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.