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 am struck, Barbara by the fact that if I substituted any other ethic group for white that every one would decry that as unacceptable. Honestly your words remind very strongly of the same rhetoric used by Hitler to annillate the Jews. Is that what you want to annihilate everyone who you believe is racist?

  2. So you go through life assuming all white people are racists and about to kill you? How is that not racist? That’s like me assuming that all men are about to rape me. And yes I am a survivor of sexual abuse) so I am quite familiar with the worst of humanity. I choose to see the best in humanity, not because I’m white, but because I am a loving, caring HUMAN being with fabulous hair. Feel free to compliment on it if we every meet in person, that is if you can get over your racism.

    • You may not realize it (And I’m sure you don’t.) but you pegged yourself as the real racist. Further, you revealed that you have no notion of the meaning of the word.

      No, I won’t tell you the telltale signs that exposed your racism, as you’ll attempt to hide it from other blacks as you set out to uncover their supposed racism, as you struggle to keep yours under wraps.

      As you boastfully declare yourself to be “a loving, caring HUMAN being,” your words belie that stance, actually portraying you as anything but “loving.”

      Yes, “all white people are racist,” until they can demonstrate otherwise (self-preservation dictates my stance), and I’m afraid you failed the racist-test once again, but that’s not surprising, you are, after all, white, and lacking the necessary human wherewithal to be anything but racist.

      What’s that old saying, “Your actions speak louder than words.” Your actions not only speak for you, but they reveal a person that’s the antithesis of “a loving, caring HUMAN being,” one who chooses to present herself as self-righteous, and superior to those around her, especially one as uppity as the black person who sought to give her a perspective of blackness that she’s likely not familiar with; and rather than extending gratitude, you chose, instead, to display your own racist tendencies.

      No, I’ll pass. Meeting you would be tantamount to meeting the worst in humanity, and not the “best in humanity,” and not because you’re white, but because you’re a racist white.

      • @Bob…I agree with you. It’s crazy how even on a site like this one, certain people will come out of the woodwork to accuse Shay of racism without even considering why she feels the way she does.
        The fact is that we live in a society that is unjust and life is unfair. We don’t live in a world that is all “kumbaya” and holding hands.
        It’s nice to be a loving, caring HUMAN being but part of that involves showing empathy and trying to understand another person’s feelings/experiences.
        Some people are unwilling to do that, though…

        • Thanks for carrying the torch in my absence, MB.

          It appears that “showing empathy” is a black duty and not a white duty. To assume, as did Kathleen, that out of an abundance of caution, blacks can’t see whites as racist by default, and still be “a loving, caring HUMAN being,” that the two positions are mutually exclusive.

          They’re not.

          Blacks have, over the years, shown a plethora of kindness, and love towards their fellowman, whites included, even after blacks were hanged from poplar trees by the thousands, so many “strange fruit.”

          Had vengeance been our goal, we would have brought ourselves down to their level, a position that Dr. King vehemently opposed, and instructed against.

          One thing I’ve learned on my journey: Blacks understand whites, their motives, their deficiencies, and their sickness, to a greater degree than they know or understand us.


          Our survival and self-preservation–individually and collectively–forced us to be vigilant, compelled us to keep self-preservation uppermost in our minds, so much so, that we came to know our oppressor to a greater degree than he took the time to know us.

          It takes a great deal of hubris and white privilege to dismiss the perspective of blacks, believing that there’s nothing more to learn regarding race relations, nothing more than that which is fostered by whites, as they’re the ones with the only true knowledge of, and insight into, the racial divide and how to bridge it.

          And we wonder why we’re making racial progress in this country at a snail’s pace, why we can’t bring to the table of “Truth and Reconciliation” all races, people of all colors who have been subjected to white hegemony, and the ensuing holocaust that has followed.

          • @Bob…as a mixed-race woman with a white husband, I have no problem with talking about issues of racism with white people, provided that they make an effort to understand certain things without being defensive. I hear you 100%.

            I think that what bothered me in this case is that Shay was sharing a story in which she felt “othered” (a situation which you and I can also both relate to) and then in comes a person who is, well, clueless to put it nicely. Even after I attempted to explain to her that the lady’s seemingly benign action of touching Shay’s hair was anything but, she continued to claim that “we’re all just human” (the old “I see people, not color” argument) and that WE are the ones making a big deal out of nothing.
            It all comes down to denial…I used to say the same stuff myself until I became “woke” as the kids are saying these days.
            I had one too many experiences that awakened me to the reality of Blackness. I wasn’t raised in an environment that nurtured my self-esteem as a young mixed/Black girl and talking about the hair issue in particular is a sore spot for me, as it also has been for you, too.

