Touching my hair and stealing my humanity, or How white supremacy robs us all

Given the current state of race relations, the story that I am about to tell is seemingly small. After all, America is currently being governed by an openly white supremacist madman who lacks compassion and empathy for anyone who falls outside of his base. We are in the midst of a dumpster fire called America and the truth is, we may all burn to death if things don’t change. Hyperbole? Less so than we really want to admit.

However, the truth is that the same thing that is driving our president to destroy our country is the same thing that drives the vast majority of white Americans to fall short when it comes to race relations. The inbred desire to only see whiteness as the one, true way to live life. Anything that falls outside of whiteness and its world is treated as an anomaly, a freak occurrence or a curiosity piece. Rarely are ways of being that fall outside of the white paradigm given the same level of respect and courtesy that whiteness is given and sadly this extends to actual people.

This morning, I went out to breakfast with my co-parent. We are still friends and we take our family and shared financial expenses as seriously as we did when we were a romantic unit. In short, our getting together to break bread and talk is not an unusual experience.

As we were wrapping up breakfast, an older white woman stopped in front our booth and interrupted our conversation to tell me that she loved my hair. I politely said thank you and continued speaking with my co-parent. The woman turned to walk away and as she walked away, I suddenly felt my head being patted while simultaneously watching a look of horror wash across my co-parent’s face. As I felt her hand patting my head, it hit me…this woman who I didn’t know from anyone had just taken it upon herself to touch my hair.

It’s not the first time that a white person has taken liberties with my body (or specifically my hair) and I am pretty certain that it won’t be the last. At least once a year, I encounter a white person who thinks nothing of reaching over to touch my hair, never asking if it would be okay; just assuming that it is perfectly acceptable to touch the head of a perfect stranger. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but in what world is it acceptable to invade the personal space of a perfect stranger? I have never in my life reached out and touched anyone’s head who was not a family member, friend or lover.

Yet ask any Black woman or non-white person and many of us have stories of having our space and persons invaded by white strangers who feel they have the right to touch us. We are touched in the same fashion that one reaches down to pat a dog, cat or other cuddly creature.

I can only conclude given my understanding of how white supremacy operates that this lack of understanding of how to interact with strangers who are Black (or other POCs) is born from the same driver that puts whiteness on a pedestal. It’s the inability to see non-white bodies as equal to their white bodies; the inability to see the humanity of others and to meet people as equal members of the human family.

Yes, I know that white women whose features fall out of white physical norms are also subjected to these invasions of bodily autonomy but it simply does not exist on the same scale that it happens to Black bodies. Whether it is touching our hair, our skin or commenting on our appearance and its “difference.”

While my hair being touched by a stranger is seemingly small, let’s look at the larger picture and see a president who openly attacks women of color via his daily Twitter rants, who openly threatens to pull the much-needed relief aid from Americans of color who are recovering from a hurricane of epic proportions while chiding them for a “lack of responsibility” and who makes time to denigrate Americans of color for exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest, we can see how the dots connect. Especially at a time when white nationalist activity is growing in this country.

The greatest threat to America is not an outside threat; it is the festering sore of white supremacy that is ravaging our national body. All white people are infected by white supremacy. While that may be a hard pill to swallow, especially if you are reading this piece, it doesn’t make it any less true. I work with white people who are committed to dismantling white supremacy and yet too many times, even in doing the work, I have seen people whom I personally like continue to perpetuate the same destructive behavior that they are fighting against. I am sure that the woman I encountered today didn’t see herself as engaging in harmful behavior; after all, she gave me a compliment. But intentions usually mean nothing when compared to the negative impact of those intentions (e.g., if I intended to drive safely and harm no one, but my attention drifted or I disobeyed a driving rule and now you are lying broken and twisted under my vehicle, how much would my intentions matter to you?).

At the end of her encounter with me, that woman at breakfast had dehumanized me. She treated me not like she would an unknown white woman but instead like she would treat a pet or a doll. She reduced me to an object to satisfy her need in that moment. It wasn’t enough to compliment my hair and move on; she needed to touch it without permission, thus taking what might have been a random and possibly warm moment and turning it into a moment of making me feel invaded and demeaned. This is what white supremacy does: It strips the humanity of people. But make no mistake: It’s not just Black and other POC whose humanity it steals, because it makes monsters (large or small) of the white people who invoke that white supremacy.

