Don’t Touch My Hair…Please

The restaurant had only one bathroom.  My family and I had been coming to this vibrantly colored beach club every day of our week-long vacation because while they only had one bathroom, they had tons of lounge chairs and daybeds, entertainment, and food and drink service right on the beach.  U.S. regulations would never allow for a place that could comfortably house hundreds of people to have only a single bathroom for men and women but I wasn’t in my country so I learned to make do — which meant I always handled my business early in the day before the bathroom got too gross.

On New Year’s Eve, per my strategy, I handled my business early in the evening before the drunk 20-somethings with bad aim and high alcohol tolerances arrived.  I walked from the bathroom and stopped to pet a dog, a boxer mix that always lounged across from the bar area that was surrounded by mature, tamarind trees.  He spent his days looking out from under his hooded eyes at passing patrons and at the huge iguanas that would scamper by with his same level of disinterest.  This time when I spotted him, surprisingly his head was upright, not resting on his two front paws.  There was a cream and black pug puppy laying lazily on the sand next to its owner, a 50-ish White woman, who was sitting on a bench.

The woman, clad in cut off jean shorts and a Led Zeppelin faded t-shirt smiled at me and struck up a conversation.  “Lockett,” she  said pointing to the boxer, “is this restaurant’s owner’s dog and only one year old.  He adores my dog, Priscilla; but sadly Priscilla is 10 years old and has no interest in playing with Lockett.

She chuckled.  I walked closer to her, leaned on a wooden fence, and talked with her more about dogs and such.

As we were talking, she reached out and gently started rubbing two of my long, blonde-dyed, braids between three of her fingers, her eyes staring at them admiringly.  “Your hair is so beautiful.  Does it take a long time to get it done?”

“Six full hours” I replied simply, though my mind immediately busied itself in the complex search for the correct response to an uncomfortable situation.  Do I become angry?  Do I tell her how offensive it is to have your hair touched without invitation (particularly when it is a White person touching a Black person’s hair following years of slavery, where my people were treated as property)?  Do I grab her hand and push it off of me?  Do I give her a smart ass answer like I did to a woman last week and respond in turn “how long does it take for you to do YOUR  hair,” so maybe she’d recognize that her question was odd.  Do I just play nice like many of us have been trained to do so I don’t appear angry?  Do I good-naturedly accept the woman’s curiosity?

Experience, Tequila, and being uber-relaxed led me to leave my answer as stated, without any further explanation or added emotion, “six full hours” and then to move to change the subject.  “You clearly are a regular.  Do you live in Tamarindo?” I inquired.

“Yes, I moved here almost two years ago,” she answered, taking a large gulp of her Imperial.

“So cool.  What made you move Costa Rica?”

“Trump, she spat as if saying his name tasted nasty in her mouth.  When he won. I knew I had to get the hell out of the United States.  He’s such a racist, sexist, douchebag.”

We continued to talk for a while, primarily about her obvious hate for our current President and the decision to move.  I bought her another Imperial and made my way back to my lounge chair on the beach.  I thought about the lady and the way she touched my hair.  That moment was so representative of the issues around diversity that I discuss in my speeches and classes.  People do offensive things typically because they are uninformed and not because they are bigoted.

On one hand, this woman was so repulsed by Trump’s stance and treatment of disenfranchised groups that she left her home and moved to another country; yet she touched my hair, which is considered an offensive and racist act by most Black people.

It is most comfortable to identify people with specific labels.  We feel safe if we can easily tag and separate people by good and evil; however it’s typically not that clear cut.  We are complicated beings.  A person can love her gay son and ask her co-worker when he decided to become gay; a man can love and be proud of his mother’s many business achievements but still assign the “note-taker” role to primarily female colleagues.  This phenomena is more heightened when you consider that most of us don’t  know much about people whom are different from us  – so sometimes we say and do the wrong things.

My guess is that when the woman touched my hair, she felt a genuine curiosity about it; an admiration for it.  She wasn’t thinking how her unconscious privilege makes her feel comfortable touching me, someone she doesn’t know (which is why almost every Black person has a story of a non-Black person touching their hair or many women have stories of people touching their pregnant bellies.).  She probably never considered that Black people were once treated as animals, sold at auctions alongside oxen, pigs and horses.  We were inspected and accessed, as one does property before they buy it.  So, to have our hair touched, without invitation, is not only rude and violating, but viscerally offensive and upsetting.

She didn’t know.  While, in anger I could accuse her of being racist, I believe that she was simply uninformed.

In moments like these, the best decision is to educate the offender.  America is diverse, full of different cultures, but most of us live lives that are more monocultural.  Consequently, we oftentimes don’t know the correct cultural etiquette and language of others.  In response,  we all must be cultural teachers and learners.  There have been and there will continue to be days where I will politely try to educate people like my new friend in Costa Rica.  There will also be times when her touch hits my last ‘patient Black person nerve (when I have read the latest news about a Black person having the police called on them, or a woman cut me in line, or I’ve listened to the most recent politician’s statement in support of white supremacy) and I will snap and show my anger.  There will times like I had with her, when I will keep it simple and let it go.

But the burden of positive interactions shouldn’t be just mine  – the teacher in this case – to bear —always trying to figure out how to best handle a situation, carrying about the regrets for things I should’ve said or for the things I did say.  Too often, Black people must endure the pain from the offense; AND ensure that their corresponding response is “acceptable” to receive any support.

While I believe that the woman who touched my hair was not trying to insult me; I firmly assert that intention does not erase responsibility or injury.  She has, as we all do, an obligation to continuously learn about the people around us.  Black people have been learning all of our lives how to work with White people – typically our survival and success depends on our ability to do so.  Now, as the world is changing, White people, too, must learn about others or there will be lawsuits, increased Human Resource complaints, attrition, tension and disputes.

Class is in session. Lesson 1: Don’t touch my hair.

 

 

 

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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