It was serene day at the zoo. I took turns with my husband carrying our then infant son and preschool age daughter while our oldest daughter walked alongside us. As we exited an exhibit and paused to discuss where to go next, it happened. Again.
A white woman, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, gushed to my preschool age daughter who was sitting on my hip, “Oh, what beautiful hair you have!” And then, in seemingly slow motion, her hand reached forward, aiming for my daughter’s curly ponytail.
I reacted in half a hot second. I turned, body-blocking the woman’s hand with my opposite shoulder. The woman seemed surprised, but didn’t give up. She tried again, and I took a step to the side before her hand could bury itself in my daughter’s styled curls.
Ever since my kids could talk, we have taught them a simple phrase: “Do not touch my hair. I do not like it.” I wish I didn’t have to teach my kids to say this, but we have faced incident after incident where a white stranger will compliment their hair and then reach forward to pet my kids.
Yes, I said pet.
I’m of the belief (call me ridiculous) that a stranger shouldn’t touch a child. It’s just inappropriate. It’s awkward. And it goes against a very important lesson we all should teach our children: that their bodies belong to them.
For some reason, white adults continually use their size and status (as an adult) to attempt to touch my kids’ hair. It doesn’t matter if their hair is in an afro, if it’s long or short, if it’s in cornrows with braids, or if it’s in a simple ponytail. The hair-touchers are out there, and they have no shame.
I know. White people are curious about black hair. I get it. Before I became a parent, I had never touched black hair. I believe that’s because my mom raised me with manners. I knew better than to put my hands into someone else’s tresses.
It really doesn’t matter where we are. We’ve had hair-touching encounters in lines for the restroom, in the checkout at Target, at school events, when browsing for books at the library, trying to order food at a restaurant.
Here’s the deal. My children don’t exist to satisfy someone else’s curiosity. Furthermore, this isn’t a petting zoo, where there’s an open invitation to touch. My children are people, people with feelings, people with a right to personal space and privacy.
And frankly, hands are nasty. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched grown women exit the restroom without washing their hands. God only knows where these strangers’ hands have been before they reach out to caress my kids’ curls.
Given this volatile time in history, where daily we hear stories of white people sticking their noses in black people’s business, at barbeques, on college campuses, at the coffee shop, you’d think the hair touching would be on the decline. But it’s not. And it needs to stop. For plenty of perfectly valid reasons, including the fact that hair-touching is a microaggression.
If you see a black child with a beautiful hairstyle, offer a compliment. But never believe that you deserve to reach out and touch a stranger-child. And don’t interrogate the child either: “How long did that take? I bet you had to sit a long time! I never could sit still for hours and hours!” (Newsflash: we don’t care how you, as a white person, would feel about a black hairstyling session.)
It’s 2018, ya’ll. Don’t violate my child of color with your hands or your words.