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43 thoughts on “Touching my hair and stealing my humanity, or How white supremacy robs us all”

  1. I don’t appreciate being assumed to be a racist because of the color of my skin, as I am sure you don’t appreciate being assumed to be (fill in the blank)because of your skin color.

        • @Bob…that is sad. I could see the hurt in her eyes, a hurt I am all too familiar with. She is a little doll with her pretty brown skin and curly twists!

          When I saw the part about kids calling her “Nutella” I honestly hope they didn’t also call her the other “N” word, if you know what I mean.
          I wouldn’t even think that Nutella could be used as an insult because Nutella is something sweet and loved by almost everybody (like chocolate).
          But I figure some people will do anything to bring others down. I wonder if her parents can switch schools? Maybe that’s a dumb question, but it might help. Sometimes a change of environment can really bring a person back to life.
          Being in an environment where one is constantly tormented, abused, made to feel inferior, can destroy a person’s self-esteem.

          • Yes, it is sad. I think that “Nutella” was the least of the insults thrown her way. At one point, she suggested as much.

            Indeed, she’s a beautiful black child, one of the reasons, I suspect, she’s attacked (bullied) by her white classmates.

            Surely, the adults have observed this. Why aren’t they using it as a teachable moment?

            Her experiences will certainly leave scars and create challenges that she’ll have to meet and overcome if she’s to have a healthy and productive life.

            Oftentimes, blacks face extra hurdles–racial obstacles with which to contend–hurdles with which others may not have to contend, as they move through life. Yet, we can’t give up the fight, we have to find a way over, under, or around those obstacles, and leave a legacy of achievements to encourage future generations of blacks, inspiring them to excel despite the obstacles.

    • I called you a racist, and you’ve given me no reason to retract my statement. My position is one of self-preservation. Your calling me a racist is one of self-adulation.

      If indeed you’ve been the victim of racism, having received thousands of racist cuts over a lifetime, as have I, some deeper than others, then put whatever name you choose within that blank you’re pushing. If you haven’t been so treated, then your hypothetical is as worthless as the argument you’re making.

      If anything, I’ve wounded your racist white pride, and this coming from a complete stranger, and, God forbid, one who’s black. Yes, I made “assumption about you,” and I gave you my reasons, reasons grounded in reality and not a hypothetical, as have been your reasoning.

      That’s my point: Blacks are often the object of others assumptions and stereotypes and based on nothing more than our skin color. It’s okay that we’re stereotyped unfairly, but blacks, on the other hand, have to see Missy Kathleen as the perfect woman she claims to be.

      And when whites are losing the debate, what do they do? They conjure up the worst images they can–and there’s none greater than Hitler, the Jews, and the Holocaust–and attach those images to your opponent. Didn’t you forget something? This was a white on white crime, not a black on white crime against humanity. Nevertheless, white on black crimes have abounded over the centuries, not unlike those perpetrated on African blacks by whites, whites such as King Leopold II, chief among them.

      Your “point of view” is as redundant as is my racist experiences, of which I’ve been a recipient on more occasions than I care to remember. Given the crimes against humanity perpetrated by whites (black slavery, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, colonialism, racial oppression, and suppression), you’d do well to listen, and talk less, as whites, when it comes to the black race, have a steep learning curve.

      A history lesson: It wasn’t blacks who enslaved whites, who went into Europe–as did whites into the Americas–committing a Holocaust against this nation’s indigenous people, and into Africa, slicing it up as though it was a large chocolate cake. No, it was evil whites from Christian countries who saw black men and red men as savages, as sub-human and therefore on a par with animals of burden, to be used for their sick pleasure.

      As for judging you by the “content of your character,” it’s all over the place, and I’m afraid it’s not a very pretty sight. I wish I could say that your demonstration here has convinced me that you’re not racist, but that conclusion would be disingenuous, as you’ve spent some time here showing your true self, a self of which you should be ashamed, and not boastful.

