The author's son with his dope 'fro.

The author’s son with his dope ‘fro.


By LIZ DWYER

In the summer of 2008 I cut off all my chemically straightened hair. No one warned me that my transition to a natural mini-fro meant I’d be flipping on a neon sign that would flash across my forehead, inviting curious white people to have a cultural experience with my hair but without my consent. Since then, I’ve been called everything from a snob to a black bitch for saying “no” to people who’ve asked to touch my hair.

Sometimes they don’t ask. They just snatch and grab—and then act shocked and angry when I don’t respond positively.

Given my experience, maybe I should’ve warned my 13-year-old son what he was in for when he decided last fall to grow his hair into an afro. After seven months, he has a breathtaking halo of hair—one that’s flashing the same undevised “touch me” message to his white peers. And he can’t take it anymore.

“I want to be bald. Completely bald,” he told me one recent morning while picking his hair out in the bathroom.

A record needle screeched across my brain. “I thought you were going to keep growing your hair out so you could see how long it could get before the end of the school year?” I said.

“No, I’m going to shave it,” he replied. “Anything so that kids at school won’t be able to touch my hair anymore. Can we do it tonight?“

He’s previously told me that some kids look at his hair and say it’s cool, while others make fun of it, throwing up their fists and yelling “Black Power!” at him.

But he’s also complained with increasing frequency about kids who pat his afro or try to run their fingers through it, and, like I’ve experienced, kids—nearly always white boys—who aggressively grab it. 
I told him we’d talk about more after school. “You don’t want to make any hasty decisions about your hair,” I said.

White parents have the luxury of worrying about head-shaving as part of an angsty, teen-rebellion phase—or maybe their kid threatens to join a Skinhead gang. Black parents, however, along with having to worry about our kids getting shot for playing hip hop on the car stereo, wearing a hoodie or buying Skittles, also must have conversations with our children about dealing with white classmates who believe black bodies don’t deserve respect.

To get some ideas about how to approach the conversation, I did what we all do in the 21st century. I took to Facebook. My friend Zhaleh wrote that it bothered her “that the adults in the school tasked with protecting him haven’t done so.”

It bothers me, too. My son attends a middle school with over 1,500 kids and fewer than 2 percent of them are black. Indeed, when I asked one of his teachers if she’d ever read books about educating black children—like Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race—I was met with hostility. Other conversations with school staff have had a “sorry, racism exists, so your son better get used to it,” tone. The school doesn’t protect him, because let’s face it, that’s generally not what public schools do for black children.

“It sucks that he feels his best option is to change something about himself,” Zhaleh continued.

The comment punched me in the gut. I stopped chemically straightening my hair because I knew that I couldn’t tell my sons that black is beautiful if I was eradicating any evidence of the kinks I’d been born with. Despite that decision, here was my son, feeling like the way to be safe in America is to change himself.

That evening, at one of our favorite cafés, I let him demolish a slice of apple pie and sip on a cup of hot chocolate as I broached his hair-shaving declaration.

He’s been out with me when people have tried to touch my hair, so he knows I know how it feels. “Have you ever heard me say I’m going to shave my hair so white people won’t touch it?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied. He confessed that not only does the touching make him feel like he’s being treated “like an animal or a slave,” but that he’s also “getting really paranoid” about germs. “I don’t know where their hands have been and it’s unsanitary,” he told me. “I could catch MRSA. It’s just gross in general.”

We did a couple minutes of role playing—I pretended to be him and he pretended to be a kid trying to touch my afro. He told me that he’s already perfected his bobbing and weaving techniques in order to avoid grabbing hands. He’s tried telling kids, “Hey, you know, I’m not a petting zoo, I don’t like my hair being touched.” Nothing deters them from trying.

“What do you think would get them to stop?” I asked.

“If I break their hand because they tried to touch my hair…”

I cut him off. “If you do that, then you’re the problem. You’ll be sent to the office and you’ll be the one in trouble.”

And isn’t that the way racism works in America? When people of color don’t go along with obvious racist behavior, if we don’t ignore racial micro aggressions, if we advocate for ourselves, if we point out that injustice in our schools and workplaces, then we’re the problem.

