Touching her hair: racist microaggression or harmless interest?

For many people of color, natural hair is about the deliberate decision not to change to fit someone else’s idea of what they should look like.

I get that. Or, I’m starting to get it.

But I’m going to be embarrassingly honest about an experience that made me realize how much I need to learn about cultural sensitivity. And, this article will depart from the Debater format, because, well, it needs to.

It all started when…

I was shopping with my daughter and I saw a black woman with the most stunningly beautiful hair I’d ever seen. It was a shimmery purple, with gold beads that clinked like chandelier crystals when she passed. I wanted to tell her she was gorgeous. Breathtakingly heartstoppingly gorgeous. I would have said it to anyone, really. I’m that way.

My daughter knows this about me so she said, “Mom, don’t say anything.”

She tried to explain. Over and over, she tried as we drank our coffee on a concrete bench outside Macy’s, her telling me about this thing called microaggression and me just thinking I wanted to tell someone she was beautiful.

So, I did what I always do when something doesn’t make sense to me: I think, then I write. Here’s my attempt to show both sides of this:

I’m not a racist

I am warm and loving toward all people, including people of color.
I am fascinated with everyone, but especially those who are different from me.
I’m interested in various religions, political parties, ethnicities and races.
I am slightly bored with people who look and talk and think like me.
Similar hair, for example, is unnoticeable to me. Different hair is fascinating.

still, it’s taken me awhile to realize that my fascination isn’t important

It’s taken me forever to understand that—even though I’m not racist—I’m part of a dominant social group, and therefore I need to understand something called microaggression.

Psychology Today’s Dr. Miki Kashtan writes, “One of the consequences of privilege and social power is that we have less capacity to see the effects of our actions. Privilege, by its nature, protects us from seeing or even having to care about the effect of our actions. This is true for whites in relation to blacks, for men in relation to women, and similarly in many other settings of social divisions.”

I’m working on it, I promise. But, let’s get back to hair.

As I said, I’m curious about differences.

being curious doesn’t mean it’s okay to make someone the object of my curiosity.

Because what does my curiosity really mean?
It means black hair is different, noteworthy.
It means black hair is not a common image of beauty.
My curiosity objectifies the woman with the purple hair. It makes her stick out.
And she’s probably not wearing her hair that way so I will talk about it or touch it. She’s probably wearing it that way because she’s being her authentic self, maybe despite negative societal messages.

negative messages aren’t coming from me

But that’s not the point. You see, I’m not the point.

Let’s talk about touching.

I’m not going to ask to touch someone’s hair–beautiful or not. I’m from New Jersey and New Jersey is pretty good at teaching personal space. But, I understand that someone else might ask to touch beautiful purple hair. So let me take a stab at this too.

Not everyone wants to be touched.
And, if I (aggressively yet nicely) ask to touch her hair, and she says “no,” she sounds a little harsh. We’re all uncomfortable.

It’s not my intention to make her uncomfortable.

my intent (to be warm, or loving, or sociable, or curious) is not important but my impact (objectifying someone, and making someone uncomfortable) is

I want to unpack a little problem with that statement. I totally agree with it. Totally. My eyes are slam open now, I hear the statements that I was once tone-deaf to. I’m working on it. But, it is an extremely-important-yet-uphill battle.

We are programed to believe that intent is centrally important. It’s even codified in our criminal justice system. And, we may feel–in our heart–that someone who does something intentionally mean or bad is more despicable than someone who wants to pay a beautiful person a compliment.

But here’s what I learned:

according to the Microaggressions Project, an accumulation of offenses (even those that are unintentional) “during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience”

Here’s something else: The identification of microaggression in the academic world and the discussion about its relationship with the “victim culture” is worth untangling–but not here. This is about one human trying to be more culturally sensitive in a diverse world. For me, it’s also about informing myself on an issue I’ve been embarrassingly ignorant to.

It’s never okay to be ignorant.

So, identifying the vocabulary of microaggression, getting past intent and thinking instead about impact–these are things my daughter patiently explained over coffee on a concrete bench outside Macy’s, the day I started to understand the blinders with which I’d lived.

Since then? All I can think is–HOLY CRAP–I’m lucky to have my daughter.


Back to the News Made Simple article here.

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