      • @Bob…dang, brother, you brought the heat! 🙂 You did not mince your words at all. At first I thought you were a bit hard on her but you know what?
        Sometimes the truth needs to be said. I don’t know her to be able to call her racist per se, but I was annoyed by what was clearly an attempt to stop others from speaking their truth on this issue.
        Because (and it needs to be said, no disrespect to anyone) a lot of white folks try to shut us down when we talk about experiences we’ve had.

        “Life would be better if we assume that most people have the best of intentions”; “I treat ALL people as people”…does she expect a cookie?
        Maybe a trophy? Because like you said, for most POC, we don’t have the luxury of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.
        There are people who leave their homes and never return alive because somebody made assumptions about them (Trayvon Martin, anyone?)
        So POC are being asked to assume good intentions about others but most of the time, we are not given the same treatment.
        I think about Tamir Rice, the child who was shot by police on a playground because a white woman complained about a “scary Black male” holding a weapon. It was only a toy, but the cops killed him without even trying to figure out the situation first.
        He was just a little boy but because he was Black and tall for his age, no one assumed “the best of intentions”. They saw him as a threat who needed to be taken down.

        Or like the times I’ve walked into a store to shop, only to be treated like a criminal? Only to hear “security, please scan all aisles” when I am one of the few POC in the place?
        And the many numerous indignities that we suffer as part of being who we are in a society like this one.
        That stuff drains us and it is something that tone-deaf, insensitive people refuse to understand. They want to pretend that life is a bowl of cherries.
        They want us to shut up and stop talking about it. They want us to live in their fantasy world where we’re all just human and we’ll hold hands and talk about having friends of different races, but never actually TALK about the reality of racism.
        And that is the most frustrating part. Because to truly be an ally, one has to acknowledge that maybe a person they know has been hurt by it somehow, and that maybe the best way to handle that is to simply say “I’m sorry that happened to you” and to listen.

        NOT to tell folks that their perception of the incident is wrong and that they are assuming things.

        • @MB: Without whites being aware, they give telltale signs of their racist tendencies, as did Kathleen. I would have pointed them out to her, but I didn’t want her to use that knowledge to disguise future comments.

          I’m afraid she wasn’t interested in my “truth,” if it deviated from her own. In that exchange is a revealing of her racist tendencies, tendencies extant throughout most of her comments.

          Yes, our experiences are discounted at the outset, as it places them in a bad light, a light that they will often seek to justify or deny.

          Unfortunately, our experiences and the experiences of other blacks have taught us to verify before trusting, and not to trust first and verify later.

          It’s almost a black cliche: We don’t call cops to assist us unless we’re facing a clear and present danger, and even then with the utmost circumspection, as cops bring with them a danger all their own with which we must contend.

          The tragedy that is Tamir Rice is replicated way too often. I’m reminded of the black man who had selected a BB gun to buy at a Walmart, arousing another Walmart shopper who was white, who called it in, telling the dispatcher that a black man in the store was carrying a rifle and was waving it around.

          When the cops arrived, the black man was shown standing in an aisle inspecting other merchandise with the gun over his shoulder while he talked on his cellphone. The store surveillance tape revealed nothing more than a shopper, one who never pointed the gun at anyone, but was merely minding his own business, as he walked down the aisle talking on his phone as he shopped.

          He never got to complete the call. He was shot dead without a warning. and, if a warning, without time to comply, the same as with Tamir Rice.

          Yes, it “drains us,” and is exhausting, contributing to the PTSD that I referenced previously. For them to listen, they must first admit that there’s something to listen to, something that they might learn by listening.

          All too often, blacks are seen as the problem with white’s the luckless victims, blacks merely using them–and the accusation of racism–as so many scapegoats to avoid doing what they perceive as the right things to prosper in a white world.

          Thanks for your several responses. It’s good to know that in a world that often brings out the worse in people, that good people like you exist, and aren’t afraid to speak up to contest those who think they’re good people–the paragon of virtue–but who fail to present evidence of that goodness.

  2. So for the ones who can’t understand…what if a complete stranger (or even somebody you know) decides to start fondling your breasts or if they touch your privates?
    Would you be OK with that? No, right? So then look at it this way…a person’s hair is part of their body too. What makes it any less inappropriate?
    Because hair isn’t considered “private”? If you can’t understand, please educate yourself on why this is not OK. And don’t tell people who have experienced it that they are wrong for talking about it.

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