            Black people have some of the most unique hair in the world but many of us have been made to feel ashamed of it.
            And one of the ways this has happened, as you and I both know, is through being touched/petted like we are animals…it’s so dehumanizing.
            In my case, as I shared above, people didn’t only touch my hair…they would make the most vile and offensive comments about its texture.
            They made me feel ugly, dirty, ashamed of myself, my heritage, all of it. I was made to feel less than human because of something beyond my control. It is something that I’m STILL trying to overcome as a grown woman.
            So I agree with much of what you’ve said. Those who cannot understand why this is a conversation worth having need to educate themselves more.
            Because it’s great to treat people kindly and all, but if there is an inability or refusal to look deeper and try to understand what is behind the hurt and anger, there is no real connection being made…it’s just a shallow way to pat herself on the back and feel good.

            It’s not about hating white people or anybody else. It’s about truth…a truth that many can’t handle. A truth that many don’t WANT to handle.
            And this is because it makes some folks deeply uncomfortable. It really unsettles them because it is damn painful. Racism is an ugly subject; not one that makes people feel warm and fuzzy. It is like a scab that never heals, despite efforts to pretend that things are all peachy keen.
            The raw bloody oozing wound is still there underneath, threatening to bust open. It is a reality that those of us readers here who are POC can never escape.
            I feel compelled to co-sign what you’re saying because I’m sick of people denying our reality. I’m sick of our pain being silenced.
            I’m sorry, but I HAD to say something, esp. on this issue. Thank you Bob, for speaking your truth too…it’s badly needed.

      • Don’t see a lot of understanding my point of view on this site. Guess this site is only for black people. Oh, truly sad.

        • No, what’s sad is your inability to show empathy to people unlike yourself. And no…this site is not only for Black people.
          People of ALL races are welcome here. But if you don’t like what we have to say, why are you here? Seems strange that you would come to a site like this if it offends you so much.

          • White person here – I appreciated the article, and agree wholeheartedly with MB and others who are calling you out Kathleen. I have nothing to add because they have summarized the argument perfectly. You are simply refusing to listen.

      • I never accused Shay of racism. I said I did not agree that her example indicated widespread inhumanity or white supremacy. I asked Barbara why she thought that all white people where racists just by the color of their skin and why that is not racism.

        • OK, Kathleen…can I explain to you why Shay is connecting white supremacy with touching a Black woman’s hair without consent?
          White women are often considered the “default” standard of beauty due to racism. This goes back to the times of slavery.
          Black features, particularly hair, have been considered unattractive by most of white society for centuries. Now I’m not saying that this is true for ALL white people…some do admire Black hair.

          However, what Shay and other Black women are saying is that we have had negative experiences with people touching/petting our hair without permission, and that this tends to happen mostly to Black women.
          You shared that as a white woman, people have also touched your hair. Fair enough…but other than that, you can’t relate to the feelings/experiences of BLACK women who have had their hair touched or commented on in a negative way.
          White supremacy has a LOT to do with this behavior, even if you don’t see it that way. It might not always be intended to make somebody feel bad, but people should be aware that it’s not a good thing to do unless you know the person very well and you know they won’t be uncomfortable with being touched like that.

        • Also, just to add another point…Shay didn’t know this woman from Adam. The lady might not have meant any harm at all, but the fact remains that people should know better than to walk around touching strangers.
          The woman in question might not have been racist, but her actions were inappropriate because of the way some white people (and certain others) tend to approach Black women about our hair.
          Therein lies the issue. It was disrespectful, inappropriate, and showed a lack of awareness of why doing such a thing is unacceptable.
          You might not see it as a big deal. OK. But you can’t tell others that they are wrong because they feel differently and because they have more understanding of why it was wrong.

          Not to mention the hygiene aspect of it. Sometimes people are dirty and don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, touching other things, etc.
          If you don’t know where a person’s hands have been, would you want them touching you?

        • It does not offend me in any way. It makes me sad. That you want me to respect your feelings and thoughts, but you can’t do that for me. The people that have commented have made quite a lot of assumptions about me not knowing my experiences, my family’s racial background, my partners racial background. You assume that you know all about me based on my skin color, but you ask that I don’t judge you on your skin color. And then you say I am a racist because I treat ALL people as humans. All I know is that we are a long, long way from judging people by the content of their character.

          • I never claimed to know anything about you. And frankly, I wouldn’t WANT to know you if you are this tone-deaf in real life.
            Here is the thing…I never called you a racist. I’m sure you aren’t. I’m sure you are a good person. But this isn’t about you.

