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It's Not Your Afro

Editorial Notebook

By Baratunde R. Thurston

To All White People:

Stay away from my hair.

For the first 12 years of my life, I rarely had to "deal" with my hair except getting it cut and occasionally combing it. I lived in the predominantly black and Latino Mt. Pleasant area of Washington, D.C., and attended basically a black elementary school. We did not see anything strange about our hair. But, in 1989, the year the Berlin wall came crashing down, so did my world of stress-free hair existence when I enrolled in the predominantly white Sidwell Friends School.

"Is that your real hair?"

"That is so cool!"

"Can I touch it?"

The answers are yes, great and an emphatic go-tell-it-on-the-mountains NO!

These are just some of the ignorant comments I've gotten about my unique brand of head covering, and it's hardly the worst.

Apparently, there had not been too many black men in Sidwell's history, and those who were there kept their heads almost shaven (I understand why now). I was a novelty: a black man with more than a centimeter of hair on his head.

However, after six years at Sidwell, I had the populace trained. People knew to keep their grubby little fingers away from my cranium. I had seen the foul bathroom hygiene (or lack thereof), and did not want unclean appendages all up in my space.

Coming to Harvard, I've had to do it all over again, and the problem is worse than ever.

Now I have an afro or a sport cornrows (they're kind of like braids for those who don't know). I cannot count the number of times people I do not know come up to me and touch my hair, saying something dumb like, "Wow."


Don't get me wrong. I can understand that there is something different about my hair and this leads people to want to learn more about it. But I am not a petting zoo, and I refuse to be one for the white students to find out how it feels to run their fingers through a head of black hair. I can even understand that other people are not so offended by the act, but I will explain why things are different in my case:

1. This may be a little-known fact, but during slavery in the US, slave masters and overseers would rub the heads of their male slaves for "good luck." I am not a slave, and no one here is my master.

2. As I alluded to above, people have foul bathroom habits. I have seen people use the bathroom and leave without washing their hands, and I don't care what you say; it's disgusting. You may have the right to be nasty, but you do not have the right to dirty my clean coiffe.

3. It's a matter of personal space violation for me. You can shake my hand or fondly caress my shoulder (acceptable forms of greeting in the West), but the hair is sacred. How many of your white friends do you greet by scruffing their heads?

4. It's either condescending or passionate, neither of which applies to most of the people with whom I interact. Head-rubbing is reserved for moments between proud fathers and their Little-League-playing rugrats or intimate moments between lovers. Needless to say, none among you is my father, and I have no lover (but that's a separate editorial).

5. I said so.

So the next time you feel the need to reach out and touch some black person's head, make this world a better place, and keep your hands to yourself.

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