Like I mentioned in my earlier post, I grew up with very different, often difficult hair. Along with making me miserable through my teenage years, it had the ability to draw strangers to touch it, like some weird, frizzy magnet.
In class, I would feel a tug, turn around, and see someone withdrawing their hand from my ponytail. “Sorry,” they would say, “but I just had to touch it.”
While out shopping with my friends, strangers would come up to me and ask if it was real. Or if it was a wig. Then their fingers would follow suit, reaching out and touching my hair, mere inches from my withering glare.
The issue with touching the hair of people of color has been written about for years, but essentially, it boils down to those in the dominant culture feeling like they have the right to reach out and touch your hair simply because it is different. For many black people, this type of assault dredges up the tumultuous history between white people and black people, and the idea that touching any part of them was seen as acceptable, because they owned them.
It’s about ownership of your own body, in a way. No, you can’t dive your hands into my curls and proclaim that you just, “wanted to see if they were soft or not.” What, do your vocal cords suddenly fail you when faced with my hair? This is my hair. Not yours to touch, thank you very much.
It just happened to me again a few days ago. An older colleague with stick-straight hair started to reach out, asking, “I just love this,” (as if my hair is on display, like art or those tacky wedding centerpieces). This time, I leaned back out of reach and replied, “Thank you. My hair is pretty awesome.”
Explaining this issue to students can be tough. White students often don’t understand what’s so wrong with touching their black or brown friends’ hair.
Heck, even Zootopia, the amazing Disney movie, tried to explain it in one scene. The fox gently squeezes the fluffy bun of a sheep. His paw is instantly swatted away by the rabbit, as she hisses, “Stop it! You can’t just touch a sheep’s wool!”
I so wish the scene had gone on to explain why. It’d make my job easier.
Here’s how I went about it, for any teachers out there that may encounter this scenario and need a sort of script:
I had a Vanilla Latte student milling about (he is famous for not being in his seat when he needs to be) and he came up to me to tell me some story about goodness knows what (also, he is famous for telling terrible stories at the worst times. Once, we were about to start state testing and he came up to me and asked, “do you like mustard? I just had it on a sandwich today. It was pretty good. Like, I think I like mayo more, but I just wanted to…”). As he was waiting by my table in the center of the room, he reached out and gently rubbed a black student’s head.
“So fluffy,” he said, as the other student just stared ahead. “Ms. Mocha, you should feel this. It’s like stuffing out of a teddy bear.”
“Do. Not. Touch. His. Hair,” I said, my words sharp and pointed. Vanilla Latte Kid pulled his hand away as if he had touched a hot stove.
“What?” He asked, “Denzel doesn’t mind.” (Not the student’s real name, but let’s face it, we would all have to channel Denzel in the face of this level of ignorance).
“Maybe not, but why don’t you go back to your seat,” I replied, composing myself. “Let’s chat a bit after class, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Vanilla Latte Kid said, moping as he went back to his seat. “But it did feel like stuffing.”
I ignored the comment, knowing I would be able to address it later, but as I stepped back to my table, Denzel mouthed a quick, “thanks.”
After class, Vanilla Latte Kid (VLK) came up to me, already armed with reasons why he had not done anything wrong. “I just wanted to feel it,” he said, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
“How would you feel,” I began, “if I reached out and pulled your ear?”
VLK started to respond, but I jumped right back in.
“And, not just that. When I pulled your ear, how would you feel if I then said, ‘oh wow it feels so weird! That is the weirdest ear I have ever felt! It’s waaaay weirder than any of our ears! Look at his super crazy looking ear!”
Vanilla Latte Kid furrowed his brow. “It wouldn’t feel good, that’s for sure.”
“Why’s that?” I replied, “I just want to feel how different your ear is.”
“Because you’re making me feel different than everyone else,” VLK said. “Plus, you can’t just touch someone’s face like that. It’s their face.”
“Right,” I said. “So how do you think Denzel felt when you touched his hair?”
VLK looked at the ground, and subconsciously tugged at his own ear. “Probably not very good,” he said, “but I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
“You probably didn’t. I know you, VLK, and you’re a good guy. But, we have to think about the impact that our actions could have on other people. Can you try to do that a little more from now on?” I decided, at the last minute, to spare him from the racial history. But I did want him to know that he had “othered” someone, and that wasn’t cool.
“Yeah. Definitely, yeah,” VLK said.
Since then, VLK hasn’t touched Denzel’s hair, and I’ve mentioned that I’ve noticed and appreciated that. It’s always good to note the progress students are making in their own social justice/equity journeys.
He, on the other hand, has returned to telling his stories. In the middle of state testing, his hand shot up. When I went to him, he very seriously mentioned that Buffalo Ranch Chicken Wings Doritos (I had never heard of this abomination, but is it wrong that I am curious about them?) are not as good as the classic flavors.
So I guess we’ve all learned something.