Don’t Touch

Don’t Touch

What happens when a White woman touches a Black woman’s hair?

This is a hard story about me and a Black woman I’m calling Lauren. We met at a conference on race relations where we were both presenters, which fostered mutual respect from the beginning. Lauren and her White husband were leading a session on the ancestors of enslaved Africans. I and my White husband were facilitating a workshop about building authentic cross-racial friendships.

Working with your spouse is challenging. Talking about race is challenging. Doing both at the same time requires a lot of patience, tact, and detachment, and I was eager to learn how Lauren and her husband managed this in an interracial marriage. Plus I was drawn to her calm energy and unpretentious way of relating.

We attended each other’s sessions throughout the weekend. In both settings, participants and presenters engaged in open, frank conversations about race. We often sat knee-to-knee, Black and White, and shared painful experiences. People were courageous and vulnerable, which created a sense of intimacy. I was feeling a heart-connection with Lauren that she seemed to be feeling too.

On the last day of the conference, we found each other to say goodbye. “I think we could develop a deeper friendship,” I said.

“Me too,” she agreed. “Here’s my contact info. Let’s get in touch soon.”

We both reached out for the hug. It was one of those really great hugs, where it seems something valuable is being exchanged. I put my hand on the back of her head, as I often do with my loved ones, and stroked her hair. My gesture had nothing to do with curiosity or wanting to touch an interesting texture. It was simply an expression of what I was feeling, without giving a moment’s thought to how it might affect her.

I did not detect any reaction — nothing that would have alerted me to the inappropriateness of my behavior. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

But during the following week, I had a dream in which she was looking at me but refusing to speak. The dream was so vivid that I described it to her in a voicemail message. A week later I had the same dream two nights in a row. I figured I had subconsciously picked up on something that needed resolution, so I sent her the following email (yes, I still have it in my archives):

Do you remember me telling you about my dream in which you hovered on the periphery and didn’t interact with me? Well that’s happened again twice . . . In both dreams you were not part of the story line; you just kept appearing off to the side of the action, looking at me but not speaking. Usually when I have dreams like that, it means that the person has something to tell me or teach me. Sometimes it means she’s waiting for me to tell her something. Of course maybe it just means that I’m wishing we could hang out together — you never know with dreams. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask if you have something you’ve been wanting to express. If not, I’ll try to pay more attention the next time you appear and see if I can get a sense of what’s needed.

I look forward to hearing back from you and hope that we can stay in touch. I would love to talk more about the rewards and challenges of doing this work as a married couple.

When I opened her return email, I was hoping to read something like “How mysterious! I wonder what that means.” But she responded with her phone number and the days she was free for a talk. I got that itchy, butterflies-in-my-belly feeling. I knew this was going to be hard.

After “How are you?” and “How’s the weather?” and “How’s your husband?” there was a long stretch of silence. “I do have something to express,” she finally said. “It made me extremely uncomfortable when you touched my hair. I know you were just trying to be affectionate, but it was not okay. You can’t do that. You can’t touch a Black woman’s hair.”

My mind was racing. Was I hearing this for the first time? I think I said, “Please tell me more.” I don’t remember the rest of her words, but I do remember how I felt — embarrassed, regretful, foolish.

Somehow I managed to stay present and to listen without getting defensive or trying to explain myself. It’s not something I’m always able to do. Maybe this time I had help from an unseen source. I apologized, several times, and promised never to do that again. And I thanked her for telling me. Lauren took a risk, not knowing how I would react. She gave me the gift of honesty and trust.

Should I have known better than to touch a Black woman’s hair? I’ve been doing racial sensitivity training for many years. I even wrote a book about it. I know a lot about race, but maybe at the time I didn’t know this particular thing. Or maybe I knew, but I forgot. Can you see that my intentions were good? That I meant no harm?

Ah, but here’s the thing: it’s not about my good intentions. It’s about her feelings. My job, in a situation like this one, is to focus on humility, learning, and healing a cross-racial relationship.

My phone conversation with Lauren was so painful for me because I really hoped I had gotten to a place where I would never again do or say something that hurt a Black friend. But that’s pretty unrealistic.

I think that the work of achieving true racial healing has more to do with how we behave after we realize we’ve screwed up. We’re afraid of losing our dignity if we admit we were wrong and apologize. But actually we stand to lose something much more precious if we don’t.

My gratitude to Liz Dwyer. This story was originally published as a comment in response to her article about a White person touching her hair. You can read her luminous writing at Word in Black.

photo by Leo Ell’ on Unsplash

1 Comment
  • Steven Joseph Zaloudek
    Posted at 20:17h, 10 October Reply

    Thank you, Phyllis. This is a great reminder that no matter how far we have come in overcoming our Whiteness, there will be missteps. You handled this misstep with love and humility. Keep on treading!!

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