During a recent bridge tournament, once again in my life, cultural insensitivity reared its tiresome head and I was forced to smile and endure it, lest I ‘rock the boat’.
A delightful older Grande Dame who I was playing against suddenly asked me if she could, “feel my hair because it looked so interesting.” She went on to say, “I want to see if it is soft.” Yes, you read that right.
In the past, I suffered this same incredulously insensitive insult with a smile on my face so many times years ago when I lived in Germany on a diplomatic posting and, I thought… “Here we go again.”
Before living in Germany, I never heard of white people (or anyone who was not extremely close to my heart and soul) asking to put their uninvited and unwanted hands in my hair. With my slave ancestry and the apartheid and colonial terrorism that happened in Namibia, this kind of race-influenced invasion of someone’s personal space is unthinkable! And yet…
At least this lady asked me if she could touch my hair. In Germany, a few people just reached out and grabbed my braids as if I was a ‘thing’ and not a human being equal to themselves. I almost turned into Mike Tyson on such occasions, but restrained myself.
Back at the bridge table, I smiled in utter shock at her request and said “No”. She insisted by asking, “Why not?” Uncroyable! I am reminded of the US Supreme Court case about Dred Scott from 1857 where the Justices ruled that a black man had no rights that a white man was obliged to recognize.
I then answered the lady, “Because it is an insult. Where I come from, we pat the heads of dogs, not people.” That should have been the unpleasant end of it. I wanted to say more, but, this was a gentile location, with very kind and caring people. I came there to play cards, not to defend my God-given right to decide who touches my hair.
You will not believe this: She persisted (after I told her she was insulting me) by asking me if I would, “lean forward so that she could examine my braided hair more closely because the ‘little curls look so nice.” Shit.
I don’t care about Namibian delicate sensibilities regarding curse words in this case. That word is the best adjective that reflects my disgust.
On the one hand, I saw clearly that her eyes showed ignorance, not malice. On the other hand, I am not placed on this planet to fall on my sword so that a rude person should happily go on with her day in ignorant bliss.
Folks, I earned a Master’s and Bachelor’s Degree, have 30 years of professional experience, mothered three accomplished children and have walked through fire and storms to climb the mountain of success. I have had to struggle against so many people who tried to drag me down; I have overcome sexual assault, dodged drug/gang violence, clapped back against institutional and individual racism, and defied sexism, survived bad luck – and, with God’s Grace, I have come through. Now there I sat tryin’ to enjoy my cards, (and not get any more bottom scores), and this older woman wants to treat me as if I have been put on this earth solely for her entertainment. Is there no rest for the weary?
There are times when I think it is easier to let people treat you unjustly because resistance can sap your positive energy. But, I am not made that way. The idea of being a smiling sheep for anyone, white or black, man or woman, regardless of rank or post, is an anathema to me and I am ready to pay the price for my nature.
Was that incident racist or ignorant or both? In the end, in terms of being on the receiving end, is there a difference in impact?
In the end, I made the decision to pretend that the clueless older lady didn’t exist and move on.
However, my mental persona as a black activist with her fist in the air, cannot let it rest. Why should anyone be compelled to smile and ‘accept’ degrading, racially-inspired rudeness just so that they don’t upset others? Why does society expect tolerance from the victims rather than demand behaviour modification from the perpetrator?
Ask yourself: What if the situation were reversed and I asked to run my hands through that older white lady’s “cute little” grey wig “to see how soft it was” and after she told me NO, I insisted by asking her to bend her head towards me so I could see her wig better? No doubt, there would have been a wave of outrage directed at me, and rightfully so.
Bottom line: People’s bodies and personal space must be respected. Unsolicited touching is offensive – it can be considered as a physical attack. FYI - If someone tells you to your face that something you said or did is an insult to them, respect them as you would want to be respected, apologize, learn from the encounter and move on.
I refuse to ‘get used to’ someone putting their foot on my head, even though, as a black woman, I know it will happen repeatedly before I leave this world. I will continue to shout out that no one should be put in a position where they feel compelled to placate racism or racial ignorance.