We were headed toward the checkout counter. My son was asking me why the letter “Q” always had to have a “U” behind it. I was trying to figure out how to explain the nuances of the letter “Q” when she appeared out of nowhere. A perfectly nice-looking, non-menacing, smiling woman, excitedly looking at my daughter and exclaiming: “Oh my gosh! Your hair is just so pretty! Can I touch it?”
And that’s when time stopped.
I wish I could say I’m adding dramatic flair, but it really felt like time stopped. Or at least went into slow-motion. As my daughter stood there frozen, it was as if my brain short-circuited while trying to respond to a question with which I was all too familiar.
You see, for a young black girl who often rocked braids and then a young black woman who often rocked afros and afro puffs, curiosity about my hair was a tale as old as time. With that curiosity often came…hands. So when my daughter started facing these requests herself, my husband and I told her that no one should touch her hair. She was not an exhibit or an animal in a petting zoo, and there was no reason for anyone to touch her hair in order to admire it.
But as I stood there watching my daughter freeze, every word I had ever said to her about this very situation a cacophony in my head, I waited a beat too long. My daughter barely nodded, and there the hand went. Into my daughter’s hair.
I felt as if I’d failed her.
When my husband and I talked to her about it later, we asked her how she would have preferred that we’d handled it. I asked her if she wished we had said “no” for her. As it turns out, that wasn’t the issue. She had wanted to be the one to say it.
The problem was, even though we had told her on numerous occasions that no one was entitled to touch her hair, we had never actually told her how to say “no”.
Yes, it seems like a simple enough concept. “No” is a one-syllable word, after all. It even sounds similar in multiple languages. But it gets complicated when you are a child, and the person requesting something of you is an adult. Especially when you are a child who has been taught to be polite and respectful to your elders. What happens in the real world when you know you don’t want a strange lady’s hand in your hair, but you’re unsure what the response to your refusal will be?
After watching the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, I was plagued with questions about how I had reinforced the concepts of body autonomy and consent for my children. So many of the women who came forward, and undoubtedly countless others who didn’t, expressed apprehension about (or an outright incapacity for) saying no. And I couldn’t help but think about that incident in the grocery store. It is not hard to know that something does not feel right; what is hard is communicating that to someone who seems to have some degree of power or influence over you.
So in order to prepare for the next time, I first made sure that she wanted to be the one to respond. Then I suggested that if she found herself at a loss, she could say “No; I don’t like having my hair touched.” No further explanation needed.
In addition, I emphasized that if her father or I were around, we would back her up. It was important to me that she knew her parents would validate and support her. If she can rely on that support when it came to strangers touching her hair, then she knows that we will be there for her if the unthinkable happens.
Hopefully, the day will come when people leave touching strangers’ hair to the hairstylists, but regardless of whether or not that happens, reinforcing my daughter’s power over her own body will always be a top priority for me.