciated, but expecting children to explain their blackness to adults is inappropriate.

5. Assuming based on stereotypes.

Courtesy of Ali Cummins Photography

Last summer, I was sharing with two mom friends that we had finally chosen a dance studio for my oldest daughter to sign on with. Before I could share that ballet was her dance of choice, my friends piped up, “Hip hop?”

I delivered an unsolicited mini-lecture on black girls in ballet, referencing Misty Copeland and Michaela DePrince. Because black girls aren’t limited to dance type based on their race. Several of my friends who are parenting Asian children have had similar experiences, adults assuming that the children are proficient in violin and math.

Stereotypes are harmful because they attempt to limit children of color instead of allowing them the freedom they deserve to live an unencumbered life. Kids should be able to choose from every possible activity and subject, settling into what brings them joy and allow them to foster their talents.

It’s 2020, and it’s time for these white shenanigans to end, because kids of color deserve respect and personal space.

My kids are people with rights and feelings. They should be treated as such.

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