To most of America, my son should be glad that kids want to touch his hair. Over the years I’ve been told by white people who’ve either touched mine, or asked to touch it, that they’re just curious. I should be flattered that they think my hair is beautiful enough to touch. Well, I’m not flattered, and neither is my son.

“They’re the ones who have to change,” I told him. “Not you. So, no more getting rid of your hair talk unless it’s really your choice to do it, mmkay?”

He agreed, and I’m relieved—I love his hair. But we are still left with no real way to get kids to stop touching it. Sadly, I don’t have any concrete way to get America to stop touching mine, either.

Liz Dwyer is a Los Angeles-based insomniac, writer, and editor. She believes in working for social justice, running marathons, and fangirling about Depeche Mode. Read more of her work here on xoJane.

10 Comments

  1. This is assault. When you or any one says, “Do not touch any part of me” and they continue, it is assault and I would file assault charges. Who wants other peoples’ nasty hands touching their hair? Yes, it’s nasty. File assault charges.

  2. I grew up as a “white” kid in Africa in a region that hadn’t seen “white” kids for over 20 years. When going into villages or traveling little crowds to entire villages would run up to me, surround me and touch my skin, my hair, pinch me. Sometimes it got intense as everyone wanted to be able to touch that different looking white child. Nothing bad ever happened though.

    Although I was white to me it was normal that the majority of people in my life were coloured different shades of brown, from mixed, to light brown to very dark brown. I was shocked at the amount of white people living in Europe when my parents decided to return when I was 10 years old. Yeah that sometimes happens too.

    I am still confused to this day when I read articles like this one. I remember one day traveling to Atlanta, Georgia and getting a cab. Traffic was slow and I started a conversation with the cab driver who was African American. Halfway through my second sentence he said: You are not from around here, are you? No white woman from around here would start an open conversation with a black taxi driver, that just doesn’t happen. I confirmed that I was indeed not a “local”. We talked about racism and how it was still very much alive in Georgia and the USA. Being an outsider I was shocked and also I never really grasped how deep racism really goes on both sides of the black/white coin. The bitterness, the anger, the prejudice and the clouded vision on both sides.

    I think to some level although acknowledging that yes a majority of kids will be racist because they were raised that way I think it is still important to also, wherever possible, to allow space for dialogue. True empowerment lies in being able to defend yourself but at the same time still keeping an availability for open communication and dialogue for those peers, whatever colour, who are receptive to it.

    I can imagine though that this situation for an young adolescent boy, being African American in a mostly “white”school, with a heavy cultural legacy to bear can make him want to shave his head sometimes. How about occasional braids to create some breathing space once in a while? Trying to think creatively here.

    • Are you serious right now? Your advice is for him to braid his hair to keep those nasty little hands out of it? Does white people have to change their hair just to keep others from touching them? How about you white people allowing blacks their space. That would work. When you were in Africa, you were very much unique. However,there is nothing unique about being black in America. All white folks here know what black people look like. What he should do is…everytime one of them touch his hair, he should touch theirs back. Then we will see how long it takes them to get the message.

  3. What really gets me about white people touching black people’s hair is….They appear to be so damn shocked when they realize how soft the hair is. I’m wondering if they thought they were going to get a brillo affect, or something similiar.

  4. oops….I meant effect

  5. He doesn’t have to break their hand but he can smack it away and tell them not to touch him. He can yank their hair right back. IMO you need to be up there anyway as much as you need to be before they get it through their heads that they need to keep their hands off him. I tell my 3 year old to keep his hands off of his playmates, why can’t these people show the same respect? Get in their face and demand respect!

    What area of the country is this where the white people aggressively touch hair?!

  6. Take your complaint to the media and file a police report charging battery. Have him take pictures or have someone follow behind him a few days and take pictures of anyone touching his hair. He needs to say “don’t touch my hair” like he means it – with furious outrage and get in their faces close enough so that he can accidentally spray spittle on them.

  7. File assault charges against the kids, the kids’ parents and the school. Also, if your state permits, file bullying charges.

  8. I delt with this to I’m jewish an we have very thick cury an yes kinky hair I do not like anyone touching my hair unless it a friend or hair dresser doing it .i rember this woman asking me if she could touch my hair as she was asking me I was freaking out inside becuse with a friend but when she left I un load on my friend tell your son the next time someone ask to touch his hair say can I touch your first lol so rude

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