Talking to kids about hair-touching

20 Oct

A colleague just requested resources to talk to children about hair-touching. More specifically, to address the subject of touching hair, when not all hair is equal. In independent schools where the majority of students are not black, touching, wanting to touch and asking about touching Afro-textured hair (as opposed to Caucasian and Asian-textured hair, for example) is epidemic. The touching is sometime accompanied by commentary:

  • “Ooh, your hair is so poofy!”
  • “What do you use to comb it?”
  • “How do you wash it?”
While curiosity is a value and habit of mind that schools tend to want to cultivate,  curiosity is not always neutrally experienced. The message to children with Afro-textured hair who field constant questions about and requests to touch their hair is that their hair is “different,” “weird” and even “exotic” (and while “exotic” may have positive connotations, it also connotes strangeness). This message that Afro-textured hair is weird is compounded by a broader dominant culture in the US that reifies blond Caucasian-textured hair as the pinnacle of beauty. And then, if students find that people with hair like theirs are in the extreme minority in their schools, having “different” hair may be even more challenging (by reinforcing ideas of who–and whose hair–is normal).
So how do we invite curiosity and stand up for equity (recognizing that being singled out for different hair can threaten a child’s sense of belonging)?
Here’s one way I do:
I start with this quick video from the “You Can Touch My Hair” interactive exhibition (https://vimeo.com/67919795) and ask a few questions:
  • Why might people want to touch other people’s hair?
  • Why would the women in this video (need to) tell people it’s ok to touch their hair?
  • Is it OK to touch someone’s hair (or other body parts) if they don’t give you permission?

And thread in some conversation about:

  • How not all hair is equal: Is it different when the bald man invites people to touch his hair?
  • Reciprocal touching: Why do the women sometimes touch back (i.e. touch the hair of the people who touch theirs? This is a great opportunity to recognize that we’re all “different” to other people, and I only think you’re different because I think I’m normal.)
While the film features adults, I find it can still be a useful tool with kids because you can have a discussion with a little distance: starting with the (weird) things adults do, and tying it back to us here in this group.
The point is not that hair-touching is right or wrong. The point is that hair-touching isn’t an equal opportunity experience: it’s both an act of curiosity and a way that ideas about who is normal, right and good (and who isn’t) get reinforced. That is, when we let it happen without discussion, discernment and recognition of diversity (and how seemingly superficial differences can shape one’s sense of self and experience of belonging–not just for individuals, but for whole groups of people within a community). And talking to kids–and adults–about hair-touching is an everyday responsibility and an opportunity to cultivate equity and inclusion as individual and community practice.
**For the complete film and more about Un’ruly, the group behind the project, please go to: http://un-ruly.com/you-can-touch-my-hair/.

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