            Shay is a Black woman. She lives in Maine, which is a mostly white state. She writes mostly about issues that affect her as a BLACK woman.
            I wish that we could all be seen and treated as humans…the world would be a MUCH better place. But this is not the reality of life.
            When a white person says they treat everyone fairly, they fail to see that for the majority of POC, we are often not treated fairly in general by society as a whole.
            We don’t live in a color blind world. It makes no sense to pretend that racism is over when it obviously is not. We are NOT all the same…there is nothing wrong with admitting that. Our experiences are not the same.
            Unlike Shay, I am not a dark-skinned woman, my skin is much lighter. I could never tell her what it’s like to look the way she does. But I am a Black woman nonetheless and I can definitely relate on the hair issue and on what it’s like to encounter racism in general.
            And when a person is non-white in a society that values whiteness above all others, they need to be able to share their pain without being silenced and told that “X,Y,Z isn’t racist.”

            You’re correct, I don’t know what your family’s background is or your partner’s, etc…but does that matter in the context of this discussion?
            You stated that you are a white female. OK…and a Black woman is talking about an experience she had that you can’t relate to.
            Sometimes we have to accept that there are experiences we can’t possibly understand unless we have walked in another person’s shoes.
            It would be like me, a person who can walk, telling a person who is not able-bodied that they shouldn’t talk about their experiences because it makes me uncomfortable.
            And then if the person tries to tell me what it’s like for them on a daily basis to be marginalized but I refuse to show compassion and hear them out…see where I’m going with this?

            It’s great that you try to be kind to everyone. I sincerely mean that. And I wish nothing but the best for you in life.
            But please try to understand that you are coming across as being both insensitive to experiences that you, as a white person, can’t relate to.
            You can’t relate and that’s fine. But when you said that we’re just assuming the worst of people…nope. It’s sharing an experience that MANY Black women (and biracial women) have had. We’re not just making it up. Very few Black women make it through life without somebody doing this. I was 12 years old when people started touching my hair, calling it ugly, nappy, and worse…and it didn’t stop when I became an adult either.
            I have been following Shay online for years. She is committed to her work as an activist speaking out against racism.
            Both of her former husbands are white and her children are half white. She has always welcomed commentary from all kinds of people, no matter what race.
            But sometimes she talks about painful issues…things that reflect her reality. It’s not always pleasant, the truth rarely is.
            And if it makes some people uncomfortable, so be it.

      • I know you didn’t. What I am saying is that there is a difference between a compliment and touching somebody without permission.

        • MB, I’m a black male, and it has happened to me as well. I can’t imagine my doing to whites what they have done to me for years.

          If it didn’t trivialize sexual assaults against women, I would start my own #MeToo campaign–one began after the Harvey Weinstein revelations–to see how many blacks, male and female, have had their hair inappropriately touched by whites, as though our bodies, including our hair, are a novelty to them, one where they’re dying to satisfy their curiosity.

          I’ve been told, after having it touched by someone white, “It’s so soft. I thought it would feel like steel wool.”

          • @Bob…the most recent incident of having my hair touched without consent was about a year ago. I was in a store minding my own business and this older white woman came and started roughly raking her fingers through my hair.
            I was so shocked and angry that I literally pushed her away from me. I didn’t care if she decided to play victim and say that I “attacked” her…I saw RED.
            This person didn’t know me and had the nerve to touch me like that? Whoo…I was heated! And I’m not an angry person in general.
            I have allowed a lot of racist/sexist things to slide by unchecked. But this was just another in a long line of incidents that reminded me I’m not human in the eyes of certain people.

            I would say that a LOT of Black people have been touched in this way and in many cases, we’ve been unable to do or say anything about it for fear of being labeled “angry”.
            We’ve been taught to stand there and take it. But at what cost to our dignity, our self-worth, our humanity?

      • Thanks for your previous response, Kathleen. I had to drop down a comment to respond, as there were no “replies” left under your previous response.

        Your eloquent response is so familiar and so touching. Blacks who speak as openly and as candidly as we do are often accused of hatred, and of hating others, as well as promoting “racism.”

        That conclusion is erroneous, as you well know. I have no hatred in my heart for anyone, not whites or any other race or ethnicity, despite having been on the receiving end of racism many times over the years.

        I read somewhere that many blacks suffer from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a result of their encounters with racism. That would not surprise me. At no time, while in public, am I not aware of my blackness. The only time I’m at ease is when I’m back in the confine of my own home.

        Would I exchange my blackness if I could? No, never, as it’s allowed me to advance spiritually in a world devoted, all too often, to materialism, and self-aggrandizement.

        Continue the good fight. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, even in this cyberspace environment.

        • MB, my apologies. In the previous comment, I called you Kathleen, the result of having addressed so many of her comments here.

  3. Kathleen, I hear what you’re saying about assuming the best. It’s what I do as a lesbian. I assume people are supportive until they prove otherwise. But as a fellow white person, I have to say that you and I don’t actually get a say in what a woman of color experiences. We just don’t. It’s not our story; it’s not our body; it’s not our voice.

