Can I Touch Your Hair?

5 12 2014

20120809_FRONT+Kids+running+_Chasteen_IMG_4182When I was a little girl, my big brother, Kurtis, was already competing on a track team. Our dad was the coach. Although I was only 6 years old, accompanying my mom to sit on the metal bleachers had become a normal part of my life. At one particular track meet, I don’t honestly remember if Kurtis won his races, but I certainly learned about my own race that day.

We were living in Texas, and it was an away meet. We drove out to a neighboring community and parked the car. I helped carry our load of stuff required to keep myself and my other brother, Brian, satiated over the course of a couple of hours. Like every other track, there were bleachers on both sides, a concession stand near the entry, and bathrooms were underneath the bleachers on the far side from where we were sitting.0

It wasn’t crazy hot, but still Texas. My mom had a big, blue-and-white-striped golf umbrella set up to grant us some shade. I had a towel to sit on so that my legs wouldn’t get scorched by the bleachers (again). I felt a bead of sweat fall down the back of my neck, where my hair was parted and pulled up into two blond curls.

I asked permission from my mom to go buy a snack from the concession stand, and she handed Brian three dollars for us each to get something. I’m sure it was a worthy price to get rid of us for a few minutes! Brian ordered the ubiquitous stadium nachos with liquid agent-orange cheese that tastes sooo good when you’re a kid. I ordered a pixie stick- basically straight sugar with artificial color and flavor added to make it neon and taste like ‘orange.’menu 0 00 00-01

After the novelty of the concession stand with no money wore off, we returned to the bleachers, where I quickly got bored and decided that I needed to visit the little girls’ room. Within minutes I was off on my own, exploring the entire place by myself! The restrooms were housed in a cinder block building, painted with grey paint that looked sticky from countless hands grazing the walls.

I stepped inside and discovered a line of other young girls waiting to use the restroom. Most of them were several years older than me, and I didn’t pay much attention. I leaned my back against the concrete wall, feeling the cold, yet clammy, relief against my skin. The other girls all seemed to know each other, as they chatted away, barely noticing me. Then one of them turned, looked at me, and her eyes lit up.

images“Whoa, look at her hair!” she exclaimed. I paused, trying to figure out what was wrong. I reached up with my sugary hands to check my head. My pigtails were still located roughly on either side of my head. The other girls were now all staring at me. “Can I touch it?” Another girl asked. Now I felt awkward, and not in any position to say, “no.”

“Okay,” I replied, and multiple hands reached out to gently stroke my blond hair. “It feels like a Barbie dolls!” One girl squealed, and they all agreed. At this point, I should clarify that I- a 6-year-old blond girl with a southern bronze glow- was white. All the other girls in that concrete room with me were black.il_570xN.405260420_jfin

 

That was the moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. THAT was the first time that I realized that we are different. That I was different. That race exists.

 

I studied the other girls’ features, as they continued to marvel over my hair. I started to notice that their hair looked different from mine, but not in the same way that my hair looked when it was permed to be curly. No, there was something else. All of them had different hairstyles, yet I could tell that their hair was not the same. It was stiffer. It stood upright. It held its shape when it was styled into unique formations that my limp hair would never allow.

Track Meet, 1983I was surprised by how much they seemed to enjoy meeting a ‘white girl’ up close, as I never saw myself as such before this encounter. I was a little embarrassed by all the attention, but I remembered to say “thank you” at their compliments, because that’s what I was raised to do. Then, it was my turn to go into the single stall. When I was done, I washed my hands in cold water, said goodbye, and stepped back outside. I smelled the hot asphalt, echoing with the sound of the crowd cheering on the current runners. I squinted back up at my mom in the bleachers, and began walking back to my life.

o-YOU-CAN-TOUCH-MY-HAIR-FILM-facebookI’ve told this story many, many times over my life, typically when discussing race among my peers. It became particularly relevant in recent years, when this topic of “You can touch my hair” came up and stirred controversy. It was like peering into a bizarre crystal ball. I heard women complaining about the objectification of black hair, and others calling out for creating a channel for communication. I followed the debate pretty closely. It was fascinating to me, having been the object of said attention myself. Yes, it was weird. Yes, I felt like an object. Yes, it was enlightening. Yes, I felt like I learned something about a culture different from my own. Would I let someone today touch my hair, if asked? I would have to say, yes.

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