  4. I too have let’s say non typical hair that people of all colors have complimented me on and I’m a white girl. I’m not sure that people giving you a compliment because you have non typical hair can be equated with racism, inhumanity or white supremacist. I agree that someone touching you is just ridiculous, but again I have had people reach out and touch my hair as well. Many people just don’t have great boundaries or in the example you gave maybe the woman was mentally ill. I have heard you speak and enjoyed it immensely, but I do think life is much more enjoyable if we assume that most people have the best of intentions, instead of assuming the worst in humanity.

    • Obviously, you’re white. Were you to stand in my shoes for, let’s say a year (Black Like Me), you’d have a different view of this.

      What never surprises me is how many whites I have encountered over the years who try to explain aggressive white behavior as something other than racism or white supremacy, and to insist, or to suggest, that perhaps it wasn’t racial at all, but simply the behavior of boorish people.

      Perhaps, but blacks don’t have the luxury of psychoanalyzing every white person they meet. Our fail-safe method is to assume that all whites are racist until they demonstrate otherwise.

      Because of this nation’s racist history, and the violence that has often ensued against people of color–blacks–in particular, whites are, by default, racist until sufficient evidence reveals that they’re not, or that, if indeed they are racist, that they come in peace.

      Whites, on the other hand, can approach life with the assumption “that most people have the best of intentions.” For blacks, however, that approach can get them killed.

      As a result, our approach to life is vastly differently than yours, as life has taught us otherwise: Our survival instincts instruct us to use an abundance of caution, to see every situation as potentially hazardous, or life-threatening.

      Recently, a black woman wrote, “Being black can be exhaustive.” She’s right, of course. I could commiserate with her view as I find it exhaustive as well.

      Remember, blacks have seen the “the worst in humanity,” and have experienced that “worst” more often than they care to acknowledge.

      Sticking our head in the sand so as not to see what’s prevalent in this world, does not serve us well. Being vigilant is the best tactic, when the strategy is self-survival.

    • @Kathleen…compliments are one thing. Being touched without consent/permission is another. I’m sure that you are aware of the difference.
      Maybe you don’t mind having your hair touched, but others do. As a white woman, you can’t understand what it is like to be Black (or mixed-race, like me) and have people touch your hair REPEATEDLY throughout your life, all while making comments like “nigger hair” and “nappy” and saying it feels “weird” and generally making you feel like crap because your hair texture is different from theirs.
      Because that is MY experience and it’s the experience of many others. Not that I’m trying to speak for anybody else, but it is something many Black women can relate to.

      If somebody tells me they like my hair, wonderful…who doesn’t like compliments? But touching is NOT cool. And nasty comments are NOT cool.
      I really don’t see why it’s hard to understand. Not trying to attack you, I’m just frustrated when people don’t see why this is a problem.

  5. @Barbara, how she would feel is a black woman had touched her hair is irrelevant. The point is that she doesn’t want white people feeling that they can grab part of her body. I’m a black woman and if I choose to believe that a woman who shares my ancestry can touch my hair and you can’t, guess what, that’s my right. Given the history of how people treat black bodies and in particular, black women’s bodies, then to some of us, the two things will never be equal as much as you’d like to pretend they are. I’d also add that black women who admire my hair don’t reach out to touch it ever. Somehow women who share my skin color respect my bodily autonomy in a way that it doesn’t become an issue…however I’d likely invite them to touch it if they wanted and wouldn’t view it the same way at all. I know that the drug of white supremacy has you thinking that you have a right to force your way into every space that exists, but as it relates to hair touching, you can’t insist you have an equal right to my black hair or black body.

  6. Barbara, I and other Black women can tell you that predominantly, it’s White women who feel this entitlement to peruse our bodies without our permission.

  7. I’m curious if a person of color had done this what would you have inferred There are white people who are extremely rude also It isn’t always about race It is extremely sad that POC grow up in a world that people treat them in a way that makes them automatically think it is about the color of their skin or that an extremely rude person can make them feel demeaned

    • @Barbara…most people (no matter what race) learn as children to keep their hands to themselves. Now where the racism comes into play, is because some white/non-black people think they are entitled to touch the hair of Black and mixed women without considering how it might make us feel.
      Some even take it further by making nasty comments about our hair texture, what it feels like, etc. I’ve also had other POC do this and it’s also very hurtful but it comes down to this…people shouldn’t treat others like their own personal petting zoo.

  8. This happens. I have seen it, right in front of me. Froze. Had to work to repair things afterwards. Still more to do; this story will help. Thank you.

  9. I am flabbergasted for you. That is beyond inappropriate. Were you able to comment or were you struck speechless? I suspect I would have been had a stranger touched my hair/head.

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